Last Argument of Kings by Joe Abercrombie (2008) 670 p.

I didn’t overly enjoy the first two volumes of Abercrombie’s First Law trilogy, but finished it off because I like to finish what I start and because I already had access to all three books. Last Argument of Kings is probably the strongest of the series, because it actually has a sense of importance and urgency, and brings the plot to a close. But this is hardly high praise.

Abercrombie is merely competent as both a writer and a storyteller – not bad, but not particularly good either. The thing which generally annoyed me most about this series (apart from the fact that Abercrombie badly needs an editor, but that’s par for the course with fantasy) is how irritatingly self-aware it is. Abercrombie said he set out to “turn the fantasy genre on its head.” He does so by having a Northern barbarian, a dashing young warrior, a wildling, a wizard and his apprentice go on a quest for a magic stone. Now, granted, you can argue that he merely set this up in such a cliche manner so that he could then upend it and present what he thinks is his unique twist: that the world is a horrible place, bad things happen to good people, and happy endings are for fairytales. This still means you’re wading through more than 1,500 pages of fantasy that is, on the surface, mostly stock standard.

In the previous book, Before They Are Hanged, the “grimdark” angle largely annoyed me in the dialogue and narration. The same little bits of wisdom and supposedly sage observations about the reality of the world come up over and over again. I was especially surprised that Logen and his Northmen didn’t fucking drown in their own world-weary stoicism. This is all still here in Last Argument of Kings, but it works its way into the plot itself. The novel runs about 100 pages beyond where another fantasy author might end the story, turning what appears to be a fairly standard happy ending into something a little more grim.

And I had no problem with that at all. The “grimdark” notion has been roundly criticised in many quarters, but although I ultimately disliked these books, that wasn’t the reason why. Firstly, Abercrombie maintains a sense of humour throughout, preventing the books from dropping into sheer horror and misery. Secondly, and more importantly, it’s a perfectly valid take on the genre. The last hundred pages are the best in the book and the series – certainly better than the infinite number of battle scenes and Glokta’s inner narrative that preceded them.

The problem is that this isn’t nearly as original as Abercrombie thinks it is. He winks at the reader far too often. Take this, for example:

“I’m trying to get through this damn book again.” Ardee slapped at a heavy volume lying open, face down, on a chair.

“The fall of the Master Masker,” muttered Glokta. “That rubbish? All magic and valour, no? I couldn’t get through the first one.”

“I sympathise. I’m onto the third and it doesn’t get any easier. Too many damn wizards. I get them mixed up with one another. It’s all battles and endless bloody journeys, here to there and back again. If I so much as glimpse another map I swear I’ll kill myself.”

Fifteen pages later:

The sun glinted on raised sword and lance, on shield and full armour. Banners streamed and snapped in the wind. It was quite the display of martial grandeur. A scene from a lurid storybook with a muscular hero in which meaningless words like honour and righteousness were often repeated.

The book is scattered with these self-referential moments which go far beyond being tiresome and begin to actively hurt the tone of the novel. (That second segment also gives you a taste for Abercrombie’s adjective addiction.) It’s too clever for its own good, and not really clever at all – as I pointed out in my last review, George R.R. Martin had already been writing grim, realistic fantasy for ten years at this point, and I doubt he was the first. You can no longer write a “grimdark” story and stand on that alone. Neither Abercrombie’s story nor his writing is strong enough to compensate for this.

The First Law trilogy is perfectly competent fantasy, and if you’re a regular reader of the genre you will probably enjoy it. If, like me, you’re seeking out the best the genre has to offer, then give it a miss.