This book was every bit as excellent as I expected it to be. Joe Abercrombie’s skill as an author cannot be overstated. The plot moves swiftly, the language is clean, yada yada. He’s a great author.
What I enjoyed most about Last Argument of Kings, though, was the characters. Joe Abercrombie writes “grey” characters like no-one else. Is Logen Ninefingers a good man forced into fight after fight, or is he really a homicidal maniac? Is Sand dan Glockta a good man in a bad position, or is he a sociopath? Even the minor characters are notably ambivalent. Whether this is Abercrombie deliberately playing with fantasy tropes (the wizard isn’t as benevolent as all that either), deciding that he’s tired of characters who can be neatly sorted into ‘goodies’ and ‘baddies’, or just deliberately making sure that his readers never know quite what to think, I don’t know. Just as you think you’ve got it worked out, Abercrombie has his characters do something that shakes your certainty: this is not fantasy where the characters have the luxury of easy decisions, and they then have to live with the consequences.
But this is another thing one notices about many fantasy novels: after all the dust has settled, the good guys retire to live a life of peace and prosperity, and everything is pretty much OK. Abercrombie, again, doesn’t have much truck with that. We’re talking war, people. We’ve all watched the news. When it’s all over, do we really think everything goes back to normal immediately? War is not glorious: it is messy and tragic. Good people die along with the bad. Nobody, as Glockta says, gets what they deserve in life. And everybody has to live with what happened, with the gaps in their lives and their property. And, of course, in their morals. What happens to your own personal morality if you have to do appalling things to survive, and to achieve your goals? What if you’re threatened and blackmailed? Yes, we’d all like to believe that we’d willingly die before compromising our most basic morality, but would we really? When it gets down to it, how many of us would choose someone else’s pain rather than ours?
Abercrombie also has a master’s touch when it comes to poisoning chalices. I don’t think anybody ends up with an untainted chalice, although some of the poisons are pretty subtle. (The closest, though, is Glockta himself. I was really, really happy about the way that turned out.) There is one instance, done very subtly, where you think… wow. A combination of perceptiveness and ruthlessness on the part of one character, obliviousness on the part of another, and a species of living hell on the part of a third. You’ll know it when you get to it, but, really, what Abercrombie giveth with one hand he taketh away with the other. And vice versa.
This book could be adequately subtitled: Be careful what you ask for: you might just get it.