"Do you know what's worse than a villain? A villain who thinks he's a hero. A man like that, there's nothing he won't do, and he'll always find himself an excuse."
In 'Last Argument Of Kings', Joe Abercrombie brings The First Law Trilogy to a fittingly dramatic, action-packed and bloody end. As tends to be the case with modern Fantasy, 'The Blade Itself' and 'Before They Are Hanged' launched an intimidating number of plot juggling balls into the air, leaving the final book with a lot to successfully catch before the narrative winds up. Colonel West and the Union forces, allied with the rebel Northmen, have to face King Bethod, Logen Ninefingers must return to the North to take his vengeance against Bethod, Ferro continues her quest for vengeance against the Gurkish, Glokta is still trying to untangle the truth whilst serving both Arch Lector Sult and the sinister bank Valint and Balk, Jezal dan Luther is returning to Adua determined to try to be a better man, and Bayaz has to find a way to stop Khalul and his Eaters. All this is going on in the midst of increasing chaos, as all the members of the Closed Council scheme to find an heir to the king sympathetic to their best interests before he dies, while unbeknownst to all the Gurkish embark on their invasion of the Union. Whilst 'Last Argument Of Kings' is no slim volume, it's to Abercrombie's credit that he manages to tie all this up satisfyingly in the space of a single book. And he does so with drama, flair and style to spare. The final book features bloody battles galore, multiple sieges, the sacking of Adua by the invading Gurkish, and an incredible showdown between Logen Ninefingers and Fenris the Feared.
However there's more to a satisfying ending than pyrotechnics and ensuring all the pieces wind up in the correct place. The true success of 'Last Argument Of Kings' is in the way that it brings into focus and drives home what the trilogy is really about. From the outset The First Law Trilogy has been all about the characters. Glokta, Jezal and Logen Ninefingers have been compelling protagonists from the start, but unusual due to just how vile Abercrombie is willing to make their actions. The question running through the whole series is whether any of these characters can actually be redeemed. Because we are invested in the characters, because they are deeply developed enough that we understand and sympathise with where they're coming from even as we disapprove of their choices, because their struggles with their consciences and their developing sense of morality is so human and believable, we very much want them to achieve redemption. However, wanting to be a better person and actually being a better person are two distinct things. Abercrombie's biggest trick is in making you root for these characters, and dangling redemption in front of them just enough so that you believe it could be possible, before revealing just how beyond redemption any of these characters actually are.
One of the reasons this works so well is Abercrombie's use of the multiple third person viewpoint. This mode is generally the standard for Fantasy, with different viewpoint characters used to provide different perspectives on the imaginary world, but what sets Abercrombie aside is just how good he is at using it to tell us about the character whose eyes we are seeing out of. Each of the viewpoint characters in The Third Law trilogy has massive blindspots in how they perceive themselves versus how others perceive them, which they are forced to confront in 'Last Argument Of Kings'. At the end of the day, despite their world-weary cynicism, both Glokta and Logen Ninefingers would like to believe that they are nicer people than they actually are. So Glokta can be genuinely surprised when both of his loyal practicals betray him, Severard to Valint and Balk and Frost to Sult, despite the fact that on some level he does realise that he is, as Ardee describes him with typical frankness, a self-pitying villain. Similarly Logen can be horrified that the infamously barking Crummock-i-Phail uses him to get rid of Bethod but wants nothing further to do with him afterwards, or that the Dogman runs out of patience with him after he kills Tul Duru, Crummock-i-Phail's son and nearly the Dogman himself in his battle rage. Likewise Jezal's attempt to stand up against Bayaz fails miserably because Bayaz knows that, despite all his character development, Jezal is still a coward at heart.
The interesting thing is that facing their failings doesn't make any of them better people. One of the main themes of the trilogy is the unfairness of life, especially in the feudalistic hierarchy that is the default setting for most Fantasy. Logen and Glokta have experienced much of life's unfairness first hand, and in the figures of Bethod and Sult respectively have a shadow archetype, a version of themselves at the head of the repressive and violent system that they claim to despise. Both Logen and Glokta are able to overthrow their shadow doubles, but both of them wind up taking their place, rather than using the opportunity to dismantle an oppressive system. For all Logen's disgust at Bethod for the very concept of being the King of the North, Logen becomes the King of the Northmen himself once he has killed Bethod. And after arresting Sult, Glokta becomes Arch Lector himself, upholding the institution of the Inquisition and treating his new subordinates just as brutally as Sult treated him. All their rhetoric for change and a better, less violent way of life is revealed to be hypocrisy, as once they are in the seat of power neither man behaves any differently from his despised predecessor. Jezal returns to Adua with a genuine hope to be a better person, and it looks like he might finally get the chance to do so when he is elected the new king, thanks to the manipulations of Bayaz. But King Jezal I is a puppet king with very little power of his own, put in place by Bayaz to continue the mage's centuries-long control over the Union, and his cowardice ensures that he will not act against Bayaz's will to make any positive changes for the people of the Union.
The reveal that Bayaz is a manipulative jerk is not really surprising, but the sheer extent of how awful he is kind of is. The leader of Valint and Balk, Bayaz has been the puppet master running the Union ever since it was founded, and is happy to keep all its oppressive social machinery in place in order to ensure that he stays in power. He has lived so long that any possible empathy he might feel for people has been worn away, our mayfly-like existence meaning nothing to him. The eponymous First Law, as Bayaz sees it, is not about not touching the other side, but power. His argument with Khalul is less that he has broken the Second Law by eating human flesh to gain powers, but more that Khalul wants to bring Bayaz to justice for murdering Juvens. The mass civilian death caused by his unleashing the power of the Seed, and his utter indifference to it, shows exactly how little human life is worth to him.
Interestingly enough, our three major characters kind of get what looks like your standard Fantasy happy ending, very much in the spirit that life is unfair, as none of them deserve it. Inquisitor Glokta winds up married to Ardee, who is devoted to helping him, and Logen and Jezal wind up as kings. However all three characters have faced too clearly the hollowness of their own existence; they all realise that redemption is beyond them, and that they are puppets of Bayaz, however much they personally may profit from it. Near the end of the book, Glokta and Jezal share a walk in the Agriont gardens, and agree to try and do as much good as they can in their positions of power without inciting Bayaz's wrath, right after Gokta has blackmailed Jezal's wife the Queen into sleeping with him by kidnapping her lesbian lover. The sheer sickening hypocrisy shows exactly how far these characters are from doing good. In this book we finally get the answers to Logen's and Glokta's mantras. Logen's father always followed his motto, 'You have to be realistic,' with the observation that Logen is anything but. And the reason that Glokta tortures is, ultimately, that he gets a kick out of it.
The quote at the top of the page, said by Black Dow to Logen Ninefingers at the end of the book, is an apt summary of the entire trilogy. To some extent, it describes pretty much every character in the book. From Bayaz with his grandiose talk of saving the world to Ferro with her tragic back story she uses to justify her blood lust, to Glokta, Logen and Jezal and the lies they tell themselves so they can live with the things they do, everyone in the First Law Trilogy has some excuse or reason for all the horrific things they do. 'Last Argument Of Kings' strips away the excuses to reveal their corrupt moral centres. An argument frequently trotted out as to why genre fiction is not as mature as literary fiction is that genre fiction does not acknowledge the banality of evil; the SS officer who commits atrocities then goes home to have dinner with his wife and children. And indeed the evil we encounter in the real world does not manifest as a flaming eye atop a dark tower. Evil is committed by people, some of whom may be charming or likable, some of whom may see themselves as family men, most of whom either have reasons or excuses for the horrific things they do, lies they tell themselves so that they can sleep at night when they go home to their families. This is exactly what The First Law Trilogy is about.