Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Last Argument of Kings, End Notes

End Notes on Last Argument of Kings by Joe Abercrombie:

Sheesh. I guess I've put this off for too long. I should really get it over with.

I didn’t like Last Argument of Kings and I'm somewhat embarrassed by that fact. In fact I'm embarrassed that I'm embarrassed: a reader should follow their instincts and their opinions regardless of how popular or unpopular a book may be. The fact is I waited to see if I would change my mind. This admission conjures up a picture in my mind of Logan, Black Dow, and the Dogman kind of shaking their heads at me and cursing me for a spineless coward. Which, in an ironic way gives evidence of just how well written and memorable the characters were.

I didn't like Last Argument of Kings because of the way it ended. It ended badly. Or to put it another way, it ended empty. No, I'm not referring to some inherant structural flaw, nor do I think the writer hastily wrapped up the book in a deux ex machina ending. Quite the contrary. The final convergence of the many elements including characters, plot, setting, motive, and background history to the world, were brilliant. The characters moved forward to the resolution of their conflicts with a sound internal logic and inevitablilty that for all my imagined brilliance I did not see coming. Kudos to Abercrombie on pulling some wondrous eye popping reversals and recognitions that screamed well made story.

As for sheer technical brilliance the story is a masterpiece of "gritty fantasy." That new sub sub sub genre where fantasy looks at the real world, looks at the fantasy world, and says "right, need to make this a bit more realistic." People you get attached to die, the girl you think would make a perfect match for the right guy sleeps with someone else, and the most unethical of the villains comes out on top because, well, he's better at manipulating people than the good guys.

What I didn't like was the nihilism of the ending. People died, people struggled, people sacrificed, and in the end nothing really changed. The characters went back to their lives, or died. Some had a new set of circumstances, some had a new wife, some had wealth and power and money. And in the end no one really knew why it was they struggled the way they did or what the purpose of all that effort was.

To put it bluntly: nihilistic. No easy answers about the rightness or wrongness of the world, the characters or the actions. No one really changes. Except the torturer, who after mutilating dozens and killing far more, gets a beautiful woman and a promotion. The "hero" is mutilated, attains a beautiful lesbian bride who cringes at his touch and has to watch the woman he loves marry someone else. The toughest of all, the manic, goes back to the violent dangerous world he left after trying to escape neither changed in character, nor materially better of than when he started.

The ending did not satisfy. Call me a foolish devotee of Aristotle and company, declare my sense of story and structure paleolithic, and my view of human nature as childish and na├»ve(although after ten years teaching juvenile delinquents I would tend to disagree), but I stick by my internal sense of what I feel about the book. The ending is a let down. There is just something not satisfying about the ending, and I don’t mean I want the hero to run off with the heroine into a brilliant sunset to rule a kingdom and hump happily ever after and produce dozens of heirs until the minions of the dark lord rear their ugly orc heads again. I mean there was something from the story I find lacking, or missing.

I wish I were a good enough reviewer to put my finger on it but for right now I just cant. I will repeat that the book was brilliant technically, and I look forward to reading many many more of Mr Abercrombie's work. The man can write, and can tell a good story, and for the sheer mixing of horror, comedy, imagination, and violence he is probably unparalled. At least in my reading experience. I think Martin is his master but he excels in ways Martin doesn't. He is funnier, but manages to do so without losing his sense of the gravity or danger his characters face. Martin's characters have a sense of humor but rarely resort to it to help cope with the horrors they face. Abercrombie's have humor hard wired into their worldview.

John Irving said that a reviewer should read everything written by an author, even if he is only reviewing a single novel, or collection of short stories. He said you may not like a book, you may not like a style of writing, the writer may not succeed at everything he is trying to do, but you had better appreciate the fact that someone took years of their lives to spend on this project, and treat the review of their work with the appropriate respect. I've tried to keep this as my motto. Regardless of what I review or read, I try to remember the amount of work that went into the writing and that regardless what I may think, the fact that they are published is significant. They've been edited, forced to reconsider their work, redo it, rewrite it, cut it, improve what they imagined was perfection, and had to do it as many as six or seven times.

Abercrombie may not have succeeded in making the ending satisfying for me, but on so many dozens of other counts he scores 9.0s and 10s.

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