Monday, March 9, 2009

The Last Argument of Kings

As I read Joe Abercrombie's The First Law trilogy, there were signs everywhere that this was going to be different, that this would be about breaking the clichés. I've written about the first two books, how the characters and settings are generally unlikable, even though they seem to taking an upward path towards likability. And as all good final books in a series do, The Last Argument of Kings ties it all up nicely, completing the storylines by teetering on the line between cliché and groundbreaking. And at the end, though the novel successfully completes the trilogy, I am torn by how I feel about it.

To be sure, Abercrombie delivers on the promise of the first two books. These are fully fleshed characters, with ups and downs, quirks and eccentricities, personalities with as many facets as there are witnesses to their actions. And as one might expect from an epic fantasy, everything ends up on a good note. The protagonist country is saved from warfare on dual fronts by heroism and luck. A new age of enlightenment and creativity appears to be born in the Union. But to even mention this conclusion would appear in most reviews to be spoiling the story, and for the blogs I have written thus far about the books in the trilogy, something of a let-down. But, as with the first two books, the war is just the background for what the story is truly about: the evolution of the characters.

By the end of the book, nearly every character has experienced a reversal from where they started; the lowly have been raised up, the weak made strong, the selfish become enlightened. And so it would appear the classic tropes are fulfilled. But Abercrombie lingers on the characters for a bit after the otherwise natural climax of the book, so that we can see how fragile appearances are and how easily the façade can slip. And the big reveal of the book, the revelation of an unexpected puppetmaster behind all the action of the trilogy is both refreshing and completely disconcerting, because we discover that no action has taken place without the long-time planning of this hidden figure.

As the book and trilogy winds down to its conclusion, the best character (to this reviewer at any rate), Logen Ninefingers, has an existential crisis. Embodying the apparent sweeping movement of the trilogy, Logen explicitly decides to make himself into a better man. But forces beyond his control—the puppetmaster, the war he finds himself fighting in, unexpected allies, even his own demons—force him to constantly question if he is a good man at all. Why can't he keep his promises? Why can't he retain control of his actions? And when he asks those he considers to be his friends if they feel the same sort of trap he does, invariably the answer is that they do, such that they cannot help him with his own. And so he questions himself incessantly until at last he can take no more and decides to go back to where he came from.

Similarly, Glokta the torturer recognizes the evil qualities of the people around him but feels so trapped in his role that he can never quite convince himself to rise above them. And his own role as a torturer constantly causes him to be cynical about his own motives, even when he is doing "the right thing." Only when his personal safety is firmly caught between two forces he cannot contend with does he begin to break out of the pattern he has lived for years, reaching out for help. And even so, doing the right thing drives him further into despair as the puppetmaster is revealed and every cynical belief he has held appears to be proven true.

Jezal, the courtly soldier, appears to undergo the most growth of all. He is no longer cocky, but sure of himself. His interest is not in his personal well-being, but the betterment of the people around him. But by the end of the novel, that beneficence becomes a façade masking his fear of the repercussions of not doing as he is told. And because helping others is so much against the goals of the puppetmaster, the thinly veiled pessimism of the story surges to the forefront, making the last few chapters of the story painful to bear.

Even Bayaz, the First of Magi, taking on the Gandalf role in the story, is torn down through the course of this final novel. All the legends of him, especially the ones he tells, are suddenly cast into doubt, and Bayaz is revealed to be the crankiest of old men with an outlook on his inferiors much like Mr. Smith's from The Matrix: they are all vermin and it is his right to rule them as he sees fit.

Joe Abercrombie has taken the bones of the epic fantasy and taken it to places it has never been before. I doubt the epic can grow any bigger, so Abercrombie drives it inward, making it a study of character under pressure from the forces that normally drive fantasy. His characters are protagonist and antagonists, not heroes or villains. There is much ambiguity not in what they but in their reasons for doing it. There may be fantasy novels that spend as much time in the characters' heads as these do, but I'm pretty certain Abercrombie treats the characters honestly. In The Lord of the Rings, Boromir steals the One Ring because he wants to save his people—an unfortunate act done for heroic reasons. The characters that populate The First Law often do the right thing, not for heroic reasons but for selfish ones, or because no other choice of action is left to them. And so, while there are horrible adversaries, there is nothing quite so horror-inspiring as the rationale for the deeds done. And by the end of the trilogy, we can't even say that the good have one. The Union is still just the narrative framework from which the story is told. It is clear that their adversaries have plenty of cause to war against them. And yet neither are those adversaries wholly good themselves.

I understand that the next trilogy is in progress, The Second Law. I think I want to read some more. I don't know that I want to know any more about these characters, though they fascinate me, because the fascination is depressing. I have seen the antithesis of the epic fantasy, where the issues are not black and white but all sorts of shades of gray. Suddenly fantasy is not the escape it usually is, and I have a better understanding of why fantasy often goes as it does. But Abercrombie the writer is a joy, asking the questions he does and remaining unflinching in the moral uncertainty that is daily existence, even in a fantasy world. Abercrombie doesn't hint at a new paradigm for fantasy, but he has twisted the epic paradigm to the point of its shattering. I think I want to see some more of that, but I need time to cool down, to cleanse my palate.

And it makes me wonder if there is space for a new paradigm, or perhaps a return to the pre-Tolkien one. Abercrombie will likely not take us there but he makes asking the question far more relevant than it has been in decades.

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