"In the end? Nothing ends, Adrian. Nothing ever ends"
-Doctor Manhattan, Watchmen.
The conclusion to The First Law Trilogy is both a bang and a whimper. The climax takes place roughly two-thirds of the way through the book and then takes its time focusing on the horrific human cost. A justified criticism of the fantasy genre is it promotes war and an idealized view of conflict by showing the big epic battle then pulling away from the ugly consequences. In most fantasy, there's the big battle, a short epilogue and done.
That's not the case in Last Argument of Kings.
Last Argument of Kings really does an amazing job of tearing apart the basic assumptions of a typical fantasy trilogy conclusion. We get brutal deconstructions of Happily Ever After everywhere we turn. Not that people ends up miserable (sometimes they do, sometimes they don't) but the biggest subversion is that it's very clear the story doesn't end.
The big climax to the two wars set up in the previous books happen, characters get married, some people get crowed, others don't, and when it's all done then they have to go live the rest of their lives. There's no cliffhanger, the plots are brought to a close, but the characters have the rest of their lives to deal with and just as many struggles as before.
I liken it to The Lord of the Rings ending with, after defeating Sauron and Saruman's forces, the books spends a good deal of time discussing the dead and wounded as well as the tax reforms Aragorn is planning to make on Gondor. Also, a talk about how Rosie Cotton and Sam don't actually get along because it turns out she fancies women.
It's not boring and helps contextualize the grittiness of the series. It doesn't matter who wins or who loses the epic conflicts of the story because life will go on either way. It's really an experience and I recommend it to people who are used to fantasy novels ending a particular way.
The premise is the Union's armies are besieged from two fronts. The Northmen are holed up in a powerful citadel with even victory there not guaranteeing triumph. The Gurkish are going to lead a vast navy to invade the Union in revenge for their slain minister (and other reasons). Bayaz has lost his chance at recovering the Seed so he is going to begin a daring, some would say contemptible, plan to manipulate the Union into fighting shape. The romance between Ardee West and Jezal Luthar also takes a bizarre turn which is both heartbreaking and amusing in equal measure.
This is a book which is annoyingly difficult to talk about because it really is one that benefits from not being spoiled about the ending. There's a hundred or more twists and turns in the story which flow organically from the plot once you realize what's actually going on. Stuff happens, a lot of stuff happens, much of which is unexpected. I was able to predict a lot of the ending but only about halfway through the book when things develop a train wreck style quality. You know where things are going but are hoping they are able to be stopped in time.
Truth be told, I would be lying if I said the ending is particularly fun to read in places. In simple terms, a lot of the "heroes" cross the Moral Event Horizon which makes their actions not only despicable but unforgivable. As much as I love Inquisitor Glotka, any justification for his actions goes out the window toward the end. One particular scene with a newly-revealed lesbian character made me think, snarky and witty as he is, it would be better if Glokta just fell down a hole and died.
Likewise, we find out other characters have been evil scumbags all along and have been playing the role of hero because it's better than playing the villain. A frustrating fact is a lot of the characters prove unable to follow their character arcs to any sort of conclusion. People who try to change and grow find out, in fact, they can't change and fall back into old habits.
To make an utterly cracked analogy, it reminds me a bit of Trainspotting. A guy can go through an unimaginable amount of effort and horror to quit heroin but it's just as likely the next time he's presented with it, he might snort it. That's the arc of five or six characters here, except replace heroin with whatever horrible character flaws they possess.
A lot of people will hate that kind of storytelling.
So what did I think? Overall, I enjoyed it. I think the final climatic battle took a little too much of the book up. I think the ending took a little too much of its time ripping the heroes to shreds. I also think a certain character revealed to be evil became something of a caricature of himself. If he was that good at manipulating people this entire time then nothing is stopping him from continuing to the role of the good guy on. It certainly works much better for him than the reverse, which has everyone now seething in hatred of him.
The characterization is wonderful throughout and we see changes I never expected accompanied by the aforementioned complete failure to change. Logen Ninefingers struggles with his decision to become a better man as well as the fact you can't change by repeating the actions which made you a monster.
Jezal Luthar's arc is absolutely insane and yet remains appropriate for a man who has had everything handed to him on a platter but never realized how crippling this was until recently. Ferro? Ferro, in a way, is the only one who manages to skate through everything unscathed because she understands when you are after vengeance then you can't quibble over the niceties. I also feel the endings for everyone were well-designed, even if I hated some of the places the characters ended up. Logen's, in particular, was beautiful.
In conclusion, this is a bleak and uncompromising finale to a great story. I'd like to see more of these characters and their adventures but others I hope fall in a ditch and die. This isn't a realistic trilogy but it does have the very realistic message, "Sometimes good people get what they deserve, sometimes they don't. Life happens." Also, you should always take water from a man in the desert except that metaphor leads plenty of people to a fate worse than death by dehydration.