Last Argument of Kings / Joe Abercrombie

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Nearly one year ago I reviewed the second book in Joe Abercrombie’s First Law series, Before They Are Hanged, calling the writing misogynist. I more or less expected no one to pay attention to my blatherings on the internet, but Mr. Abercrombie wrote up a response. If he hadn’t, I doubt anyone would have noticed. I’ve just now finished the last book in the First Law trilogy, and my feelings about Abercrombie’s writing are just that much more solidified. He’s a talented, engrossing writer, who really pisses me off in how his writing treats women.

For those who don’t like being spoiled, run away now. I may liberally spoil this book and will start revealing plot details of the previous books in the series next paragraph.

At the end of the previous book, a mismatched band of questers returned to Adua, the capital of the Union, having failed to retrieve the Seed at the far end of the world. In the north the Union battles with Bethod, King of the Northmen. And in the south the Gurkish empire prepares to invade. The King is old and frail and has no heirs.

There are essentially three major plots in this book. The war against Bethod in the north is the first. Thought dead by the Northmen since near the beginning of the first book, Logen Ninefingers returns from the quest to join the fight. The plan is to head up a narrow valley to a fortress in the hills, luring Bethod behind them. Then, after a period the Union forces will follow Bethod and squeeze him between the two. The plan goes awry though when Lord Marshal Burr (head of the Union army) dies, and the two generals in charge let their rivalry prevent them from finishing Burr’s plan.

Plot two is a whole bunch of smaller plots. It’s all the politicking and backstabbing going on in the capital leading up to the death (by old age possibly) of the King. The Inquisition led by Arch Lector Sult is opposed by High Justice Marovia. The various lords contend with each other. The Magus Bayaz has his fingers in everything. Most of this plotting goes on around Superior Sand dan Glokta, who I thought was the most interesting character. He’s part of the Inquisition, the institution that investigates threats against the King and the empire. It’s just what you might think it is. Torture. Confessions. Witchhunts. Etc. The point is not really to find the truth, but rather to keep an iron hand on the empire’s subjects when necessary.

In the middle, the King dies and the Bayaz’ machinations put Jezal dan Luthar into the throne. He’s the fop who went on the quest with Bayaz, along with Ferro Maljinn, Logen Ninefingers, and a couple others. In other words, he’s now a puppet king for Bayaz.

The last major plot is the conflict between Bayaz and … the bad wizard of the south whose name I forget which I’m not going to bother to try to find. See, Mr. Bad Wizard has engineered the Gurkish empire to invade the Union so his Hundred Words (minions who have broken the First Law and so can’t be killed) can get their hands on Bayaz.

To spoil it all, Collem West (the intrepid Colonel from the previous books) becomes Lord Marshal just in time to save the Northmen from Bethod. Then they all head back to Adua to fight the invading Gurkish. Glokta is torn between allegiance to Sult (who wants Jezal out of the king’s throne) and bankers to whom he owes money (who want Jezal as king for stability) but decides to go against Sult in the end. Jezal isn’t much of a king at first, but starts to assert his authority against Bayaz and others. The army returns just in time to route the Gurkish, Bayaz stumbles on the Seed and uses it to destroy the Hundred Words, and the Union is preserved.

And then there’s 90+ pages of wrap-up. Which is where I got well and truly pissed off. Throughout the book, again there are only three female characters who get much print. Ferro Maljinn plays mostly a bit part this time around. Ardee West by now is a drunk and bitter woman who carries on an affair with the soon to be king Jezal. And lastly we meet Queen Terez about halfway through, an arranged marriage to cement an alliance between Jezal and the subject kingdom Styria. She doesn’t much like Jezal, but she’s a dutiful daughter. After the wedding though, she can barely stand to be in the same room with her husband.

What pissed me off is the plot in the wrap-up where Glokta engineers the rape of the Queen. Glokta is at this point now the Arch Lector of the Inquisition. No heir means succession problems, so Glokta throws Terez’ lesbian lover into the prison to get Terez to fuck her husband and produce an heir.

Oh, it fits with the story all right. No one escapes unscathed from Abercrombie’s story. Glokta is a heartless bastard. The point was already driven home many many times to the point it was almost monotonous. I’m in pain. I’m a cripple. I don’t give a shit what happens to others cause of what happened to me! Over and over and over again Glokta does truly despicable things. Topping it off with rape. I fail to see what that added on top of everything else. It seemed particularly gratuitous. Particularly with the following paragraph:

Glokta found that he was almost smiling as he watched the ugly scene. I may be crippled, and hideous, and in constant pain, but the humiliation of beautiful women is one pleasure I can still enjoy. I do it now with threats and violence, instead of with soft words and entreaties, but still. Almost as much fun as it ever was.

Glokta isn’t portrayed as a hero. But he is portrayed as necessary for the preservation of order. I get that Abercrombie is trying to create a ruthless world of grey, where no one is good, where everyone has huge character faults. He took it one step too far for me.

Which is a shame, because Abercrombie is a really good writer. His characters are different. He got me to understand the characters’ motivations like few writers have been able to. Less unique perhaps, but no less talented for it, is his ability to put together an extremely complex plot where everything makes sense. I hope his skill isn’t tied only to worlds of extreme violence and, I’ll put to electrons again, misogyny. Because I won’t be reading any more of his books set in this world, nor any where he uses the same schtick. The writing may be good, but it goes against my morals. No Best Served Cold for me.

A few other blogged reviews:

Title: Last Argument of Kings
Author: Joe Abercrombie
Series: The First Law; 3
Imprint / publisher: Pyr / Prometheus
Format: Paperback
Length: 636 p.
Publication date: August 2008
ISBN-13: 978-1-59102-690-7

Categories: Book Reviews.

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18 Responses

  1. I suspect the reviewer was blinded by his prejudices and did not really read or understand the text.

    1) He clearly did not know or bother to look up the name of the antagonist from the South. This just suggests sloppy reading or laziness.

    2) He seemed clearly disturbed by a “rape” scene, which never occurred. Glotka threatened to have the Queen’s lesbian lover raped, but this actually never occurred.

    Glotka did a lot of other terrible things (threatened children, tortured friends, sent innocent men to their death, etc.) He’s a torturer. That’s what he does.

    3) I applaud the “gritty” writing of the book. It would have been politically correct to introduce 2-3 Xena type waifs for gender balance, but less interesting.

    4) The reviewer seems to feel that female characters were specifically designed with imperfections. A closer reading would reveal that all the male characters have some sort of imperfection as well. There are no Tom Hanks genteel professors in this world, nor Harry Potters to eat biscuits and whine about Ginny.

    5) I would whole heartily recommend this book to any female reader who is interested in reading gritty fantasy fiction.

    DFTR18 May 2009 @ 3:41 pm
  2. DTFR – you are working off the wrong definition of rape. The rape I refer to is not the threatened rape of the lesbian lover, but instead the rape of the queen herself. Any time a woman is coerced into sex, a rape has occurred. Glokta threatens the queen to force her to have sex with the king. That is rape.

    As for laziness, guilty as charged.

  3. Read English medieval history and real accounts of rape and torture. Hell, read what American soldiers have been doing in Iraq. Now read fiction. By your definition what do you do when a female character seduces a male? You are a very silly person.

    Mermaid28 May 2009 @ 4:16 pm
  4. Glokta had a man he knew to be innocent to be tortured, hanged, and his entrails opened while he was still alive. This man happened to be black. Yet I don’t see you calling Abercrombie a racist.

    Glokta is an evil person. He does bad things. That’s how the character is, from the first page of the book. In fact, I think we should agree that from all the victims that went through Glokta’s hands, Terez was the one that had the best outcome.

    Eruduril5 June 2009 @ 3:28 am
  5. thanks for the spoilering, absolutely what i was looking for.
    no way i was gonna read another whole book of the series, but i was still interested in what happened in book 3. :)
    the second book almost drove me insane, little storyline (more inconsequential battles etc) and in the end they didn’t even have the seed…ugh!
    all that wandering, fighting.. f*cking… for nothing!
    oh well, i’m just more of a happy ending type. :)

    so, thanks.

    grrrml5 July 2009 @ 7:59 am
  6. She went willingly to bone the king to save he carpet munching friend. If she let her friend die she could have said no but she didn’t.

    Anonymous16 March 2011 @ 7:02 am
  7. seriously. teeth pulling, evisceration, digit/nipple removal, beating, branding and not to mention all the other things we can assume happened that abercrombie decided not to write about are perfectly okay. But forcing someone to have sex with her husband is off limits.

    Obviously you were reading a different book that I was if “rape” crosses a line.

    Glotka lost any morality he ever had back in prison, this just illustrates his ruthlessness again to get his mission accomplished.

    Crab26 July 2011 @ 4:18 pm
  8. You put rape inside scare quotes to indicate you don’t believe that coercing a wife to have sex with her husband is rape. When you do that, I stop listening to you.

  9. “She went willingly to bone the king to save he carpet munching friend. If she let her friend die she could have said no but she didn’t.” -Anonymous — 16 March 2011 @ 7:02 am —

    That’s called Glokta taking a hostage. Terez’s lifelong lover is bundled away by Practicals, and will be raped and tortured if Terez does not submit sexually to Jezal and PRETEND to be willing. If Glokta held the gun to Terez’s own head and she spread her legs for Jezal without physically fighting, is it still “willingly”?

    This is not a one time thing, but ongoing for years on end.

    She is not supposed to tell Jezal, or anybody that she is being raped. Or that she is not heterosexual.

    In the end there are a couple of rape jokes. Like when Jezal thinks Terez is shy and nervous when she croaks out the lines Glokta told her to say when she’s actually probably miserable and terrified for the safety of her lifelong partner. Haha he’s so dim he doesn’t even know Glokta’s making her get raped by her. Haha. Then Jezal tells Glokta about how Terez was crying by the window all night afterwards and about how it’s probably because she is homesick and if he redoes the garden to look like Talins she will cheer up. The joke is that it isn’t because she’s homesick that she’s crying, it’s because all the choice she has is whether Glokta rapes her using Jezal as an unwitting dildo or rapes her lesbian bitch of a lover. Haha.

    Did we really need to see Glokta rape to remind us he is not that nice of a person? Do we still get to enjoy his relatively happy ending after that?

    Terez is rude, stuck-up, closed-minded, unreasonable, chronically dim and unkind. Much like Jezal was at the start of the Blade Itself. (Taking into account what we know about Ladisla, some of Terez’s behaviour can be explained, like when Jezal rubbed his boner on her arse, expecting her to service him because that’s what women are for, and she freaked out and physically assaulted him viciously, but it can’t justify how unreasonable and dim she shows herself to be after it’s become clear that Jezal isn’t actually going to rape her of his own volition) But while Jezal’s eventual tragic fate of being silenced, powerless despite a position of apparent prestige, trapped and forced to act against his principles (“But Bayaz, an NHS is a nice thing!” “Fuck you Jezal, socialism is for goodies and I am a villain! No hospitals for you!”) is treated as properly sad- It’s not, for example, a just comeuppance because he was a bit vain and snooty at the start- Terez’s fate, on the other hand, is treated like a joke.

    That’s the difference. West is a tragic flawed character. Jezal is a tragic flawed character. Terez is a frankly offensive caricature of a shrill manhating lesbian who is institutionally raped into necessary functional heterosexuality.

    It really makes Abercrombie hard to read. He does improve in his portrayal of female characters in Best Served Cold, and even with The Heroes though. I get the impression from his blog that he was writing quite naively in The First Law and now he knows a bit better and I’m glad that he’s a bit more self aware about it now.

  10. I will leave you with a quote from NOTW or is it wise mans fearr I can’t remember.”Modern philosophers scorn teccam but they are lie vultures picking at the bones of a giant” That is what you guys are doing.

  11. By the way, you forgot about the character Vitari. Assassin. Torturer. Just wanted to throw that in.

    This is what happens to women who dont produce their monarchs heirs.

    Terez is raped for 4 years, gets to see her actual partner while she is pregnant, lives in luxury, then can carry on with her life.

    Henry the 8th killed all his wives and caused centuries of conflict by splitting from the church.

    Not reading someone because they have rape in their books is ridiculous. Do you not read lolita because it has pedophile rapists? Do you not read Harry Potter because it has murder?


  13. Medieval fantasy must conform to modern mores. It just has to. People just can’t be expected to read fiction that doesn’t have a value system that reflects their own.

    Anonymous24 September 2012 @ 7:13 am
  14. Reviewer person of male extraction wants to be famous reviewer person so toes a certain line.

    Reviewer person knows men will always go “Meh, big deal, reviewer person is being political so as to not trigger a landslide of abuse from chauvinists”

    Reviewer person also knows that if he says

    “Yep, Glokta is written exactly like any person employed by a state to torture, he will do ANYTHING, and the LEAST EVIL thing he does in the ENTIRE BOOK is merely THREATEN torture to a lesbian if her lover ( A person GUILTY of treason under the laws of the state ) doesn’t endure a physically distasteful but not torturous sexual relationship with the BLOKE SHE AGREED TO MARRY so she could be a Queen”,

    reviewer person will be attacked by shrieking hordes of hysterical women and OTHER MEN as hypocritical and slimey as he himself is.

    Business as usual.

  15. Erm… I just finished the book. In any case… I do NOT think at all that Abercrombie was being mysogynistic.
    Glokta is a TORTURER. He has tortured and killed many people. What he did to the Gurkhul ambassador was atrocious. In fact, the ambassador warned him that there would be blood and murder and countless victims if there was no peace. Still, Glokta had him eviscerated while alive.

    And you find it “mysoginistic” that this dog had a woman raped (Terez) on threat of raping her true love, only until four heirs were produced?

    Abercrombie is not mysoginistic. Glokta is a full-fledged, full-grown bastard with no remorse. A rabid dog that still obeys its owner.

    About the rape being a joke… I didn’t find it a joke. When Jezal sweetly tells Terez “we don’t have to so soon, we can wait”, I thought that was quite sweet of him. When Jezal said Terez cries at night, I thought it was a way of portraying how tragic both their situations are. I didn’t see Terez being mocked or anything. She is a proud girl as Jezal was at the beginning of the series, and to a certain point she isn’t likable. But when she goes to bed to Jezal, when she tries to defend her lover by kicking and biting and spiting, she is shown in a sympathetic light.
    I didn’t see that as mysoginistic. It’s society that is mysoginistic. Glokta is a monster. Deprived of any pleasure in life, he enjoys hurting others, period.

    And… that last paragraph, when Glokta remembers how sweet it is to humiliate women… I thought it was a way to tell us that, after all, Glokta was never a good person. We may have felt some pity for him at a certain point, and think he does what he does because he’s a torturer. But at that point in the novel, we see things as they are: Glokta was ALWAYS a bit of sadist. He only cared truly for both Wests. Torture just made all his worse instincts come to life, and removed any other form of pleasure he might have had. But those evil inclinations, they had been there before all the time.

    Jezal and Terez, however, are proud and childish by education, but far better people than Glokta in the end. Their situation is quite tragic, indeed.

  16. Shorter version of what you just wrote:

    It’s okay that Glokta is a rapist because he’s a torturer. Therefore this book doesn’t have any misogyny in it. It’s just a way to show he’s a bad person.

    Which is a really dumb argument.

  17. Just stumbled accross this.

    An okay review; unsure about your opinions of the book/writer/content.

    It’s not okay that Glokta is a rapist. It’s also not okay that he murders, maims and mutilates either.

    I’m not comparing rape to these actions, but highlighting that they all fall under immorality.

    And Glokta is immoral because of his profession, his past and, to an extent, his personality and disposition in general.

    He has the motive do the things he does, because Joe has created reasons for his actions.

    This, is okay. It’s a bad man, doing bad things and those bad things are justified, to be in the book, because he is bad at his core.

    Ultimately though, I think you’re pissed there isn’t a strong female lead and that women aren’t particularly described or shown in the same way as the male characters are.

    I’d of agreed with you, had that been the basis of your complaint, rather than using a fictional rape, that had its place in the book and was justified to be there by being instigated by a cruel, evil character that makes a living on comitting atrocities, to launch a misogynist attack on the writer.

    Because that was a bit stupid, in my opinion.

    Apart from that, I got the info I needed. So thanks.

    Anonymous29 March 2013 @ 9:28 pm
  18. Last Argument was terrible (in a lot of ways), but especially the part of Terez (and Ardee to a lesser extent).

    Even Joe Abercombie agrees that shit was misogynist as hell and poorly written.

    (Not that it stops the neckbeards from jumping out and defending it)

    Anonymous11 July 2013 @ 4:09 am