So I usually review books individually even if they're part of a series, but I'm making an exception this time. Between the Texas snowpocalypse 2021 and a number of other stress factors, I did not pause between books 2 and 3 to write my thoughts on Before They Are Hanged.
Now, having finished Last Argument of Kings, I just don't have the stomach for it.
That sounds bad. Maybe I should back up a second. Right now, you might be thinking something along the lines of, "but your review of The Blade Itself was so positive!" and yes, I loved that book. I loved Before They Are Hanged even more. And I really enjoyed most of Last Argument. Up until the end.
It's a bit reassuring to discover that even a writer as renowned and as gifted as Joe Abercrombie can write a bad ending. His prose, his pacing, his characters are absolutely top-effing-notch and I bow my unworthy head in awe, but this one just left me angry, y'all. The let-down is all the worse because I liked these books so much. Chalk up another point to Abercrombie, I guess. He made me care enough to be mad about it.
"Pump the brakes," you say? "I demand an explanation!" bellow the r/Fantasy wizards. Don't worry. I've had days of bitter reflection to put my thoughts together.
Simply put, I wanted an....optimistic ending. Not a happy one, noooo no no, I knew perfectly well what kind of morally gray river I was diving into when I picked these up. That's half the reason I signed up for this ride. No, a happy ending would have been all wrong. But the one we got was so deliberately fatalistic, so over-the-top morose, that it almost becomes a caricature of itself.
If you don't want spoilers, stop reading now.
Aside from the small annoyances I had with Last Argument (like how the Bloody-Nine is never really explained or how the final battle sort of just petered out after a muddled and confusing climax), my main issue was the sudden abandonment of every single character arc in the books aside from Bayaz. This felt a lot like D&D's "subverting expectations" approach that ruined the Game of Thrones franchise. It was wholesale character assassination. It was Dani preaching "I'm not my father!" for seven seasons, and then burning King's Landing to the ground. The painstaking evolution of every character is just instantly disregarded and they all revert to their worst selves.
Bayaz climbed his developmental mountain. Good-for-fucking-him. But Jezal, who had this inspiring journey of self-awareness and courage, reverts to a cowering sycophant. Both Logen and Glokta, who spend their arcs trying to be better men than they were, just shrug and toss those aspirations in the trash without even blinking. Ferro, whose journey opens her eyes to the realization that there's more to life than just revenge, runs off into the sunset to go slit Gurkish throats. The whole last fifth of the book is full of "oh well, I guess this is just what I am" moments. I wouldn't have minded if it was just one or two of the characters. I wouldn't have even minded the bad guy winning if some of the characters grew as a result of the journey.
Maybe let Glokta's small measure of redemption with Ardee be a final turning point for him, causing him to shift the Inquisition toward something more closely resembling an institution of justice. Or leave Jezal quietly scheming to subvert Bayaz' control for the sake of his people. Leave West to live with the memory of his sins, a portrait of the gray state of man, proof that a few bad choices don't make us evil. Let Ferro and Logen have the misery of each other, or better yet give their lives to kill Bayaz. My mind spins with potential endings that I would have found more satisfying, but alas, this end is already written. I didn't want sunshine and rainbows, but... I mean... come on, Joe. FFS.
Final thoughts: I recognize that this is a beloved trilogy to many, and I have immense respect for Abercrombie's skills, but I found the ending hugely disappointing. The journey was a fantastic one. I loved so many things about these books. I just wish there had been a glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel.