The Last Quarrel is a fun, easy-to-read novel that hits you with some action-filled, staccato-paced chapters and a jolting end.
Our two protagonists and main viewpoints are Fallon and Prince Cavan. Fallon is a middle-aged, family man living in the seaport village of Baltimore who dreams of moving to Berry, the capital city of Gaelland. He hopes to one day fulfill his lifelong desire for military glory but his wife, Bridgit, feels the opposite. She wants to remain safe and raise their sickly son, Kerrin. In the political sphere, Crown Prince Cavan is a man trying to live a moral life but is pushed to do otherwise by his immoral family. His father, King Aidan, is brutal, unpredictable and mentally unstable, yet charismatic. He demands that Cavan be a royal figurehead, to simply give speeches and follow orders. His once-revolting but now handsome brother, Prince Swane, may be worshiping Zorva and cutting out human hearts to gain nearly unstoppable power. Children are being plucked from the streets of the capital and innocent women are burned as witches. Prince Cavan and Fallon end up working together to find the true culprit.
The setting is realistic and easy to picture. The distant lands of the Kotterman Empire seem to be taking over via trade and culture:including décor, perfume and strange foods like potatoes and lobster. Baltimore, often smelling of fish, is a self-sufficient village watched over by the fair and well-respected Duke of Lunster. The capital of Gaelland, Berry, is rotten and stinking, filled with riches, corruption and children begging in the streets. Similar to Hollywood, dreams are crushed in Berry.
The opening is gut wrenching as we follow a yet-unknown character’s viewpoint on his way to the gallows. Then the pace slows with the usual introductions and other background expositions before picking up again towards the end of the first chapter. Most of The Last Quarrel moves this way, like a Mayan Temple, with plateaus followed by sharp, exciting jumps. This kept me reading through to the last dramatic cliff-hanging surge but I wish that it had, like an Egyptian pyramid, built toward the end progressively before the final moment. This narrative structure may be due to the story being released in five separate episodes.
I find morally gray characters to be the most appealing aspect of the grimdark genre and you mostly don’t see them here. Prince Cavan starts out as the well-intentioned authority figure and remained so. His brother and father are the opposite, and I would have liked to see more reasoning behind their evil. Perhaps it is too early to expect this in the trilogy, and I hope more will be revealed in the next book, The Bloody Quarrel. The other wonderful arcs nearly make up for the black and white characters. Initially, Fallon carries a bit of small town naïveté, but gains wisdom about life and his limits as his world is unexpectedly torn apart in the second act. His washed-up wizard and father-in-law, Padraig, starts out as the foul-smelling drunk but slowly recovers himself and his gift. Fallon’s weak son, Kerrin, discovers talent similar to his father’s, creating a stronger father-and-son bond.
My favourite character and arc is Fallon’s wife Bridgit. She is introduced as the paranoid, slightly depressed housewife. I love how The Last Quarrel delves into her mind, showing the cruel side of pregnancy and motherhood. You can feel her pain with the memory of each miscarriage and stillbirth, then empathise with her fear of losing her one surviving child. It was refreshing to watch Bridgit realise her courage and become a leader. She and the other female characters interact with each other, augmenting their own strengths that, at times, rivals the men. Such as the character, Sister Rosaleen. She is a priestess given power from the god, Aroaril, and is stronger than her male counterparts and even, at times, than Padriag.
There is plenty of action splattered throughout The Last Quarrel, which makes great fantasy, but, as I read it, I sometimes wondered when it was going to turn dark. I found that moment with the last sentence and it had me searching for The Bloody Quarrel. The climax is fast and suspenseful, and though it is open-ended, I was pleased with the amount of closure for the other main points. I feel there may be readers unhappy with the cliffhanger but, for me at least, it is the most grisly scene, and my favourite part.
Read The Last Quarrel by Duncan Lay
You can also dip your toe in by reading an excerpt here.