Series: The Gentleman Bastard Sequence #1
Published by Random House on 27th June 2006
Genres: Adult, Fantasy, High Fantasy
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The Thorn of Camorr is said to be an unbeatable swordsman, a master thief, a ghost that walks through walls. Half the city believes him to be a legendary champion of the poor. The other half believes him to be a foolish myth. Nobody has it quite right.
Slightly built, unlucky in love, and barely competent with a sword, Locke Lamora is, much to his annoyance, the fabled Thorn. He certainly didn't invite the rumors that swirl around his exploits, which are actually confidence games of the most intricate sort. And while Locke does indeed steal from the rich (who else, pray tell, would be worth stealing from?), the poor never see a penny of it. All of Locke's gains are strictly for himself and his tight-knit band of thieves, the Gentlemen Bastards.
Locke and company are con artists in an age where con artistry, as we understand it, is a new and unknown style of crime. The less attention anyone pays to them, the better! But a deadly mystery has begun to haunt the ancient city of Camorr, and a clandestine war is threatening to tear the city's underworld, the only home the Gentlemen Bastards have ever known, to bloody shreds. Caught up in a murderous game, Locke and his friends will find both their loyalty and their ingenuity tested to the breaking point as they struggle to stay alive...
“It was strange, how readily authority could be conjured with nothing but a bit of strutting jackassery.”
I’m a jaded reader.
It’s a fact that has become increasingly apparent to me over the last few months, as I’ve found myself routinely shying away from books that I simply cannot enjoy as I may once have. A healthy (and overdue, I would say) dose of feminist discourse and a consistently indefatigable love for storytelling analysis and trope examination has left me in such a position that certain narrative mainstays are now much harder to swallow than they were in the past.
So, yes, I’m likely a much more biased reviewer now than I was several months ago, but I’d like to think that this isn’t a bad thing, considering that my prejudices are more about societal wrong than, say, personal preoccupations with the color of a heroine’s eyes.
(“They were a plain sort of blue. Nothing special. Not like his. He told me that they were the most beautiful eyes he had ever seen, but I knew that he was only trying to make me feel better. I’m plain, really. Not like other girls. It’s a mystery why everyone seems to think I’m so beautiful and talented and mysterious.”)
Still, I leave it up to you to decide whether my thoughts should be taken seriously at this point. I don’t mind.
So, on to the book. The Lies of Locke Lamora. Consider it a sort of spiritual successor to George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, but more accessible. (Though considering that it’s unlikely we’re to see that particular series finished in this or several subsequent lifetimes, perhaps “successor” isn’t the best term to use.) I say this not as a criticism. I’m a big fan, but Martin’s writing isn’t perfect, and you could denounce several of his quirks with just cause. His apparently boundless cast of characters and deluge of as-of-yet unresolved plot arcs make for slow reading, and the general pessimism of his world (“Westeros: Come for the unending political turmoil. Stay because you’re dead.”) doesn’t exactly make for easiest of casual reading experiences.
Cue Scott Lynch, who arrives with an opening chapter to a saga that appears nearly as ambitious in scope so far as the author’s imagination is concerned. Despite the abundance of mysteries and hinted-at ideas that are left for the (many) sequels to come, Lynch’s Camorr is a sword-and-sorcery affair that manages to feel both comprehensive and confidential at the same time. There isn’t anything inherently wrong with Martin feeling that it’s his sworn duty to detail the familial connections and lives of every single one of the people living in his Westeros, but it’s nice to have a sort-of epic that keeps the core cast limited to a handful of key players and not a rotating collection of what feels like several thousand. We get their pasts (to an extent), their skills (also to an extent), their intimacies (no, not like that) with one another.
Despite focusing almost exclusively on the various pursuits of the namesake character in a single city, though, The Lies of Locke Lamora is strangely bottomless. By that I mean that Scott has done such a good job at detailing Camorr’s many nooks and crannies — and has made each and every one of them so interesting — that the metropolitan seems to be an entire world unto itself. There are physical borders that limit the width of the setting, but no such constraints on the depth of its potential: anything can happen here.
Really, Camorr itself is the book’s greatest strength. It’s a microcosm of endlessly interlocking groups, factions, businesses, and rules, and Scott only gives us a brief glimpse into that complexity. It’s enough to satisfy for a time (through to the end of the novel, at least), but not so much that you’re not left feeling that there’s simply so much more to be seen (or not) in the future. There’s a beautiful stage here for the author to play with: one that I legitimately feel as though I have to see realized visually in a film at some point, because it’s too unique to be confined to the page forever. We have floating gardens, great networks of canals that carry water to intricately stacked homes, and alien crystal that lights an entire city at night. We have deadly magics, rogue guilds, alchemical experiments, and secret peaces. It’s the sort of creation that you want to bury yourself in: a puzzle that you could spend hours assembling and then staring at. And Lynch’s writing is an excellent accent to it all, lush and poetic without being trite or overbearing. Like Martin, his pen has its eccentricities (he arguably devotes far too many paragraphs to describing clothing, in a manner eerily similar to his predecessor’s propensity for talking about food in ludicrous amounts of detail), but they aren’t so notable that they distract from the overall effect. I would gladly devote time to reading several hundred pages on Camorr’s history and sociopolitical and cultural systems. The characters are almost secondary.
At least, they are for me. It’s not that Locke Lamora and his Gentlemen Bastards aren’t fun blokes to hang around with. It’s that they aren’t nearly as interesting as the locale they spend their time in.
“‘Someday, Locke Lamora,’ he said, ‘someday, you’re going to fuck up so magnificently, so ambitiuously, so overwhelmingly that the sky will light up and the moons will spin and the gods themselves will shit comets with glee. And I just hope I’m still around to see it.'”
Locke, for his part, isn’t bad as an anchoring point for events, but he’s also fairly annoying. He’s the sort of character who at first glance has plenty of depth and complexity to him, but then reveals himself to be almost stale once really considered. He has decent (and unfinished — we naturally need something for the sequels) backstory, numerous relationships of varying type, and plenty of opportunity to rise and fall as the mastermind of his little band of thieves. But, when all is said and done, he’s really quite the Marty Stu. His supposed faults are the kind that ultimately aren’t faults at all, but rather “noble” traits dressed up to appear problematic. He cares too much. He’s too clever. He’s too loyal. He’s too good of a mastermind and thief. Yes, these qualities get him in trouble, but they also ensure that he’s always the right one — morally, intellectually — in any given situation or conflict. Of course we want him to succeed in the end, so his triumphal returns are inevitable, but even his lowest moments come about from “mistakes” that are good-intentioned or admirable, so they never feel like proper moments of growth for him. What has he to grow from? Character shilling abounds, and the only real critic is himself: something that only serves to make him more exemplary as an individual. He blames himself for everyone’s misfortune as well as his own, and this provides endless opportunities for everyone around him to ensure him of how wrong he is. Without Locke, they (and we, I assume) would be lost.
Locke isn’t a terrible character. He’s likable, and you root for his success every step of the way, knowing that he’ll somehow disentangle himself from any obstacle and emerge the victor. The issue is that the attempts at depth simply feel like precisely that — attempts — and fall flat. His supporting cast is solid, from gentle giant Jean to the endearingly overeager Bug, but they aren’t given enough time to make much of an impact. Their asides are there primarily to show how they help Locke, and why he is ultimately the best of them.
And why the lack of female characters? There are several scattered throughout, yes, but they all play very minor roles that don’t mean much. We have:
- a fellow Gentleman Bastard given various excuses for her being abroad and who does not actually show her face once (not until the third book, I hear), but is instead used as ship teasing to hint at a past relationship with Locke (the drama!)
- a childhood acquaintance and fellow thief who is kept homebound by her father for her safety, then promptly killed anyway so that any promising storylines involving her are unceremoniously dropped (the agony!)
- a noblewoman who acts as Locke’s target for the scheme that drives much of the main plot, and so is a relatively passive victim whose intelligence and work ethic are often spoken of, but are used only once during the grand finale (the skill!)
- an elderly but enormously influential member of Camorr’s political elite who does prove a worthy adversary to Locke, but must ultimately be saved by him when she is bewitched by the primary antagonist and used to continue his schemes (the exploitation!)
Of the four, the one that bothers me the most is the childhood friend, Nazca. So much potential is thrown out, and for the sake of fridging, no less. Fridging is an enormous hang-up of mine, because it typically exists to do nothing but reduce female characters to narrative excuses for male angst and plot momentum. Why hint at these intriguing developments — a team-up between Nazca and Locke to stop the Big Bad, for instance — if you’re going to immediately kill her, and off-screen (so to speak) no less? Bah.
“‘Deception and misdirection are our tools. We don’t believe in hard work when a false face and a good line of bullshit can do so much more.'”
There are other quibbles, such as the villain’s decay near the end of the book into an overly dramatic defeatist with a very last-minute (then hastily ignored) and predictable “this is the dramatic reason for my grating personality and ultimate plan” reveal and the fact that two notable characters are dispatched after a great deal of legitimately intriguing build-up for the sake of creating an additional need for that ultimate masculine pursuit of REVENGE!!! None of it is particularly distracting from the main narrative arc, however, which manages to be compelling despite some abrupt shifts in tone and direction partway through. There’s sabotage, scheming, and various twists enough for the bloodthirstiest and most action-hungry, and things end in a satisfying enough way to leave the future open to plenty of possibility without being too open-ended. None of it is truly new or unique (in comparison to the setting, anyway), with plenty of reliance on those familiar rehashings of the dangers of overconfidence, the importance of friends, and so on. But all of it (generally speaking) has been done before, right? Interesting new combinations of the old building blocks are about the best we can hope for at this point.
There is plenty to love about The Lies of Locke Lamora, and it contains enough brilliant potential (both tapped and as-of-yet untapped) to make it worth your while. I only wish it did better by its characters, which unfortunately don’t entirely do their world justice. There’s always the sequels, I suppose.