The Lies of Locke Lamora | Gentleman Bastard #1 | ISBN 9780575079755 | Gollanzc, 2007 | 3.5 out of 5 Points
“In this stunning debut, author Scott Lynch delivers the wonderfully thrilling tale of an audacious criminal and his band of confidence tricksters. Set in a fantastic city pulsing with the lives of decadent nobles and daring thieves, here is a story of adventure, loyalty, and survival that is one part “Robin Hood”, one part Ocean’s Eleven, and entirely enthralling…
An orphan’s life is harsh — and often short — in the island city of Camorr, built on the ruins of a mysterious alien race. But born with a quick wit and a gift for thieving, Locke Lamora has dodged both death and slavery, only to fall into the hands of an eyeless priest known as Chains — a man who is neither blind nor a priest. A con artist of extraordinary talent, Chains passes his skills on to his carefully selected “family” of orphans — a group known as the Gentlemen Bastards. Under his tutelage, Locke grows to lead the Bastards, delightedly pulling off one outrageous confidence game after another. Soon he is infamous as the Thorn of Camorr, and no wealthy noble is safe from his sting.
Passing themselves off as petty thieves, the brilliant Locke and his tightly knit band of light-fingered brothers have fooled even the criminal underworld’s most feared ruler, Capa Barsavi. But there is someone in the shadows more powerful — and more ambitious — than Locke has yet imagined. Known as the Gray King, he is slowly killing Capa Barsavi’s most trusted men — and using Locke as a pawn in his plot to take control of Camorr’s underworld. With a bloody coup under way threatening to destroy everyone and everything that holds meaning in his mercenary life, Locke vows to beat the Gray King at his own brutal game — or die trying…”
The Lies of Locke Lamora is a bit of a modern classic of fantasy literature; with its cunning thieves and its fancy blurb from George R.R. Martin, it’s earned its place in the heart of many a passionate fantasy fan. Since I am very well aware of this, I am also aware that this review might be a little bit divisive, but where is the fun in having a book blog if you can’t piss off half the fantasy community?
THE LIES OF ‘ORIGINAL WORLD BUILDING’
Let’s make one thing clear: I did enjoy Locke, eventually. After about 40%, the book is extremely fun to read and the plot is engaging, but before the 40% mark, what we get isn’t plot, just pages upon pages of side plots, info dumping, foreshadowing, flashbacks, chekov’s guns, establishing of characters and world building. Is the Salvara con important? Sure. Did it have to take up 30% of the book? No. I did like the interwoven backstory about Locke’s childhood, but this also could have been shorter, really. The big problem with nearly the first half of the book is just that there is so much stuff which the author wants us to know, that the actual plot doesn’t even happen until all of this cool stuff is out of the way. We get to see temples, slums, festivals before we get to see our central conflict. And reading 40% of a 500 page book without actually getting a proper conflict is one hell of a chore. As I told Ella just before I got to the part where the book actually gets good, “It’s just boring me gently.”
One of the main draws of “The Lies of Locke Lamora” is, of course, the unusual world it is set in, which basically means it is not set in medieval pseudo-Great Britain. I very consciously avoid the word ‘original’ here, because Camorr, where Locke’s story takes place, isn’t original; it’s Fantasy Venice. It’s channels, everybody (except Locke and Jean) has Italian names (more about that later) and it is largely powered by merchants and trade. It’s Fantasy Venice, and taking an existing place in history and giving it some alchemical lightning fixtures doesn’t make it original world building, which honestly bugged me quite a bit.
One thing you should know about me is that I am a big Tolkien fan; not just his works, but also his theoretical contribution to literature studies and linguistics (though I’m absolutely not a fan of his social views let me tell you). One thing Tolkien postulated, and which I built my master thesis on, is fictive translation; in the concrete case of Tolkien, this means that everything he wrote is a fictive translation from the Red Book (or the works of Pengolodh in case of the Silmarillion and the Unfinished Tales). As a wider principle, fictive translation means that any book set in an alternative reality must be as fully as possible transferred into the language that the book is in. This is especially important when translating a fantasy novel, since in a world where English does not exist you cannot leave English names in a German book, but it is also important for the suspension of disbelief in a not-translated book.
I know a lot of people do not care about this, and this might seem particularly nitpicky, but having Italian words – especially Italian descriptive names like ‘contrarequialla’ or ‘Capa’ – makes this world flat and absolutely improbable. Why do these people speak Italian? Italian has developed through very specific stages, and even though the book has a very lazy analogy to Rome (the Therin Throne) and thus also a lazy analogy to Latin, it is just unlikely that a society in a world not 1:1 like ours would have developed the Italian language. Just use English words. Using Italian names is not as bad, really, but using Italian descriptions for absolutely no reason is just annoying. Oh, I nearly forgot one: Don and Doña. Really? Just because there’s a tilde instead of two n we’re supposed to believe these are totally fantasy titles, and not just another sign of how lazy the world building actually is?
Of course, lazy world building doesn’t automatically lead to a bad story, and even if you copy a country for your fictional world, it’s still possible to create a layered, deep world (looking at you, George R.R. with your giganto Britain). But Camorr just is literally nothing but alchemically powered Fantasy Venice with some fancy glass towers and the fifty thousand cliché gangs and religious orders you will find in any other low fantasy novel. And even that would not have been such a big problem for me if, like I said, the first 40% hadn’t been so absolutely chock full of world building and info dumping. Lynch likes his world a lot, and you can tell. By the end of chapter two any reader could basically personally play master of ceremony for one of Camorr’s shifting revels, such is the detail we get about that. And I know, a lot of fantasy fans love deep story building and lore and details, and usually I do too – but I want my deep story building with some actual conflict, okay? Give me conflict, give me an exciting story, and I will not complain. But leave me to my own thoughts for 40% of the book and I will complain, and loudly so.
(Oh, I am also going to complain about Lynch’s own inconsistency within his derivative world building: During the plot in the beginning, Jean and Locke take fake names from a place that is very obviously meant to be Germany. Jean takes the name Graumann, which is a good and fair name, and absolutely believable for somebody from fantasy Germany; Locke, however, takes the name Lukas Fehrwight. FehrWIGHT. ???? That does not make any sense at all??? If you want to copy real nations in your fantasy book, then at least be consistent, and don’t randomly mix German and English???)
Just to be clear: Most of the time, I don’t care about derivative world building. Leigh Bardugo did it in her “Grisha” series, and I enjoyed the first book a lot (the other two are still lying somewhere around the exploded library I call my room). The thing with “The Lies of Locke Lamora” is that it is just not different enough from actual Venice to make the world stand up by itself; if there had been more plot right from the beginning, I could ignore this flaw, but I also have to say that it could likely have made a very good historical fantasy novel. But I just did not enjoy the world, no matter how much Scott Lynch obviously wanted me to enjoy it, while the world itself was the focus of the story.
GOOD THINGS COME TO THOSE WHO WAIT
I have to admit that “The Lies of Locke Lamora” eventually got really, really good. Once the central conflict actually appeared, once there was an actual antagonist for Locke and Co., I had a lot of fun with this book. Lynch obviously knows how to build a great plot, how to use suspense and expectations to keep his readers on the edge of their seats, and in the second half of the book, he actually uses this knowledge. While there was absolutely no draw in nearly the first half of it, no real reason to read on except the hope that it will get good soon, the second half of “Locke” will grip you and drag you through its glorious ups and downs and keep you in its grasp until the end no matter how much you scream. Lynch knows how to write great stories. He only seems to have a bit of a problem with actually getting them started.
I am very much the type of person who likes convoluted plans where you never know what’s coming next, but you always know that it will make total sense in the end, and that’s exactly the type of story that the fight between Locke Lamora and the Grey King is. Details that are only mentioned fleetingly are picked up later and become central to the plot, things people say are later turned around and re-interpreted within the story, random acts turn out to be part of a larger scheme, people aren’t who they appear to be, and then they also turn out not to actually be who they turned out to be. Since this is Low Fantasy, it was pretty obvious from the beginning that nobody is safe from tragically dying (except Locke, since there are two more books in the series), which gave the whole story an additional thrill. And what’s more, Locke’s war against the Grey King also satisfied my love for powerful, clever characters who are used to having the upper hand being reduced to nothing but their bare will to survive by opponents who are infinitely more powerful and more clever than them.
If the whole book had been like that, I don’t think I would have had much time to actually find things to complain about. But, since we established that I had a lot of time during those first 40%, we will now come back to complaining about parts of this book that were not as awesome as Locke’s desperate struggle against forces so far superior to him that he might as well have been an ant trying to beat a Doberman. If you know anything about fantasy and the recent debates surrounding this genre, you might already be able to guess what comes now.
IT’S NOT ALWAYS THE THOUGHT THAT COUNTS
So let’s talk about the treatment of women in “The Lies of Locke Lamora.”
I believe Lynch is very much a feminist. I follow him on twitter and he has solid opinions on things, and he very obviously tries to make his fantasy world as egalitarian as possible. In most instances, men and women are named simultaneously; there are female guards, female shop keeps, female law scribes, female gang bosses. Men and women seem to have equal rights in marriage and inheritance. However, most of this equality is, sadly, nominal.
I do not believe that Lynch had any bad intentions when writing this book, and I believe he actually tried to be fair to women in this book. But the fact is that he seems to have some unexamined prejudices, just like every other person, which bleeds unpleasantly into the story.
First of all, none of the main characters are female. There are five characters, plus one mentor character, who we follow for the largest part of the book, and all of them are guys. I guess it’s kind of to be expected in a gang called ‘Gentleman Bastards’, but there actually is a female member of the Bastards – just that she is conveniently far, far, far away and only ever comes up when Locke pines for the past romance he seems to have had with her. Then there is Doña Sofia Salvara, who gets to play a small but important role in the plot later on, but who is still originally a victim of Locke’s con, and who very much gets portrayed as an appendage to her (far less interesting, far less competent) husband, who seems to be in charge of the family finances, even though Sofia is at least consulted in this area. There is also a very important older female character who plays an important part in the last 10% of the book, but that is, as you say, too little too late, and sadly she has to pretend to all the world to be nothing but a doddering old widow who spends her days knitting and gossiping. It is actually implied several times that women talk about nothing but gossip and men when they are with other women, which, honestly, is not a good look.
Other roles women get to have include: the daughter of a crime boss who gets to kinda be in love with Locke; several women who are conned by both adult and childhood Gentlemen Bastards, helpful whores who give our heroes free therapy sessions and ruthless, powerful warriors who assist a man to realize his ambitions even though they are at least as competent as him (and who also do not get to talk). Oh, and there is fridging (i.e. a woman gets killed off for no other reason than to motivate male characters). Good times, really; good times.
Like I said, I don’t think Lynch realized what he was doing. It is very obvious at several times that he really wanted to show that women in his fantasy world have the same status as men, but in the end, his women only exist in relation to men, be that as daughters, wives, or girlfriends. The only woman who actually has power in her own right is implied by her title to have taken her title from her husband, and has to play the harmless old gossip-hen for all the world, which is something a man in this world would never have to lower himself to. It’s sad, but it really did not come unexpected.
All in all, “The Lies of Locke Lamora” was a mixed deal for me. The last 60% were great fun, the plot was suspenseful and complex, and watching the characters claw their way out of horrible, hopeless situations was as satisfying as it could possibly have been, but the book still had some major, major flaws. I really would have enjoyed it a lot more with a lot less info dumping, and with a lot more conflict in the first 40%. The issues with its world building were annoying, and the issues with its treatment of women were frustrating, if predictable. However, I do absolutely want to read the next book, and I hope that the story will actually start at the beginning of the book this time, and not about halfway through.
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