If you’re anything like me, The Lies of Locke Lamora is one of those books that’s been recommended to you several times, but you never quite got around to picking it up. Serendipitously, one day last month, the bookstore’s usually well-stocked store carousel was oddly empty. Seven days later, I had a new favorite book and a new fandom, and a damn good set of reasons for both. Two weeks after that, I had the sequel under my belt, and now I am eagerly awaiting the third book in the series, out in October. To put it mildly: “Where has this book been all my life?”
Lies is the first book in an ongoing series called the Gentlemen Bastards* by Scott Lynch. The first begins with anti-hero Locke as an orphan in the Venice-like city of Camorr, and then details his present-day exploits as the twenty-five-year-old leader of a close-knit gang of high-stakes thieves, who specialize in disguise. (Think “Ocean’s 11,” but younger and better.) Smarter and cleverer than everyone else is their motto and their toast, and you believe it; you cheer for it along with them. But when external forces turn things from thieves looking for a challenge to imminent mortal danger, the Gentlemen Bastards’ chess board is sent desperately reeling. Ever losing pieces and playing under others’ rules, they have to continue their plays. . . .
Now, we’ve all had high hopes for books like this and been disappointed mightily; I have perhaps thrown more books down in disgust than most. In fact, I don’t finish 85% of the fantasy I start, because the quality just can’t hack my standards. However, Lies did not disappoint; it actually blew away the competition in every single category I have by which to measure. For instance, the writer is a master of wordplay both in the narrative and the dialogue, weaving clever catch-phrases you’ll repeat for weeks. (Just check out his Twitter and his Tumblr.)
The setting is just as flavorful; it’s the perfect blend of spices. I’m a fan of any story that takes place entirely in one city — especially if the town is as much a character as any person, perhaps even more so — and that is what happens here. Camorr is Renaissance-Venice-like, but Venice built on ancient ruins, with magic, alchemy, and a seedy, hierarchical underworld headed by a man who’s part Captain Hook and part Caesar. The outfits are also to die for; they are wonderful and ridiculous and add color like mad to both characters’ personalities and the setting. The author has even named two French films as influence on them: Le Pacte des Loups (The Brotherhood of the Wolf), and Plunkett and Macleane. The world-building breathes on its own, and by the end, you think you’re going to go out your front door and be on Camorr’s front steps.
The main cast is all male. And before you get mad about that, let me say that it works. It works the way the first season of Law and Order worked when it was all male. This book captures the inner workings of a group of guys perfectly, without falling into raunch. Male and female readers alike will be pleased with the telling, because respect exists in all aspects of the book’s construction. Locke is the sweet-talking slip of a gangster we all love, but with that zealous good-guy streak. He’s feisty, and curses to a near-Homestuck level of creativity when frustrated. Extremely intelligent and near-invincible when he puts his mind to it, it’s wonderful to watch him go. But when he struggles, instead of angst, author Lynch flips expectations and gets him furiously intent on his tasks. As a reader, the struggle makes you excited, rather than depressed.
The other characters, too, sound like they might be tropes, but are handled with a sophistication you see only in the best fantasy of the last twenty years. In the main crew, there’s a set of twin guys that sew; merchant-looking Jean, who is good with numbers and also their bruiser; and Bug, the “plucky, smartass orphan” of the group (they’re all orphans, but he takes the cake), who is brought subtlety by the fact that he is the most stoic of the bunch when it comes to his past. Did I mention they can all cook fantastically? There’s someone for everyone to fantasize over.
The Lies of Lock Lamora is everything you could ever want in a (low-magic) fantasy, but perhaps the most refreshing thing it brings is its women. Crisp, flippant, their own people, and answerable only to themselves and circumstance, there are girls and women at all levels of the professional spectrum, and they are responsibly portrayed. (Everything is responsibly portrayed, to be honest.) You could even say the background characters lean a little heavy on the female side, and each one is better than the last, somehow. The book treats people as people; there are hard-ass men and women, sharp shopkeepers, caring types, cute people who are not naive, the old, the young, and everything in between — and a character’s sex (and age) is no indication of which they’ll be. Characterization in this book is not only utterly refreshing, but you can learn from this story when writing — or navigating the real world.
These people are also palpable entities; for as much as every character is his or her own person, they also are roadblocks. Nothing is free — and that quickly becomes law in your own mind as you read. The characters don’t always succeed, and they must be utterly crafty to get what they need; the world feels all that more engaging because of it. The book’s continuity is superb like this, in all aspects: there’s not a subtle hint left unfulfilled in the plot, a theme left underutilized, or a character whose weird mannerisms are undue for his or her profession; you never ask yourself “Well, why didn’t they just do this?” Instead, you catch yourself thinking, “Oooh, that is very smart of the alchemist not to touch her coins.” Again, a solid tale that leaves you honing your writing skills as much as your ninja ones.
There’s one last place to give props: the pacing and execution. The story of book one goes back and forth in time with each chapter, telling parallel stories: scenes of Locke’s childhood illustrate how he became what he is, in a way that’s relevant in the next chapter. Like George R R Martin said of it, this function “is gorgeously realized.” We’ve all been burned by books that take unconscionable breaks in their action through parallel storylines, but that does not happen here. Lies is a sophisticated puzzle box, well oiled. It’s definitely worth the attention of the expert fantasy reader.
Perhaps best, though, by the second half of the book, you won’t want to put it down. The action is gripping in a more visceral way than most action movies; it takes the heart-pounding action and time-sensitive necessity of the genre and puts it in a book. If you want to get worked up and drawn into your fantasies, come hither. As a reader, I was in the action the whole time, and it was glorious.
If it’s such a good book, though, why is it not more popular? First of all, it’s just now hitting trilogy status and seven years since first publication, which seem to be the magic threshold numbers for longer fantasy series when transforming into mega-hits. But more importantly, I suspect such extensive reticence toward picking up this book exists because, much like the characters, the title itself masquerades in the back of one’s mind. However unfortunate, the title at first makes one think of some small-town, summer-vacation-mystery reader for teen girls. But then you find out Locke Lamora is not a lake but a guy, and then things get much, much more interesting. The experience of this book is a reward in and of itself; it is truly a masterpiece, and an even more astonishing first book because of it.
With the quality of the world-building and characters, the Gentleman Bastards series is perfectly poised to be the Next Big Thing with the third book coming out in October. Too, the fandom is fairly small and full of very nice people, the author among them. If you need a fix from Game of Thrones withdrawal during the long winter, read this, and be prepared to jump ship to a new fandom. In short: You need to listen to all those past recommendations and read this book. It may well be your new favorite thing, too.
* Gentleman Bastards is The Lies of Locke Lamora, Red Seas Under Red Skies, and, debuting October 8th, book three: The Republic of Thieves. If you’re in or near NYC, meet author Scott Lynch on Friday, October 11th, 2013, at New York Comic Con, and get your new copy signed! (He will also be conducting at least one panel on the craft of writing.)
** Disclaimer: Unbound Worlds is operated by Random House, which publishes the books in question. But that does not alter the trajectory of my fangirl spew, believe me. It just makes our interests “mutually beneficial.” (So spoke the Camorri lawyers.)