Review: The Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch

tlollSeries: Gentleman Bastard #1
Published by: Gollancz
ISBN: 0575079754
ISBN 13: 9780575079755
Published: July 2006
Pages: 531
Format reviewed: Paperback
Site: Author Site
Goodreads: Book Page
Stars: Five out of Five
Lists: Favourites and Recommended
Related Reviews: Red Seas Under Red Skies (Gentleman Bastard #2) / The Republic of Thieves (Gentleman Bastard #3)

Forgive me if I appear to start this review by digressing, but I burned my hand two hours ago whilst cooking dinner.  It still hurts too badly to take out from iced water and as you all probably know, it’s annoying to type with only one hand and yet I’m still here. Why? Because I’ve just finished a novel which exceeds all expectations and I need to tell you all about it.

The Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch is the first book in a series of seven, titled the Gentleman Bastard Sequence.  It’s captivating (and that’s putting it mildly) right from the start where they threaten to use someone’s balls as fish bait, to the end where they try to drown someone in horse piss.  The language in this novel is as rough as a cat’s tongue but it’s the dialogue that keeps you turning the pages.

Set in a mystical alternate Renaissance Venice this novel is full of wonderful description (’light glittered on crystal and shone through the misty green depths of Verrari mint wine’) which some may find a little tedious.  I found it painted wonderful scenes in my mind, to the point where at the end I was desperate to just get up and join them, it felt so real. Or maybe that was just my mind desperate to be with this Locke person.  Hmm.

Locke Lamora and his band of Gentleman Bastards are masters of costume, wit and life in general, as they manage to get away with what none of us could ever dare to achieve. Camorr is their kingdom, and anything is available for the taking as long as they’re willing to work for it. Locke is their garrista (leader) and you soon see why he has the job. Together, they are con artists who act mainly as initiates of Perelandro and, using these lies they are able to conduct complex confidence games that swindle money from anyone naïve enough to buy their act.

The book is divided into two intermingled parts, which makes for an engaging style. In the present time, the Gentlemen Bastards must contend with the Grey King, a powerful figure terrorising the criminal community. Every other chapter delves into the history and mythology of Camorr, the Gentleman Bastards, and our lead antihero Locke Lamora.

This book will appeal to a wide audience.  It’s a mixture of adventure and fantasy, and it’s of high quality, a neat, complete wrapped tale that doesn’t disappoint in any area – characterisation, plot, setting and pace are all equally excellent. Dialogue though… that’s even better. There are many sections that had me laughing aloud which I don’t often do while reading – there’s a certain scene near the start where they go to try offload some stolen goods to a pawn shop which to this day is one of my favourites.

Be mindful of the language if you were thinking of handing this book to a younger person, but don’t hesitate when trying to give it to someone who ‘doesn’t read fantasy’.

What makes this novel my sudden favourite is how it went right through and around genre expectations. Our protagonist Locke Lamora is not a heartthrob, he’s not the best fighter (in fact, he often has to cling on and bear it until his friend Jean arrives), and we get to watch him be . . . shall we say, lacking in bed – through his own choice, it appears.  He’s not exactly suave, he’s actually an arrogant little snit who gets slapped down several times while taking petty revenge on a bunch of people, seemingly purely for fun. He’s not fantastic at what he does – at least, not in the traditional way – he just has a natural flare for a certain kind of crime and a dogged determination to survive to the bitter end. His talents are handled in a believable way. Sometimes even his spectacular ability to lie and/or plan heists fails, and he has to go to Plan B. Sometimes Plan C. Sometimes Plan Z, until he’s at the end of the noose (almost) before he manages to free himself at the last minute, humiliated and mutilated and black and blue – completely unlike any ‘hero’ before. He’s just Locke, and it’s time to fall in love with this character, because let me tell you, he deserves it.

You know what though? I could say all I like about Locke (actually, I probably should, is that not my reason for being here?) but this quote says it more eloquently than I:

‘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 believe 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.’

This book is full of desirable little oddities and quirks. They are careful to kiss the back of their left hands.  They make death offerings for those they lose; these can be properly stolen coins, ships, jewels… any kind of wealth, as long as it’s enough to please the Benefactor. They have rituals before they go on any big jobs. “I only steal because it’s heaps of fucking fun!” – “BASTARD!” (a macro photo of this part of the book is my desktop background) and well, there’s more, but you’ll just have to read to find out, won’t you?

This novel is nothing short of fantastic, but I shall try to point out its minor flaws. It’s not exactly that it took a while to lose myself in; it’s just that it also takes a while to get used to the seemingly random chapters being set in the past. In the end you discover that it works perfectly though, once the pacing makes itself aware to you . . . it is just at the start that it feels a bit uneven.

Some people don’t like the amount of swearing.  Fair enough.  Some don’t like the allure of a female character only mentioned, never revealed in this book. And the author himself admits he wishes he’d woven more female characters in the first, and that looking back there were many other issues he wishes he could go back in time and correct. Yes, it’s rough and yes, it almost crosses the line with how far he takes the torture and YES Lynch does his very best to the point where you’re flinching and biting your bottom lip… but put that all together and you have, in my opinion, the best book I’ve read all year.

I shall leave you with this quote, since it sums everything up perfectly, I think.

“Bug,” Calo said, “Locke is like a brother to us, and our love for him has no bounds. But the four most fatal words in the Therin language are ‘Locke would appreciate it.’”

“Rivaled only by ‘Locke taught me a new trick,’” added Galdo.

“The only person who gets away with Locke Lamora games—”

“—is Locke Lamora—”

“—because we think the gods are saving him up for a really big death. Something with knives and hot irons—”

“—and fifty thousand cheering spectators.”

. . .Oh, okay, one more!

“Someday, Locke Lamora,” Chains said, “someday, you’re going to fuck up so magnificently, so ambitiously, 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.”

“Oh, please,” said Locke. “‘It’ll never happen.”

This review was originally posted at SentientOnline on the 1st October 2009. But has since been edited. Because back then I still used a double space after a full stop, apparently.

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