The Lies of Locke Lamora (Gollancz SF S.)
by Scott Lynch
Review by John Berlyne
Gollancz Hardcover ISBN/ITEM#: 0575076941
Date: 20 July, 2006 List Price £17.99 Amazon US / Amazon UK / Show Official Info /
Spring has brought forth two fantasy novels from UK publisher Gollancz , both by brand new British authors - the disappointing Tom Lloyd debut, The Stormcaller and the admirably charismatic and savagely cynical The Blade Itself, written by Joe Abercrombie (click on the links to read my reviews of these titles). As we head into summer, Gollancz release a third high profile debut fantasy into the wilds. This one is by an American writer Scott Lynch, and no disrespect to the other two debut authors in this trio, The Lies of Locke Lamora is an altogether bigger deal. Proof of this is evident even before I go on to examine to content of Lynch's quite brilliant debut, for The Lies of Locke Lamora will be released in the US by Bantam Spectra at pretty much the same time as the UK edition comes out. Furthermore translation deals have been signed in a number of European markets and the film rights have been optioned for some months now - so it's fair to suggest that it's a much bigger deal!!
So, is all the fuss and the hype justified? Well... yep, pretty much! In many ways, Lynch's novel is quite conventional - it's simply a good old-fashioned adventure story, a romp featuring a charming but flawed leading man pitting his wits against a super-evil arch-villain. This is a strong, comic-book construction, a plot that we've seen many times before and one that when done well (and here, it is done exceptionally well), is amongst the most entertaining stories one can read. Even the setting of the novel, the city state of Camorr, aligns itself with established genre tropes - it's a kind of Lankhmar-esque Venice in the time of Casanova, all hustle and bustle, Lords and Ladies, exotic rogues and the business that goes on between them. With setting and a story thus, surely Lynch's novel should sink quickly into the quagmire of cliché - he is a first time novelist after all, and haven't we seen all this before?
Well, yes and no. Certainly this type of novel is common enough - I'm talking plot driven narrative here, the kind that faithfully follows a three act structure. In many ways this is my preferred construction for a novel - but rarely does one see it so beautifully laid out and put to such effective use. Lynch embellishes and enhances these conventions with the addition of flashback sequences, something he uses throughout, both to fill in necessary background and to propel the reader forwards through the story. Indeed the inclusion of these flashbacks tends to coincide with the high plot points, the real cliff-hanger moments, and though some readers may find these interruptions frustrating, I found they acted as a device to spur me onwards, and more than once I was forced to read far longer into the night than I ought.
The Lies of Locke Lamora begins with a flashback - if that's not an oxymoron! A young ragamuffin boy is marched to the steps of a temple and we witness a conversation concerning him conducted by two grown ups. One is a blind priest, the other a Fagin-like thief lord, the boss of a band of waifs and strays who, under his rough tutelage, learn the arts required to lighten the pockets of Camorr society. The substance of their chat is the sale of the boy, from one party to the other - the thief lord has found this child a little too adept, too pro-active in his field, so much so that if the blind priest won't take him, the boy must be "disposed of". The deal is stuck, and we soon learn that the blind priest to whom the boy now belongs is neither sightless nor pious. He is instead, the leader of a gang of thieves, but unlike the dirty faced urchins trained up by the thief-lord, the blind priest's gang are a select band - young Locke Lamora, for that is the boys name, has just become a "Gentleman Bastard".
This prologue gives us an excellent introduction for what is to come, for it reveals that the novel's internal legends are not mere hearsay. When the story proper starts in media res, we encounter a grown up Locke Lamora, now leader of the Gentlemen Bastards, orchestrating his small band of brothers through a sting operation many months in the planning. The 'Thorn of Camorr', a title conferred on Locke by reputation, is at work and that young and precocious boy thief has grown into a suave, daring and highly talented confidence trickster. Locke and his four colleagues are blue collar criminals, artisan grifters who look to rake in maximum yield and they do so time and again. Their methods are meticulously studied and rehearsed (for reasons we learn of in other flashback sequences) and their matchless audacity and swaggering style is a joy to follow.
Lynch builds into his story a wholly believable society in his depiction of Camorr, a vibrant and spectacular place with endless fascinating corners worthy of exploration. Of particular relevance is the city's dark underbelly, the criminal classes of which Locke and the Gentleman Bastards are an integral part. There are, we learn, many such gangs, each with their own recognisable traits. Each and every one of these thief bands however, is answerable to Capa Barsavi - a kind of 'Tony Soprano' character - the boss who runs the city. This superb mafia style concept is further polished by Lynch tying the criminal classes to the political and ruling classes of Camorr. There exists a "Secret Peace" between the gangs and the authorities, one that has existed for many years and one that, as long as certain rules are observed, allows Camorr society to function. Some traders or aristocrats are therefore off limits to the gangs and as long as this remains so, the gangs may plunder elsewhere without too much interference from the authorities.
It's a great idea this, not least because Lynch has his charming rogue of a leading man breaking all these rules left, right and centre and (for the most part) getting away with it. Thus Locke faces danger from both sides of the fence - neither of which are people to be messed with. And this brings me on to one of the most exceptional qualities of Lynch's novel. The events that transpire in The Lies of Locke Lamora are no easy ride for our hero. For all his charm and likability, Lynch has his man constantly jumping through hoops - hoops that are on fire, and have spikes all over them, and are suspended over lakes full of alligators. In a way this again denotes a traditional approach by Lynch but one he utterly refreshed by his lightness of touch. A traditional story construction sees a character setting about solving a series of problems set by circumstances. Once he's solved the last one, that's the end of the story - simple, effective and entertaining. Well yes, but the secret of success when using this construction is to continually be raising the stakes and Scott Lynch is staggeringly imaginative with the problems he presents his characters – and most of these problems come in the form of The Grey King.
Out of nowhere, this mysterious character materialises and threatens the Secret Peace in a big, big way. The Grey King is a man made from whispers, and only such an insubstantial figure could penetrate the security that surrounds Capa Barvasi. But this the Grey King does and with a cruelty and flair for the sadistically dramatic that is truly chilling. This is one major bad guy - insane, imaginative and seemingly untouchable, and of course, he ropes our charming hero into his fiendish plot to destroy Barvasi and all he stands for.
So - there is, as you might imagine, a lot going on here and Lynch shows extraordinary talent in they way he ties it all together. Part of this comes from the steady handed and unwavering patience he displays in setting it all up, but the major success of the novel shows in the way the writing mirrors the qualities of the protagonist. Like Locke Lamora himself, Scott Lynch's novel oozes charm, ability, guile, flair, courage, cheek, humour, brevity and bravery in equal measure. It's an awesome debut, powerful and dangerous, romantic and relentless and it absolutely lives up to the hype. The Lies of Locke Lamora is a novel you'll have to work very hard not to be utterly blown away by.
Very highly recommended.