The Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch
People have been recommending this one to me for years, and I’m glad I finally took the plunge. The Lies of Locke Lamora is the first in the (planned) seven book Gentlemen Bastard Sequence, although it stands very well on its own, refreshingly free of ominous foreshadowing about a crisis which threatens the world. Instead we get a gritty, relatively low stakes tale of manipulation and violence, with a liberal splash of dark comedy thrown in for good measure.
Locke Lamora is the head of the Gentlemen Bastards, a small group of thieves operating in the ancient city of Camorr. The criminal underground of Camorr is ruled by Capa Barsavi, a crime leader who has managed to secure the ‘Secret Peace’; control of the lower areas of the city under the condition that no gangs under his command will rob the nobility. Whilst appearing to be an astute and cautious gang, the Gentlemen Bastards are in fact incredibly ambitious con-men, robbing the nobility and amassing a hidden mass of gold from both the legal authorities and Capa Barsavi. Barsavi’s lengthy reign is under challenge however; a mysterious figure calling himself the ‘Grey King’ has come to Camorra seeking to undermine Barsavi, and Locke, the fabled ‘Thorn of Camorr’ is caught up in the middle of a dangerous contest. At the same time, flashbacks tell the story of how Locke trained as a thief under the tutelage of Father Chains, a con artist who masquerades as a blind priest.
I’m a complete sucker for stories about clever people manipulating clever people, especially if the person being manipulated is also clever and then starts manipulating the person who thinks they are manipulating them but actually the original manipulator is in control all along. Or something. Any character pulling off a masterstroke, be it hero or villain, is guaranteed to give me a frisson and a big ‘ol grin, and The Lies of Locke Lamora probably contains a more of these moments per page total I’ve ever come across. I enjoyed it. It’s fantasy, and there is magic, but it’s completely remote from the protagonists, and not really too much of a factor in most people’s lives. I also really liked the lack of sequel baiting, of hints to a broader conflict, instead opting to tell a self-contained story, whilst still leaving seeds for follow ups. Perhaps a wider narrative will emerge later on, but Lynch ensures that we care about his characters and this world before he begins shaking it’s foundations, taking a similar approach to Patrick Rothfuss. The Lies of Locke Lamora is compelling stuff, and builds towards a really exciting climax. There’s a streak of humour through the whole thing, which is always welcome and Lynch’s writing feels organic and natural. This really is very impressive stuff for a first novel, with Lynch showing a real knack for action scenes and dialogue.
Camorr is where almost the entire book is set, and it’s quite an atmospheric and well developed locale. I mean, it’s basically Venice with weird non-human artefacts hanging around, but anything that differs from your standard Medieval England/Roman fantasy settings is fine with me. I’d probably have been more into it if I hadn’t recently also read Joe Abercrombie’s Best Served Cold, which is set in the similarly Italian inspired land of Styria. If I’d read Lynch first I’d probably have enjoyed the setting more. There are hints at some intriguing broader stuff in the setting, but it’s clear that sprawling world building isn’t Lynch’s priority, instead focusing to have one setting down perfectly. That’s fine, not everything needs to be The Malazan Book of the Fallen, and it’s clear that Lynch is an admirably focused writer.
Locke is a fairly inscrutable protagonist, with plenty of mystery still surrounding him even as the book ends. Similarly to Kvothe in the Kingkiller Chronicles, I suspect that Locke himself will be the central mystery of the series, something which sounds good to me! The supporting cast are good, particularly the surprisingly decent con artist Father Chains and Locke’s pugnacious yet oddly gentle best friend Jean Tannen. The best characters are the villains though, although I can’t really explain why without giving much away. As with the rest of the novel, the cast is tight, no larger than it needs to be, lacking the bloat that is so common in fantasy.
The Lies of Locke Lamora is a really fun book, and one which stands admirably on its own. It obviously is fantasy, but it didn’t read like fantasy, and whilst it’s very dark, it’s also not too…er, grimdark. This is a book not just for fantasy fans, but anyone who enjoys a story about con artists.