Scott Lynch’s The Lies of Locke Lamora

Raise your hand if you remember Livejournal. 

Now raise your hand if you still use it. 

Stop it. Don’t look at me like that. I like old, forgotten, visually uncomplicated things. It was on Livejournal that I found myself, one evening, writing up a review of the first book in Scott’s projected seven-book sequence, The Gentleman Bastards series. As is well known, it’s not uncommon for book lovers to dabble sometimes in the art of the book review. This was my attempt at giving it a go.  

Being the first book in the Gentleman Bastards series.

The Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch (Go read it. Now.)

Recently, writer Charles Stross presented the following musing:

“[H]igh fantasy seems to be remarkably po-faced; not that the protagonists aren’t allowed to demonstrate their own senses of humour in the interests of character development, but it seems to me that the worlds of high fantasy generally lack the kind of whimsical contingency that infuses reality. They take themselves seriously.”[1]

It is hoped that upon publication Mr.Stross will be have someone in fair England hand him a copy of Lynch’s novel, and declare that he ought to do little else for several days but read, and wonder that a heroic fantasy novel with a distinct sense of levity might actually find itself in existence.

At a brief glance, one might glean immediate influences ranging from Fritz Leiber’s Lankhmar books and Mieville’s New Crobuzon novels, to George R.R. Martin’s Westeros, and most immediately – the work of Matthew Woodring Stover (and perhaps a bit of Giacomo Casanova’s Histoire de Ma Vie). His own livejournal remarks upon a possibly ill-fated (and psychologically scarring) five year plan: “To own one copy of, and have read, each and every single novel that has ever won a Hugo, Nebula, Philip K.Dick, World Fantasy, Arthur C. Clarke, or Stoker Award by the end of five years from the commencement of this exercise in March 2002.”[2] Yet this is not so much a matter of influence as an awareness of the tradition within which Lynch is immersed.

What this reviewer is suggesting to those reading, in so many words is that this is not a thoughtless, forgettable novel. It may certainly, like any work of fiction, have flaws and short-comings, and may not appeal to all audiences (for it is a philosophically unstable truism that suggests all great artwork can be accepted as such to all humans). Yet try it does, with mad, passionate, energetic glee, doe-eyes and all.

The Lies of Locke Lamora is like a great rock and roll novel, trying its damnedest to grab readers by the shoulders, throwing them into a seat, and asking that they enjoy the show, before setting off a 600 page light-show of violence, action, characterisation, dense plotting, astute verbal word-play, deft (and frequently funny) metaphors, and yet never eschewing a sense of humour.

So here we have him, Locke Lamora, a character that likely would not have felt out of place in a Dickens novel, a former street-urchin who has a precious gift for theft, theatrics, and gab. There is wit aplenty to go about. In his company is the not-so-lardaceous Jean Tannen, and their fellow Gentleman Bastards (a group of highly trained thieves who steal exclusively from the rich and keep it all for themselves), Calo, Galo, and Bug. But the money isn’t the point (‘The stealing was more the point for us than the keeping.’). The novel is not content to mark the Gentlemen Bastards as any kind of simple thieves; rather, it almost becomes a meditation on the art of theft, which may (or may not) leave some readers feeling uncomfortable – for how can one sympathise with a thief?

And in the city of Camorr, the stage is set for a conflagration of forces in the city-state of Camorr, between its Duke, the Capa, Locke Lamora and the Grey King. This statement tells the reader nothing about the nature of the novel, for it could easily be cited from the back-cover of the uncorrected book-proof upon which this review is based. And truly, for the duration of the novel, it may very well be a stage – albeit, a highly decorated one, with many metaphors focusing on the theme of reflection and [the fluidity of] identity. But don’t take that as the sole decorations present within Lynch’s novel.

And here we enter the Land of Weirdness

Here it lays, Camorr, once part of the Therin Throne empire, now an independent city-state, alongside other cities such as ‘Karthain and Lashain, Nessek and talisham, Espara and Ashmere, Iridain…Balinel and Issara…’ – it is a world that Lynch will seemingly be exploring throughout the Gentleman Bastard sequence. But returning to Camorr:

“I didn’t want to be quite as deliberately anachronistic as Matt Stover, nor as gleefully squalid as China Mieville– I wanted a place that would be exotic and beautiful even while being dirty and dangerous, as I imagine Babylon, Venice, Constantinople and old New York once were. A fantastic place to visit, a questionable place to live– an Ian Fleming thriller setting for a fantasy milieu.”[3] Thus Camorr: a city-state on the Iron Sea; with the Angevine River flowing through the city, feeding its canals, reminiscent of Venice, yet at once distinctly different, and much stranger, exotic, and far weirder. Camorr: Built from Elderglass, by a race of beings (the Eldren) long since vanished.

And so here the adventures of the Gentlemen Bastards begin, whose thieving plots are a kind of theatrical performance, an art, with a great many preparations, contingency plans, and acute observations at the root of every scheme. Of curious fascination to this reader was the interesting line straddled by Lynch between Hobbesian cruelty and nigh-absurdist amusement at the malleability of human nature. Book I – ‘Ambition’ – begins with a quote from Henry VI, Part III:

‘Why, I can smile, and murder whiles I smile,

And cry ‘Content’ to that which grieves my heart,

And wet my cheeks with artificial tears,

And frame my face to all occasions.’

We are prepared for the malevolence that life may thrust upon us, and given insight into the many factors upon which human behaviour is contingent; people can be bribed, others can be conned with stunning ease, willing to submit readily to the [imagined] perils of authority (‘It was strange how readily authority could be conjured from nothing but a bit of strutting jackassery.’). All this is then used to accentuate the principle protagonist of the story, one Locke Lamora, Thief of Camorr, and Gentleman Bastard Extraordinaire.

We find Locke and the Gentlemen Bastards in the midst of plotting an outrageous scheme involving the Don Lorenzo Salvara and his wife, Dona Sofia Salvara, the fake identity of Lukas Fehrwight, a wine vineyard, and a broiling Civil War. Lynch goes to great length to make what is otherwise a quite simple plot seem frightfully complex – an injection of personalisation that adds intensity and immediacy to the story at hand, and further involving the reader’s sympathies and interest. It’s not just a matter of wondering how it’s all going to end; we want to see our heroes walk away alive.

But all this is a prelude to the chaos that visits itself upon Camorr when the Grey King arrives to wreak havoc and vengeance upon the city, to both its rulers and citizens alike.

The pleasure for readers takes its shape in the series of complications it brings down upon the Gentlemen Bastards. And though ultimately, even if the antagonist may be little else than a trademark psycho with delusions of grandeur, readers may be left in awe of his penchant for weaving elaborate – and violent – plans.

To speak on the violence – this is the kind of novel that one does not refrain from exhibiting a wide range of depravity and violence: gang-wars, executions, the removal of tongues, stabbings, and, most horrifically, drowning in horse-piss. Taken in the context of the history of torture, whose books are filled with devices such as the heretic’s fork, maiming stork, Falaride’s Bull and the Oral, Rectal or Vaginal Pear, the depravities visited upon characters in TLOLL are really quite tame by comparison. And yet this same infliction of pain is what comes to unexpectedly serve the story; the endless emotional and physical tribulations bring with them immense pay-offs for the reader. Not unlike Caine, in Matthew Woodring Stover’s Heroes Die, Lynch pushes his protagonists to extreme thresholds, thus offering readers insights into both the psychological and physical limits of his cast of invented characters. This also rewards the reader who has invested his/her interests in the survival of the protagonists.

That is not the only way Lynch captures the readers’ attention. Because he values an absorbing reading-experience, he invokes the power of the cliff-hanger, which in his own words, he declared to be “a damn fine technique to keep in a writerly “toolbox.” It’s a killer app for the only truly important commandment of writin’… Thou Shalt Not Bore the Reader, Not at All, Not Ever.” Certainly, the novel never does seem to slow, bore, or otherwise sit upon its laurels. Chapters contain numbered sub-sections, a narrative device that can be used to break major changes of time, place and/or theme. And even shift, jump or switch is never contains scenes that telegraph the plot, be it through dialogue or authorial transmission. And there is of course some mystery, which – even up to the very end – is infused into some of the proceedings of the plot. Thou Shalt Not Bore the Reader, Not at All, Not Ever.

“A map… why does every fantasy have to start with a map?”

As a contemporary fantasy novel, there are certain tropes which are usually expected from a fantasy novel. And Lynch abandons them with gleeful, reckless joy. For one, this isn’t a pseudo-medieval world. In some circles, it has become something of a hobby to deride such settings, in part because this is somehow cribbing from Tolkien (a point that must leave George R.R. Martin feeling quite put out), or being – in the words of UK fantasist China Mieville – “badly written, clichéd and obsessed with backwards-looking dreams of the past – feudal daydreams of Good Kings and Fair Maidens.” Lynch’s novel breaks with this – one of the sub-strands of tradition that has plagued fantasy novels for the previous thirty or so odd years – and eschews a medieval landscape in favour of a more Post-Renaissance era of society, whose denizens rely on the use of knives and rapiers, rather than bastard-swords or long-swords.

Thankfully, the dialogue does not make any pretence of being particular to any specific century of actual European history. Instead, what is presented sounds more like someone swept up the blackest, most foul, block-thy-children’s-ears contemporary language, and spat it onto the pages of Lynch’s novel (‘I’ll kill both you shitsuckers,” huffed Ferenz, ‘drop you both off this fucking – ’). Going above and beyond the call of duty, Lynch doesn’t just make his characters talk like people who have clearly would not belong in a Jane Austen novel; they’ve also their own jargon. On this, he has made the following statement: “I made a conscious decision not to tart up any of my dialogue with “dialect” cuteness (“Oy, it warsh a narsty rum’ tosh, guv, bort I gort a noice shoiny penny out’er it!”); I’ve found that the trouble with creating fantasy slang/dialect is that it ultimately tends toward a state of Charles Dickens on crack.”

Lynch’s attention to language, though more than just a means of explaining the plot, does have its occasional moments of awkwardness. Certain metaphors or images are rather awkwardly stated, or make little sense (‘a mountain of red and white flame reaching up from water that rippled like a red mirror beneath the dying ship’s hull’). But this is a minor foible for what hardly ever interrupts the flow of the text, and is ultimately a minor issue.

But let us return to the criminals, for they are a fascinating lot to discuss. As the novel focuses on the less-than-savoury types, an entire diction of slang was invented. The basis for this was: “[N]o criminal subculture in history has ever pranced around openly saying things like “Last night the boys and I murdered someone, stole the contents of his pockets, and conveyed them to a purchaser of ill-gotten gains.” Slang evolved to prevent the uninitiated from comprehending the true nature of an overheard conversation, and became a powerful assurance of subcultural security and solidarity. Someone who doesn’t know the right words, or use or pronounce them properly, will have great difficulty infiltrating a criminal subculture.”[4] The Lies of Locke Lamora revels in its dialogue; entire passages deserve to be read, and then re-read, for the sheer, simple joy of the written word, for the acute sense of timing imbued in the novel. It is the stuff that humans ought to quote among themselves.

‘Creeping shits, man,’ Locke Lamora stuck out his tongue. ‘Must you do that? You know the black alchemists make fish poison from the seeds of those damn things.’

‘Lucky me,’ said Jean after swallowing the last bit of masticated pulp, ‘not being a fish.’

This is not the language of educated academics (at least not the sober kind), but of people who have spent their life living at the bottom of a social ladder where refined manners are not the order of the day. The world depicted here is not that of Georgian society, but an amalgam of 15th to 18th century Europe, and the Gentlemen Bastards are men (and women) who have been clawing their way towards a meaningful existence. And that is reflected in their manner of speaking.

The Echoing Cicada of Literature

Dickens may be one of the keys to fully understanding Lynch’s novel – his presence seems to linger somewhere beyond the pages of the novel, a distant voice. From the author’s preface to the third edition (1841) of Oliver Twist:

“I confess I have yet to learn that a lesson of the purest good may not be drawn from the vilest evil. I have always believed this to be a recognised and established truth, laid down by the greatest men the world has ever seen, constantly acted upon by the best and wisest natures, and confirmed by the reason and experience of every thinking mind. I saw no reason, when I wrote this book, why the very dregs of life, so long as their speech did not offend the ear, should not serve the purpose of a moral, at least as well as its froth and cream. Nor did I doubt that there lay festering in Saint Giles’s as good materials towards the truth as any flaunting in Saint James’s.”[5]

The characters here are not idealised tropes or stereotypes; the novel spends a more than adequate amount of time delving into the details of each character, and as Lynch is writing a sequence of novels, we will no doubt be treated to characters that shift, change, and grow throughout the course of the series. This is but the first book, one that spends an inordinate amount of pages attempting to develop the primary characters, enough that when pushed to the limit, their reactions to the situations they’re put in make perfectly logical sense to the reader. On this, Lynch offers the following thought:

“If someone is foolish enough to buy his story from me, I hope it’ll be successful enough to allow a continuation of the sequence– to explore what happens later in his life, to see the germination of his curious notions, to see what happens when he finds a place and a cause and a group of people worth fighting for, when he becomes an idealist rather than a thief, a spymaster rather than a con artist. I can write this first novel in the sure and certain knowledge of his eventual transformation– his eventual maturation and acceptance of adult responsibilities. But the reader will need affirmation in the here-and-now that Locke deserves to be called a “hero” rather than a simple protagonist.”[6]

It’s a grandiose promise, perhaps. Yet The Lies of Locke Lamora has not failed to present evidence that would suggest that not only is Lynch serious, but he’s also quite capable of achieving his goals. Locke Lamora has and the Gentlemen Bastards have only begun their adventures. 

This is a great first novel. It has its rough bumps, its flaws, but it is never boring. The prose is delightful and utterly quotable, the landscape unique and interesting, and the characters that populate the novel are foul, self-serving types, whose goals and loyalties are entirely self-serving and may shift with the drop of a coin.

Review Written by Ilya Popov

06 February, 2006