Sunday 6 January 2008

Book review: The Lies of Locke Lamora

The Lies of Locke Lamora
By Scott Lynch
(Gollancz 2006)

I hear what you are saying, and yes The Lies of Locke Lamora was indeed published way back in 2006. So why have I chosen it to be the first book review for Speculative Horizons? Simple - I rate it as the best fantasy novels of recent years. The fact that it was author Scott Lynch’s debut novel is all the more impressive.

What is immediately striking about the novel is that it goes against the most familiar tropes that have dominated the fantasy genre in recent years. There is no epic quest, no magic weapons, no stereotypical ‘Dark Lord’, no epic battles or elderly wizard mentor that appears at crucial moments in the plot. And Lies is all the better for it.

What we have instead is a highly entertaining story about an enterprising young thief/conman by the name of Locke Lamora and his close-knit band of thieves: the Gentlemen Bastards. Set in the colourful city of Camorr, we follow the Bastards as they undertake an audacious con to cheat a wealthy noble out of a large chunk of his fortune. Unfortunately for them and the rest of Camorr’s criminal underworld, a shady figure going by the name of the Grey King has a plan for the city, a plan with horrific consequences…and Locke Lamora soon realises that he is a pawn in the Grey King’s dark scheme. Lamora however refuses to be used in such a manner, and what follows is a riveting plot that twists and turns, as the Gentlemen Bastards desperately try to save both their city and their own skins.

Lynch has created a host of memorable characters, but one of the true stars of the story is the city of Camorr itself: an exotic, bustling metropolis partly resembling Renaissance Venice. Lynch has clearly spent a lot of time developing the city and it reaps rewards. As we learn more of the glittering Eldren towers, the smoke-stained slums, the splendour of the Shifting Revel and the other various islands and waterways, the city of Camorr comes to life as a living, breathing entity that just oozes atmosphere. The Shifting Revel in particular with its gruesome gladiatorial games involving deadly sea creatures is one aspect of the city that sticks long in the memory. Lynch adds other nice touches to his world as well, such as alchemy and its many uses.

Inspired world-building however is little use without interesting characters to drive the story. Yet Lynch manages to deliver here also, creating a large and intriguing cast. Locke Lamora is an entertaining main character, however he is more amusing and engaging in the ’interludes’ in which we witness the antics of his earlier years. Still, Locke - despite being a thief - proves he has real heart and values, and Lynch proves a dab hand at characterisation as the other main players are revealed: the intimidating, caustic Falconer, the amiable Father Chains and the big-hearted Jean Tannen are just some of the absorbing figures that play a prominent role in the story. Refreshingly, even the characters that appear only briefly are fleshed out well, such as Meraggio.

Lynch’s writing style is just as pleasing as his world and characters. He manages to create settings and atmosphere without too much exposition, and his breezy, witty style makes for some highly amusing dialogue. Yet this isn’t by any means a light-hearted caper - Lynch supplements the humour with intense doses of gritty realism which at times give the novel a harder edge. Still, the entertainment factor never wanes as the plot races along, twisting and turning until exploding in a frenetic finale. The odd moment of respite is provided by the interludes as mentioned earlier, which jump back to the past to develop the backgrounds of Locke and Jean. These are a success, adding depth without causing the plot to stutter. The interludes that focus on other subjects, such as detailing how the Meraggio family built up their fortune, are less successful in the sense that they serve little purpose and probably could have been excluded.

Other faults are few and far between. Some readers might find the often ‘colourful’ language excessive, while it could be argued that some elements of the plot border on being unrealistic. For example, Locke (who has only an average constitution) at one point takes a heck of a lot of punishment and yet seems to recover remarkably quickly.

Still, the one or two minor criticisms do not stop The Lies of Locke Lamora from being a joy to read. Fresh, exciting and unbelievably absorbing, it is quite simply a stunning novel. It might not be a novel with moralistic overtones, or with deep themes that make the reader think, but it certainly is a hell of a lot of fun.



Alex D M said...

I seem to be one of the few people who didn't find this book worth raving about. I appreciated it on a technical level (I could see the tropes that Lynch was evading, and he did well at that, for the most part) but I never really connected to it. I only cared about two characters, one who died early in the novel (in the interest of avoiding spoilers, it's the first character who ends up in a barrel); the other is the Don's wife, who didn't get nearly enough page time. I liked Locke as a child but he became a pretty boring adult. If he'd died, I wouldn't really have cared.

(And there was the retarded part, straight out of Austin Powers: [SPOILER] 'Oh, let's kick my enemy down a hole and assume he'll die, without actually checking, or keeping him in my sight long enough to assume he's dead for good.' And of course Locke is kicked down to where his buddies are waiting to save him. [END SPOILER])

I mostly enjoyed it, despite my problems with it. It was good fun. I just didn't finish it with the feeling of 'Oh, wow, I didn't know a writer could do that!' that I've had from other books.

James said...

Cheers for stopping by Alankria! I agree with your points. For me however, they couldn't spoil what I think is a hugely entertaining story.