Wednesday, 14 November 2007
Wardog actually likes something - possibly because she didn't have to pay for it.
Father Chains sat on the roof of the House of Perelandro, staring down at the astonishingly arrogant fourteen-year-old that he little orphan he'd purchased so many years before from the Thiefmaker of Shades' Hill had become.
"Some day, Locke Lamora," he said, "some day, 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."
The Lies of Locke Lamora is basically a fantasy-heist novel, but it's also a pleasant breeze through a stale genre (yes, I'm bitter), shorter than the typical eighty million pages and a surprisingly assured and competent debut. I picked it up in Hay on Wye for a sum so ludicrously trifling (a mere one of my English pounds) that it almost felt as if Scott Lynch had come up to me in the street and asked me nicely to read his novel, the consequence of which is that my critical objectivity is shot to buggery but I think I'd still be recommending this if I'd forked out the
Locke Lamora - otherwise known as the Thorn of Camorr - is the leader of a tightly knit group of conmen-thieves known as the Gentleman Bastards. As the novel kicks off, they are in the process of scamming a couple of aristocrats out of a portion of their fortune, coincidentally violating the long-standing Secret Peace that has been negotiated between the criminal underworld and the upper echelons of society. Meanwhile a mysterious personage known as the Grey King is preying upon the thieves of Camorr and forces Locke to participate in his personal vendetta against the city's crimelord Capa Barsavi. Needless to say, events soon spiral massively out of Locke's control and he finds himself caught up in something that threatens not only the people he cares for but the entire stability of the city. The first third of the book is a rompish heist, complete with all the usual twists and turns, but then it twists on its axis becoming a much darker and more serious story, although it never loses the edge of gallows-humour that makes it such a pleasure to read.
The Lies of Locke Lamora is a truly a rootless, bastard child of the genre: there's a fair mixing of Feist, Gavriel Kay, Brust, Miville, Pratchett and Dickens to be found within, to say nothing of the more than passing nods to movies like The Godfather, The Sting, Oceans 11, Scar Face and Goodfellas. It's not flawless, but it's still damn good: a fast-paced, page-turning adventure story set in a complex and intriguing world that doesn't drown you in detail (although I expect the author will soon forget this and commence the deluge). Camorr provides an excellent backdrop for Lamora's exploits: an island city built of Elderglass by a race nobody remembers, it seems to be inspired by 16th century Venice, with all the attendant squalor and decadence. There's definitely world-building going on but its of the subtle kind that successfully creates the impression of a living and very real city without racking up a page count hefty enough to kill a walrus (*cough* Miville *cough*). Lynch's imagination encompasses both beauty and brutality, dancing easily from the banal to the opulent, from frivolity to genuine threat. One of my favourite chapters introduces the fencing master, Don Maranzella in his House of Glass Roses:
"Here was an entire rose garden, wall after all, of perfect petals and stems and thorns, silent and scentless and alive with reflected fire, for it was all carved from Elderglass, a hundred thousand blossoms, perfect down to the tiniest thorn ... ... each wall of roses was actually transparent .... Yet there were patches of genuine colour here and there in the hearts of the sculptures, swirled masses of reddish-brown transulence like clouds of rust-coloured smoke frozen in ice.
These clouds were human blood.
I can forgive Lynch for lingering in his fairytale garden of blood-thirsty roses and his farmer-turned-fencing master is a wonderful antidote to all those artistic gentlemanly types with their flourishing rapiers. This chapter seems to illustrate Lynch at his very best - the strange, sculpted roses and the introduction of the fencing master, the shift from pretension to pragmatism, from description to dialogue, from fantastical lyricism to dark humour and the sudden stripped-down truth about what Jean Tannen has really come to learn:
"Jean, you misunderstand." Maranzella kicked idly at the toy rapier and it clattered across the tiles of the roof top. "Those prancing little pants-wetters come here to learn the colourful and gentlemanly art of fencing, with its many sporting limitations and its proscriptions against dishonourable engagements. You, on the other hand," he said, as he turned to give Jean a firm but friendly poke in the centre of his forehead, "you are going to learn how to kill men with a sword."
The book itself is interestingly structured - it reminds me rather of Heroes, in fact. It consists of a succession of short chapters building to a mini-climax, followed by a brief interlude, either a tale of the City and its Gods, or a flashback to the early years and training of Locke and his gang. This actually works really well. The interludes are generally absorbing enough that, even though I was eager to find out what was going to happen next, I didn't skip them or resent reading them ... at least not very much. Furthermore, most of the interludes, although not precisely relevant, often offer an illumination on future events, thus rewarding the alert reader. And it does solve the perennial fantasy book problem of how to introduce the hero to the reader and show his gradual development from child to adult without spending the first five hundred pages of the novel narrating every little moment of the hero's childhood in agonisingly tedious detail. Part of me, however, couldn't quite shake the conviction that it was a cheap trick. It's a very obvious way to build tension and create anxiety and uncertainty in the reader and occasionally interferes with the pacing at critical moments.
Lynch's is a self-consciously "dark" world; there's an awful lot of swearing and torture, and the central characters are, of course, thieves and murderers. But since we only ever see them stealing from the rich and murdering those who thoroughly deserve it and their loyalty to each other is unswerving, there's never really any question of their being admirable characters deep down. This is not a problem per se; but the book is about as morally ambiguous as my Grandmother:
"I only steal because my dear old family needs the money to live!"
Locke Lamora made this proclamation with his wine glass held high ... ... the others began to jeer.
"Liar!" they chorused
"I only steal because this wicked world won't let me work an honest trade!" Calo cried, hoisting his own glass.
"I only steal," said Jean, "because I've temporarily fallen in with bad company."
At last the ritual came to Bug; the boy raised his glass a bit shakily and yelled, "I only steal because it's heaps of fucking fun!"
Stealing may be wrong but it's also big and clever and all the cool kids are doing it. The exuberance and loyalty of the Gentleman Bastards is charming and it's impossible not to root for them. On the other hand, I am conscious of a vague dissatisfaction with Locke. The book is careful to assert that he is skinny and unremarkable and a poor fighter but he is also a consummate conman with incredible reserves of tenacity and courage, he is cunning, daring and quick-thinking, and there is no sacrifice he will not consider to preserve the safety of his friends and loved ones. He can be ruthless when necessary, he has the survival instincts of a rat, he's reckless occasionally but only in a way we're meant to think is cool and, on top of all this, he has a conscience and listens to it. Needless to say his origins are shrouded in mystery (I'm sure this will be Very Important later) and his creator is head over heels in love with him. I came dangerously close to finding the character annoying and if Lynch isn't careful he's going to be unbearable a couple of books down the line.
Speaking of the dreaded "couple of books down the line" The Lies of Locke Lamora does a reasonable job of offering a coherent and contained plot arc, but there are several dangling threads (the most irritating of which is Locke's love interest, a woman occasionally mentioned but never introduced) presumably left there to wet the appetite for future books. The mighty internet tells me there will be seven of these, which triggers all my cringe mechanisms. This cannot end well. Has nobody learned anything from JK Rowling?
The second book of the septad, Red Seas Under Red Skies, has recently been released - having enjoyed the first book has much as I did, I'm now terrified to read the second in case it sucks. I guess I'll have to wait until it's available for 1 again. But, in the meantime, you could do worse than taking a look at The Lies of Locke Lamora. It's not perfect - Mary Sue-ish main character, a plot necessitated, damn near omnipotent bondsmage - and I understand it has received some criticism for its modern-sounding speech but, quite frankly, I found that contributed to the lively, irreverent tone of the book. But it is a fun, fast-paced read in a ponderous genre and I thoroughly enjoyed it.
PS - This is really childish (and has nothing to do with the review at all) but I think I also need to point out that Scott Lynch looks like this --->: