The Lies of Locke Lamora
by Scott Lynch
I should have loved this book: I like fantasy, particularly with intrigue and action (I would love the Song of Ice and Fire, except I’ll NEVER FORGIVE GEORGE R. R. MARTIN); I like caper stories; I am passionate about pirates – which is what drew me to this book, which definitely has a swashbuckling feel to it. The premise is really great: a thief takes in a group of orphans, and sets about making them into the first (and greatest) gang of long-con confidence men this town has ever seen; he intends to unleash them on the nobility, and see just how much they can steal. Move forward twenty years and the plan has succeeded: these thieves are the most successful in a city full of thieves, with a hidden vault full of a vast fortune. But then there is an upheaval in the underworld: a new challenger has arisen to take on the King of Thieves – and he is a threat to our heroes, as well. And not to spoil anything, but this is a revenge fantasy to make Hamlet an envious shade of green.
The setting is good: the city is an independent duchy in a crumbling empire, independent, sprawling, and wealthy; there is a vast divide between the rich and the poor, with the poor living in crowded, squalid slums while the rich dwell in ancient and mystical towers built by a race long gone. There is magic, but it is not common; there are many gods, but prayers and sacrifices to them are traditional rather than earnest. A few tweaks and this could be Venice or Algiers, New Orleans or Hong Kong. It works well for the storyline.
The concept of the characters is great: the gang of con-men are splendid black-sheep heroes; the kingpin of crime is the perfect blend of honorable man and savage; the nobles depicted are both cruel and arrogant, but also with surprising depth, shown to have as much humanity as the poor they oppress.
I should have loved this book.
But I didn’t love this book.
The problem is one that I seem to be encountering more and more these days, either because I’m getting bitter and pretentious as I age, or because books really are getting crappier: the writing just isn’t that good. The first problem with this particular book is that it’s about 200-300 pages too long: a caper story should move quickly, even one that starts with this much backstory; but this one does not. Lynch chose to sprinkle the flashbacks in between chapters, and it was a mistake; it just slows everything down, and it became annoying to get to the end of an exciting chapter, often with a cliffhanger, and have to flash back fifteen years to a training montage. And while the exploration of the thief-training was well done, the characters themselves are given only the vaguest motivation: the lead, Locke Lamora, for instance; we know he’s an orphan who becomes a thief, and quickly proves himself the most audacious thief ever. Why? What makes him this way? No clue. He just is. I’d say it’s in his blood, but we have no idea what his blood is – because orphan. Now, there are sequels, and maybe this will be a grand reveal; but for this book, it was annoying.
There’s more: the action was well-described in slow motion, but the larger scenes of combat and riot were not; overall, there is a feel of missing the forest for the trees, a poverty of grandiosity that ruins the crumbling glory of the old empire feel of the piece. If I may be forgiven some fantasy name-dropping, Lynch should have read more Michael Moorcock: a good chunk of Melnibone would have helped a lot. That combat had the nice realistic touch of pain for everyone: nobody gets out of a fight unscathed, even the ones who are good at fighting, and I like the way Lynch did that – but at the same time, he then has his characters heal real quick so they can get on to the next scene, and so in the end, the bloodshed becomes as unrealistic as an unblooded victor would have been. And though this doesn’t normally bother me, there was a whole lot of gratuitous profanity in this book. I believe in the timely use of the F-word; there’s no better way to express certain emotions. But when you use it too much, it loses that power – by the end of Scarface, you don’t even notice it any more. Same thing here. And in a writer,especially a fantasy writer who has a free hand with inventing language, it just shows a lack of imagination.
I would love to read this book if Jim Butcher or Robert Jordan had written it. But as it stands, this one is only middling good. Not worth recommending.