I’ve been repackaging some of my older writing and combining them and today I have my reviews of both The Lies of Locke Lamora and Red Seas Under Red Skies, the first two books by Scott Lynch and in the Gentlemen Bastards series. You can check out my thoughts on Lynch’s third book The Republic of Thieves as well if you want to.
Before you get to the reviews though I do want to add some thoughts that may or may not be of interest but The Lies of Locke Lamora was the first new novel I sniffed out during my days of owning a science fiction/fantasy book related website.
At the time I had several interviews under my belt and an abnormal amount of my guests were telling me off wax about this Scott Lynch manuscript/advance copy going around and how much they liked it.
I immediately acquired it from both the UK and U.S. publishers and I remember spending a couple days reading it on my balcony before going to the beaches in Sardinia every morning, the first thing I did after going to a local cafe and collecting what I need to make my own ice coffee. I LOVED it and I actually love Red Seas Under Red Skies even more. At the time I also had a personal blog to go along with our site, called the Bodhisattva, and I remember being under embargo but I just had to spout off a single line: “Love for Locke Lamora”, which Scott Lynch responded to and I ended up setting up an interview with him.
I immediately became the guy spouting off on the net about how awesome this book was and I remember being (this is funny now) somewhat personally offended when Strange Horizons published a very lukewarm review questioning how people could like it, which is, whether they knew it or not, kind of their brand, though I should say I appreciated them – I off and on interacted with Niall -and many people we found for our site (Matt Denault and Victoria Hoyle) went on to write glorious reviews for them that I loved. Matt is low key one of the great SF/F book reviewers. Review for review that dude was a beast. At any rate if you follow the link to my Republic of Thieves review above you’ll see a cool inscription I got from Scott, and while I’m a person who probably values autographs less than anyone (I’m kind of a psycho about it to tbh), I’ve always kept that copy.
Anyway, on to the reviews:
Some eight months ago I found myself in the presence of an obscenely assured debut, a story that spawned a sense of enthusiasm that just cascaded from every page. At the time it had had no binding, inconspicuous in the form of a modest stack of papers, and yet not halfway through it I realized I was reading something of rare quality, an adventure that exists as a throwback — a homage to the fantastic familiar — while presenting something utterly the author’s own.
“some day, you’re going to fuck up so magnificently, so ambitiously, so overwhelmingly that the sky will light and the moons will spin and the gods themselves will shit comments with glee. And I just hope I’m still around to see it.”
“Oh, please.” said Locke. “It’ll never happen.”
If you can imagine stepping out of nineteenth-century East-End London nodding to the artful dodger, and turning a corner ending up pacing Cheap Street in Lankhmar, and take in the Venetian element, you may be able to envision the city-state of Camorr. Our protagonist, young Locke Lamora is introduced to us as a boy of six, taken in by Camorr’s resident kidsmen, the uninvited thirty-first of thirty plague orphans recruits, Locke’s uncanny ability would force even the Thiefmaker of Camorr to remove him from his organization and send him to a blind priest — with just a pat on the shoulder and a shark tooth around his neck — a kiss of death — to wear symbolizing that his death had been approved and paid for and awaited only the inclination of his new master to act on.
He was not yet nine years old.
Thus Locke was now apprenticed to the Eyeless Priest, Father Chains, a man of Perelandro, the father of mercies — a regional legend — as it is said of him he chained himself to the temple with irons that had neither lock or key, never to have left for the last thirteen years and had his eyes plucked out in a public performance — only he wasn’t blind, nor was he permanently bound, he was a thief and a cultured extortionist. He was a priest however, only not one of Perelandro, but of a thirteenth god in a twelve-god pantheon, a nameless deity — a god of thieves. It is here where Chains will pass along his knowledge and tenets of a refined roguish lifestyle. Indeed Chains becomes a father figure, as well as the person who would take a seemingly natural, a gifted and deft thief, and accord him scope, a vision that didn’t exclude consequences. In short he taught him how to be a thief, but with the mind of a man of the world — all worlds. For a couple of coppers, the eyeless priest bought a new member of his band of Gentlemen Bastards, who one day would be referred to in whispers around social circles as the Thorn of Camorr.
We find the Gentleman Bastards orchestrating their latest caper, namely alleviating another of Camorr’s elite, Don Salvara, of a sizeable portion of his wealth. It is an intricate plan, an investment fraud involving overstating eminent foreign conflicts, and a sizeable shipment of the choicest and fashionable drink, Brandvin Austershalin, loved by the cognoscenti and aristocracy alike. It is a virtuoso performance by Locke that gets sidetracked, as various garrista — that is Lynch’s version of a caporegime — have become victims of what amounts to a full blown gang war initiated by an arcane newcomer calling himself the Grey King. It is here where we can imagine the author being an avid fan of films like The Godfather, Scar Face, Goodfellas, and the like. Camorr, like any city you and I live in has a criminal underworld and sub-culture, and Lynch’s structure, while familiar, is effective, as garrista lead their gangs large or small (Locke is a garrista) and pay tithe to Capa Barsavi, who is essentially the boss of bosses, and a likable one at that. Lynch also doesn’t insult us by making us have to believe such an organization could operate without the knowledge and the support of some of those wielding legitimate power.
“The Spider” and the Midnighters loom over Barsavi, and even the Duke. The veteran bastards explain to Bug while fashioning Locke’s costume:
“When Capa Barsavi does for some, we hear about it right? We have connections and the word gets passed. The Capa wants people to know his reasons — it avoids future trouble — makes an example.’ ‘And when the Duke goes from someone himself,’ said Calo, “There’s always signs, Yellow Jackets, Nightglass soldiers, writs, trials, proclamations.’
‘But when the Spider puts the finger on someone…’ Locke gave a brief nod of approval to the second mustache jean held up for consideration, ‘When it’s the spider the poor bastard in question falls right off the face of the world. And Capa Barsavi doesn’t say a thing,. Do you understand? He pretends that nothing has happened . So when grasp that Barsavi doesn’t fear the Duke…looks down on him quite a bit actually… well, it follows that there’s someone out there who make him wet his breeches.”
Criminals, or even those — and real folks know the difference — who aren’t criminals who simply perform illegal activities to make a living or put some bills in their pocket and in the post — don’t speak like English majors (even though Barsavi was a former scholar himself prior to running the streets). Whether fans of watching fictionalized variation, or if you have ever had to go pay-up for that gift of consignment, you will feel the drastic differences in tone between the environments of performances and reality of the gentleman bastards and appreciate it. The slang is functional, distinctive and to the point. The Gentleman Bastards are a gang — a family — and includes Jean, the group’s portly and stout muscle, was sent by Chains to the House of Glass Roses the most respected school of arms, the Sanza twins, Galdo and Calo, and its sole female member Sabetha who is currently absent, and a recent addition, Bug, round out the small gang. While difficult to avoid casting a complete romantic outlook on such a fun and mischievous troupe, Lynch does so by not making hardship and even ultimate loss an infrequent element in their lives, both past and present, leading to the real strength of the novel, involving the chosen structure Lynch employs to administer his story, sprinkling flashbacks between chapters either revealing personal history of characters or enlightening the reader on past historical events tied to a subject just mentioned. The latter examples could be viewed as page-sized footnotes in some fashion that will avoid being harped on as detraction by simply not presenting itself as proper footnotes. It is a method that disallows stagnation in the reading experience even while being in the presence of what is an essentially an info dump. Matt Stover says of Lynch:
“Scott Lynch is a con man, a conjuror, a wickedly entertaining juggler of words with knives up his sleeves and hatchets down his back.”
An apt description in both these cases. Lynch relays history, and background while simultaneously moving the story eventfully forward. We have come to a point where it seems the term page turner, once a positive remark applied to a book, has come to also mean a book that’s pages carry marginal if any weight, a possible intelligent reaction to the Dan Brown phenomena. Well, The Lies of Locke Lamora is a page-turner, and perhaps Lynch has in his possession a revolutionary ethereal ink to explain the discrepancy, because these pages laden with rememberable quotes, a baroque corporeal fictional setting thats landscape and history is infused with past empires and an alien origin thats legacy is eternally evident at every twilight, and a protagonist that is a constant lure belie the ease that in which these pages turn. It’s a work that didn’t seem to ever abandon the scope of the author’s own interests in a story in an effort to make it more substantial, and because of this, it indeed possessed true substance and not a less faithful abstraction. It’s a very fine line to tread, and The Lies of Locke Lamora emits a passion from the author that marks him as a fan of fantasy that neither fell into the banal bin where fan-author works mislabeled as homage dwell, nor did he attempt to overstep his fan base.
There were instances that were shaky. Personal preference causes me to be wince at the element of Bondsmagi, a powerful and almost preposterously expensive guild. While human, their first rule protects them, as Chains explains to Locke:
“Kill a Bondsmage and the whole guild drops whatever it’s doing comes after you. They seek you out by any means they need to use. They kill your friends, your family your associates. They burn you home. They destroy everything you ever built. Before they finally let you die they make sure you know that your line has been wiped from the earth, root and branch.”
The Bondsmagi came across as more of an extremely necessary plot tool than anything more substantial, and while Lynch gives us insight on the past of the order, the element just never overcame my initial thought even though it results in sadistically satisfying fashion, a true cart full of fun. There are also moments that tend to be corrected after a first novel, where a sharper eye corrects some moments of description that seem to be present for aesthetic purposes but in some instances don’t really equate in terms of real purpose.
The Lies of Locke Lamora is the first book of the seven part Gentlemen Bastard sequence, but series abstainers can and should find peace of mind in that at least the first book offers a complete adventure; from the introduction of a six year old plague surviving pilfering prodigy to casting off to red seas under red skies it is an effective stand-alone jaunt, an excursion through the sites of Camorr, from the subterranean tunnels of a necropolis guild of thieves to the heights and the opulence of the alien-like Elderglass towers, through the hectic streets and the lives in-between, Lynch’s true accomplishment is in striking a rare balance caused by not being unmindful of the most important but often relegated ingredient — fun. It’s cunningly riveting, colorfully cutthroat, possessive of an everyday organic humor, and occurs where the end of any given day can lead to the comfort of your home or fishing with Fredo, a true-page turner with no need to apologize for the fact and decisively the most significant debut of the fantastic this year.
Now on to Red Seas Under Red Skies:
We find the remnants of our band stalking the pits of the Sinspire, patiently and calculatingly ascending lady luck’s ladder in Lynch’s Monte Carlo, the city-state Tal Verrar, marked on any map as the destination for the apex of high society and high stakes. The absurdity of the back in-saddle starting point exhibits the author’s greatest strength, his decisions on how to pace a novel.
The cuts to the recent past, giving us the anatomy of the scheme and farther back to moments transpiring in the direct aftermath of The Lies of Locke Lamora are perfectly placed, once again functioning as a new door to open just before the occupied space stagnates. You seem to never be anywhere but where you want to be, Lynch just doesn’t let you in on the fact until a chapter later, and the reader isn’t sprinting or running a marathon as much as they are in a literary shuttle run. The initial perceived thoughtlessness is rectified as our ‘hero’ is doing the only thing any reader should expect as an aftermath to the first book…
The Thorn of Camorr is grieving. Reduced to a melancholic lush, burdened with the weight of an adynamic soul. The Gentleman Bastards have been reduced to a duo and it is Jean who takes on a gamgee role to make sure that number isn’t cut in half again. The bastard’s lifestyles are inherently risky, but Locke is used to winning his gambits and the effect of the loss of members of his troupe is not skirted over by Lynch. While Locke chooses to rot we witness Jean exploring other avenues other friendships, and destiny — paths that make him at time vague, unreadable even to Locke. For Locke it was the dead end, for Jean it was a bit of crossroad, they always knew the stakes better than anyone but never had to pay-up, and the events in Camorr were shakedowns of the soul. When we finally see the charisma and vigor return to Locke — he is not unchanged — he has doubt, not in himself or Jean, but in Jean’s faith in him. There is an Ocean’s Eleven vibe but what drives the duo most is neither a faire sauter la banque goal nor vengeance, but it is passion for the art of the trade as Lynch cuts back to unveil steps to the heist at intervals even as they are being cast in multiple plots against other factions — simultaneously.
When I reviewed The Lies of Locke Lamora the single stumbling point for me were the Bondsmagi. Their presence as a nation of essentially unstoppable ace-in-the-hole-ass hole-boogiemen seemed more convenient plot device to me than a welcome in reading even though Lynch memorably made sure to exhibit they could indeed be touched — and with extreme prejudice — it remains an element still that I wish we could be rid of. It does give that constant threat of reprisal in Locke’s and Jean’s lives and one they are fully aware that they are almost powerless to stop if the Bondsmagi want to collect, but otherwise seems like a burden we now have to deal with just to make the Grey King’s ploy in the first book plausible. That aside, Red Seas Under Red Skies is not only a worthy sophomore effort, it is with little doubt the superior book. Too infrequent is our chance to read great pirate stories, such that we all have that similar shortlist in our head when asked to reference them: The Scar, On Stranger Tides, The Princess Bride (okay I’m stretching but you its one of those inclusions you simply can’t be mad about), Pyrates, Captain Blood; some more dedicated readers may include recent stories by Wells Tower or Rhys Hughes and Lynch supplies an addition to that list. It is so because in a book that features our protagonists being used as puppets by both sides in a feud over control of Tal Verrar between a well informed War Lord and the master of the Sinspire, Requin and his majordomo, learning the art of pirating and with one eye always looking over their shoulders for Bondmagi, all while still keeping to and amending their own scheme in play, Lynch is able to still make a brief excursion to Salon Corbeau the highlight and most decisive and gratifying chapter in the novel.
The Thorn of Camorr had been a mask he half- heartedly worn as a game. Now it is almost a separate entity, a hungry thing, and increasingly insistent ghost prying at his resolve to stand up for the mandate of his faith. Let me out, it whispered. Let me out. The rich must remember. By the gods I can make damn sure they never forget
The glamorization of thieves and their exploits are hardly an untested formula in all mediums of fiction (and non-fiction) from — and Lynch’s books have a manner about them that make them feel cool but not trendy — the difference is achieving a state when it is not your goal. In this manner it’s more pool hall junkies than smokin’ aces and Locke’s healthy hatred for the wealthy and is so blatant that it creates this aura of honesty about the character that creates a natural common ground with more than ninety-ninety percent of the people who could potentially pick up the book. Chain’s words rattle in the back of his mind, and brands Locke to be an instrument, not as a social equalizer, but to act as a living memory and in a case that a past humbling instance doesn’t apply, to be the tool with arms long enough to hit the elite in the mouth — not so much for the joy of the literal punch, but to personify the figurative, permanent black eye. While Lynch keeps his promise of offering the reader a complete, self-contained story in each book of the sequence, it is the chapters such as this sprinkled in both books that expose the roots of the Thorn, the foundation and origin of the persona and we are a witness to it as much in the displays of his commitment to his craft as we are when he later insures a family of master artisans be spared a settlement’s judgment.
It is really these chapters that supply that secondary, post-read pondering content and allows us to discuss Locke himself: peerlessly confident, a traveling — even if for one person audience — show, adrift, and guided by nothing but perhaps his own unique brand of avarice and the camaraderie of his partner, or is he that and still a child — looking to be guided by a higher authority, be it a father figure or deity. Is he driven by purpose or constantly searching for it? I’m unsure if it was the author’s intent — perhaps it was my own projection — but Locke seemed to go into a darth-mode for a moment, as he was a spectator of game played in Salon Corbeau called The Amusement War. He showed what was more than mere disgust, it was pure, unbridled, hatred. We know Locke is certainly capable of mischief from grand theft to killing, but the presence of this hate was almost disconcerting, and in the most positive of ways. This is not a balanced individual and while capable of extreme concentration and control when necessary, as much as Locke is able to manipulate his surroundings — the world moves him, not the other way around, and thus a feeling of contrivance is avoided in a manner that sometimes is not true of larger than life characters where often too often the world revolves around them.
This is as much a Jean novel as it a Locke novel, and it Jean’s story that in some ways saves the novel as the secondary characters tend to be a bit uneventful and seem perhaps too bit of a clean fit. There was no Chains, or characters of the like that were only limited by pages they were on, not what they brought to them. When we left Camorr we did so feeling we left some future stories whether they included the bastards or not, told or left untold where Red Seas Under Red Skies feels much more like just simply leaving a chapter behind us. Lynch has a talent for what amounts to multiple epilogues, and while actual roles may seem a bit less thoughtful or standout, the conclusions to various plot lines never do. It’s probably true that Red Seas Under Red Skies ends up feeling more harmless than it’s predecessor and in end we are left much the same as we were in the beginning except the condition of the spirit and body change places, yet from the tone you feel there is a weary but playful composure — a game face — has returned to Locke and we wonder if these red seas will ever lead him to a home.
For even the most novice of fantasy enthusiast it is hard not to notice the Mieville similarity, not in the sense of adding to the tired modernization of the fantastic spiel, or at in any way implying a creative riff in regards to content, but in terms of general symmetry. Like China, Lynch abandons the confines of his urban center that not only served as the backbone of the introduction, but also breathes as if alive — a constant presence without dialogue, and chooses to launch to the high seas, a decision that makes us as much reader and mystery tourist. It also creates a odd sensation that rather mimics and reinforced the point-of-view and continuity cuts from past to present — as readers we were not so much unlike Bellis in search of future opportunity but ran off from our immediate past enough to look back before ever step forward and the subsequent trips were what made the story. We still have that Camorr musk on us as readers and it takes awhile for us to appreciate the fresh sea air. In Red Seas Under Red Skies, no matter the location of the masquerade at hand, Camorr still plays an off-stage roll and we perhaps learn more of the city — and the mentality of her vagabond sons while being elsewhere. There is also an excursion in The Scar to a land of blood sucking horror mosquito people, and Lynch has his version of such a stopover and monsters only they are represented by man. Admittedly it’s all rather superficial — as were many of the overstated comparison involving with the first novel — (the comparisons) but something that was definitely in my mind.
In the more the merrier era of ensembles and complexity weighed by cast numbers Lynch chooses what is still not the path less taken, but is one that is polluted with innumerable unmarked graves, not blank due to a lack of information, but to signify that is no more relevant than the other, of stories buried that don’t require a revisit, failed adventurers blurred together that fail to spark reasonable recognition and whose names die even if they themselves do not, where the Tristan of Eutracia’s will come to rest or be buried alive. It is the path that has successfully been undertaken by a few, these are characters that threaten to become part of the very fabric of fantasy’s conscious — they are not necessarily characters that claim new territories and spill first blood on new ground but all are those that come to define. I like Neverwhere more than the next guy — but who was the protagonist again? Inevitably some replies will be “the guy who Vandermer and Croup were chasing”. With Lynch, through just two books you feel as if the author perhaps has stumbled upon that multiverse-spanning, vellum-crossing, shadow walking, dream trail that ran through the Underdark that once revealed a lavender glint reflecting off dual scimitars, or was once trodden by a storm-bearing Albino, or where a blind prince of Amber sulked, or where stalked a ring-totting leopard, and even once bore a fool wizard and his luggage, among others. It is that connection with a single character that was once vogue that seems to a point admonished now for that very fact, and thus the numbers of personalities and seem that is still able to drive a series by their presence alone in a manner that perhaps is only mirrored in its first steps currently by Stover’s Cain or Morgan’s Tovac.
The accomplishment includes and goes beyond being the topic of self-important small circles; it extends into daring to be large, indeed embracing it, but not at the same time fearing to achieve that state by accepting built in limitations more often simply the vices of minority aloofness. These are characters that create absolute statements — to actually come to not like Locke Lamora seems near implausible, a sad, dark place, an opinion hell with baffling inhabitants and even stranger horizons who sadly run away from large crowds just to be noticed and seemingly always scratch their when they miss the party wondering why. These are the characters that transcend book and series titles: they are the Elric, the Cain, Conan, Covenant and Drizzt books. The vast majority of the time I would say the human element — I think — remains the most important facet of any piece of fiction but I think we often limit what we perceive as grand accomplishment to examinations of that state and tend to view simply the enjoyment of as something lesser. There are simply very few reads that just have that kick back and relax ambiance, that timeless fresh and jazzy ‘Summertime’ experience, “Here it is the groove slightly transformed just a bit of a break from the norm just a little somethin’ to break the monotony of all that hardcore dance that has gotten to be a little bit out of control it’s cool to dance but what about the groove that soothes that moves romance give me a soft subtle mix and if ain’t broke then don’t try to fix it” — ahhh…good times! That’s what Lynch brings to the shelf. When will Locke find what he searches for? Is it something even the greatest thief can steal? Does Locke Lamora fascinate me? Not in specific ways that some characters do. But the idea of more of his as of yet untold adventures do — and that’s an accomplishment.
The headstones don’t lie.