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. Also, go read my interview with Scott Lynch.
“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.