Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Lying Locke

The Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch was pretty strongly hyped when it came out a few years ago; I remember seeing it mentioned on nearly every SF and Fantasy site I tend to frequent. I made mental notes to read it, and then kept forgetting about it...and forgetting about it...and forgetting about it...until I finally picked up a copy when I remembered it one day whilst standing in Borders. I read it soon after, and it turns out there was a reason for all the hype: it's a really good book, an adventure story that actually rollicks. I read a lot of adventure tales, and not all of them actually manage to rollick. This one? Yup, it's set at full rollick.

Locke Lamora is a thief who lives in the city of Camorr, which is most reminiscent of Renaissance Venice, with its canals and its tightly-clustered buildings piled atop muddy islands. There are differences, though: the entire city is dominated by structures made of "Elderglass", left behind by some non-human race thousands of years before; the skyline is dominated by five towers of Elderglass that rise over six hundred feet above the rest of Camorr. Alchemy is also practiced in Camorr, alchemy to produce light and to hinder one's enemies and to turn regular animals into docile beasts of burden in a creepy process called "Gentling". Locke Lamora is apprenticed to a guild of thieves, but that guild eventually kicks him out when he unleashes a scheme that ends up costing a couple of his fellow thieves their lives. He falls in with another group of thieves, though, and after he's grown up with the rest of these thieves, he and his friends form their own little thieves' guild, calling themselves "the Gentleman Bastards". Their goal is to get rich by fleecing those already rich, and as the book opens, Locke Lamora is already laying the groundwork for just such a scheme, pretending to be a dealer in highly valuable brandy from a distant kingdom.

However, dark things are afoot in the arrival in Camorr of a mysterious figure called the Gray King. who has his sights set on taking over rule over the entire city's criminal underworld from a man named Barsavi. The Gray King's plans also involve Locke Lamora, for some reason, and Locke ends up in a great deal of trouble before the book is even half done.

It was an interesting choice, using the tropes of high fantasy to tell a caper story like this, and Lynch does it all very well. Sometimes the dialog is a bit hard to accept; I'm sure we've all read bad fantasies where the characters all talk as if they've just been transported from the pages of Sir Thomas Malory to whatever fantasy they're in now. The Lies of Locke Lamora isn't like that. The dialog is earthy, full of expletives, and occasionally - very occasionally – the stuff being said sounds as though it needs to be said with a thick Jersey accent. At times it was a bit jarring, but if you tire of Fat Fantasy novels where everybody talks like Gandalf the White ("Run, Shadowfax, and show us the meaning of haste!"), then you might find pleasure here. The book is a caper story; imagine Ocean's Eleven or The Thomas Crown Affair set in a fantasy world. There are double crosses, secret identities, plots and plans within plans and plots, and at the center of it all are Locke Lamora and his best friend Jean Tannen, frequently charing into situations with no plan whatsoever.

One of an apparent six planned sequels has already come out: Red Seas Under Red Skies. In this book, Locke and Jean arrive at a different city, a wealthy sea town called Tal Verrar, where the world's most exclusive gambling house, the Sinspire, resides. Their plan is to break into the Sinspire's vault and steal its contents. Do they succeed? I'll never tell – but their plans do go awry when they find themselves embroiled in all manner of other intrigues at the very political heart of Tal Verrar, a frustrating state of affairs for two men who just want to steal lots of money from the rich. The plot of Lies is twisty enough, but Red Seas is, if anything, even twistier: the plot seems to lurch about every ten or twenty pages, so that what starts off as a caper story becomes a political thriller and then, about halfway through, a nautical tale and a pirate story. The plots and double-crosses come fast and furious in Red Seas, right up the very last page, which leaves our heroes in a bit of trouble whose resolution in the third book (still forthcoming) will, I hope, be as fascinating and enjoyable as what has gone before. I can't wait.

(Red Seas does not necessarily assume that the reader has already read Lies, but it does help. The book's opening is probably much more effective if one knows something of the history of Locke Lamora and Jean Tannen.)

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