Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Book Review Club: The Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch

(My July entry in Barrie Summy's Book Review Club)

The Lies of Locke Lamora
by Scott Lynch is a tale I’ve wanted to read for about three years now. I can’t remember where and when I first learned about it but the premise (gentlemen thieves and con games) and cover blurbs intrigued me. “…One part Robin Hood, one part Ocean’s Eleven, and entirely enthralling…” “…a high-octane fantasy caper around a refreshingly original hero…” Sometimes, reviewers name-dropped authors: Dickens, Mieville, David Liss. All these things percolated in my head, made some preconceived notions, and let me know that this book was one I really must read.

Prologues can be good and bad things. Here, it obscured the first paragraph of chapter one: “Locke Lamora’s rule of thumb was this: a good confidence game took three months to plan, three weeks to rehearse, and three seconds to win or lose the victim’s trust forever. This time around, he planned to spend those three seconds getting strangled.” With my tastes for fun capers and con games, that would be enough for me. I’m probably not alone. There’s a reason why Ocean’s Eleven, The Thomas Crown Affair, and other movies and books that feature clever criminals do so well. We all like to know how the bad guy does it. And, frankly, we want him to win. The prologue, while serving to give us some background and an origin for Locke, slows down the action. I wanted to get to the adult Locke doing his cons.

When the present-day story starts, the Gentlemen Bastards—Locke, Jean Tannen, the twins Carlo and Galdo, and Bug, the youngest member—are engaged in a long con to trick one Don Lorenzo Salvara and his wife into paying for a non-existent shipment of rare wine. The level of detail Locke and his pals use to deceive Salvara and everyone around him is intricate and fun to watch. Salvara brings Locke (disguised as Lukas Fehrwight, the wine merchant) into his sphere of influence and promptly starts being robbed (although Lorenzo is, of course, giving away his money).

Locke, you see, is known as The Thorn of Camorr. Camorr is the fantasy city based upon Renaissance Venice. No one has yet linked the identities of Locke and the Thorn. They think Locke is just a sneak thief under the jurisdiction of Capa Barsavi, the crime lord of Camorr. The Gentlemen Bastards are content to keep up that appearance, paying Barsavi his ‘royalties,’ and stealing from the wealthy citizens of Camorr.

Over the horizon, however, is the Grey King, a mysterious figure who seems to be killing some of Barsavi’s lieutenants. The Grey King employs a Bondsmage, the only source of magic in the entire book. The Bondsmage is a sorcerer of a sort and one not to be trifled with. The Grey King deduces the true identity of The Thorn of Camorr and makes Locke an offer he can’t refuse.

Double crosses, bloody fights, and revelations ensue from here. The structure of the book is very much like the TV show “Lost.” For those who haven’t seen the show, an episode features a main storyline of a certain character. At certain points in the show, you get a flashback that gives you a better understanding of the character and why a certain action/decision was made. Same thing with The Lies of Locke Lamora. I’ll admit that, at times, the “Interludes,” as Lynch names these flashbacks, seem like an easy way out of a lot of exposition. Sometimes, these Interludes are useful, as when we learn about the Bondsmages. However, as informative and entertaining as the Interludes sometimes are, Lynch probably could have done with less of them and handled the exposition via dialogue or reader inference. Other times, the Interludes provide a detail that isn’t immediately used like when Lynch describes how the Thiefmaker forced all of his boys to travel, become apprentices to various groups around Camorr, only to return to the Thiefmaker’s headquarters and teach him and the other boys all the details of said group. That’s a cool idea and Locke and the other Gentlemen Bastards use this information later in the book.

The world building in The Lies of Locke Lamora is engrossing. The level of detail Lynch puts in the text is thorough and it enriches the story. But, again, he could have trimmed a bit here and there. For example, when Jean Tannen apprentices for a swordsman, he has to traverse a “garden” of glass. These glass-flowers will, if you cut yourself, suck the blood from you and you may never get out alive. Cool! Lynch tells us about this in a page or two (I listened to the recent audio version via so, for me, it was a few minutes) and then we’re back in the story. Too often, for me, at least, the background-via-interlude was too long and disrupted the action. It was a huge info dump. Didn’t need quite so much. A little goes a long way. I know people who love the minutest of details in all fantasy worlds and The Lies of Locke Lamora will satisfy folks like me and will leave others wanting more.

Speaking of wanting, I really wanted to love this book. Again, read the blurbs: “…One part Robin Hood, one part Ocean’s Eleven, and entirely enthralling…” “…a high-octane fantasy caper around a refreshingly original hero…” “One part caper, one part swashbuckle, and one part Mission: Impossible…” Don’t know about you but when I read those words (“high-octane” “Ocean’s Eleven” “swashbuckle”), a certain type of story emerges in my mind. To me, swashbuckle equals “Pirates of the Caribbean,” “high-octane” equals Gabriel Hunt at the Well of Eternity (my review), and “Ocean’s Eleven” equals an entertaining movie that’s fun to watch with lots of chuckles. Quite frankly, The Lies of Locke Lamora isn’t all of these things. That’s not to say it wasn’t entertaining. It was. I just expected to be more entertained than I was. Don’t think that I fall prey to the modern affliction of Having To Be Entertained All The Time. I enjoy slower burn books (Dan Simmons’ Drood is a good example (my review) as is Megan Abbott’s Die a Little (my review)) and I don’t always want or expect the fast-paced action a la Hard Case Crime, Edgar Rice Burroughs' Martian tales, or The Da Vinci Code. But with blurbs like the ones I quoted, I expected The Lies of Locke Lamora to be more like those other titles. It wasn’t. It was its own thing, which is good.

That isn’t to say I didn’t enjoy the book. I did. And I’ll easily be reading the second book, Red Seas Under Red Skies (it’s got friggin’ pirates; I am SO there), if not the entire proposed set of seven books. I’ll just be doing it with a slightly-revised set of expectations.

BTW, Scott Lynch is the Guest of Honor this year at Armadillocon 31 in Austin, TX.

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@Barrie Summy


  1. I will probably pass on this book but I sure as hell enjoy your reviews.

    And you reminded me of pirates. I need some pirates at BEAT to a PULP!

  2. That was a good balanced review. For me the book was one of those where the good so far outweighed the bad that I was prepared to cut it some slack. In some ways it worked for me for the things it didn't do.

    It avoided the standard wood-cutter who will become king type hero (although maybe the entire sequence will become more traditional) along with there being no good versus evil plot. It had a brilliant invented world, and yet nobody cared about it much. It was just there and nobody was digging around in the cellars searching for long-forgotten swords of power. Magic was prety much gone. And best of all some main characters got killed off just when I least expected it!

  3. David - I'm working on one, I'm working! Word has it that Locke Lamora was optioned for a film. If so, definitely go see it.

    I. J. - Thanks. And I can't agree with you more about the world and that nobody cares about. We take so much for granted in life that, were an alien to write about our world, he'd be fixated on cars, planes, and iPhones. That main characters bought it *was* a great feature. In some ways, The Lies of Locke Lamora answered the Apollocon panel question: Does fantasy have to be epic? Locke's answer: no, thank you very much. But I've still got an interesting story to tell.

  4. That first paragraph hooked me, too. Interesting that we're both reviewing books this month with the word "Lies" in the title. :)

  5. It's good to hear the world building was taken seriously. That's so important for me in reading fantasy.

  6. Great review. I worry, sometimes, when it takes me a while to get to a book (which happens more often than I'd like to admit!) that it'll be really tough for the book to live up to my expectations. Kind of like when I go to a movie after everyone has told how great it is. And, then I finally see it and think, well, it was great, but not GREAT. I'm not saying this is necessarily what happened with you and The Lies of Lock Lamora...

  7. You had me with the blurbs (Robin Hood and Ocean's 11!) and excited me with the first paragraph of chapter one. I was disappointed along with you later on.

    Have you been reading Butcher's Dresden books? (No relation to this novel, just curious for your take on them. I'm way behind the author and want to love them so badly, but they're just starting to grow on me.)

  8. Kathy - I enjoyed your review, too. Ironic with the title words.

    Charles - As I create my own fantasy world, I can see how serious an undertaking it is. And dang hard!

    Barrie - Thanks again for the invite. Yeah, well, I certainly enjoyed the book and will definitely read the next ones. I just wasn't WOWED by it, just wowed.

    Sarahlynn - Aren't the blurbs great? I've actually had a hankering to watch Ocean's 11 again. I have not read any of the Dresden books. When I do, I'm going to start with book #1, which is my wont. I might even get to them later this year.