The Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch
Reviewed by C. M. Morrison
26 June 2006
Just like everyone else, I am rather suspicious of hype. As soon as I hear something is the best new thing ever I start to wonder what's wrong with it. Sometimes, as in the case of Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, the praise seems warranted. Far more often I want to know how the reviewer was bribed to tell me such lies. Which brings me to The Lies of Locke Lamora, a book awash in buildup. There's a movie deal and already a fair number of foreign rights deals, and the buzz surrounding it seems determined to convince us that it will be a best-selling novel.
Unfortunately, what is within is not the next Strange and Norrell. The book opens with the following:
At the height of the long wet summer of the Seventy-Seventh Year of Sendovani, the Thiefmaker of Camorr paid a sudden and unannounced visit to the Eyeless Priest at the Temple of Perelandro, desperately hoping to sell him the Lamora boy. (p. 1)
Putting aside the excessive-capital-letter disease that Lynch apparently suffers from, it was clear from this sentence alone that my expectations for the novel needed to be drastically reset. This was not going to be the wildly original fantasy I'd heard about; rather it was going to be a hodgepodge of well-worn tropes. Think The Sting meets Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid meets The Godfather meets your average fantasy world.
But that certainly didn't mean that this book couldn't have been an enjoyable reading experience—a book of this type is about rollicking adventure, with the promise of clever engaging characters and a plot with twists and turns. The joy in this sort of story is in the charisma of the characters, and in watching the cleverness of how they manage to get themselves out of the troubles they get into.
The story is set in the Venice-like city-state of Camorr. The aristocracy and the criminal underworld have negotiated a Secret Peace to keep the aristocrats off-limits in exchange for nearly free rein to prey on the lower classes, but Lamora and his gang of "Gentlemen Bastards" habitually violate this peace. At the start of the book, they are starting to run a new long con. Their marks, the Don and Dona Salvara, are convinced that Lamora represents the House of bel Auster, vintners who are trying to flee an impending war. By financing the removal of the House's brandy to a safe haven, the Don and Dona believe they will become fabulously wealthy, with permanent ties to the House. Lamora plays on Don Salvara's cultural heritage and known enmity for another Don in the city to hand them an offer too good to be true, and too good for them to refuse.
Meanwhile, the Grey King is picking off the thieves of Camorr one by one and seems to have a personal vendetta against Capa Barsavi, the head of the underworld. It isn't clear what his motives are, but no one in the underworld is safe from him, including Barsavi's daughter, who is brutally murdered. This is the point at which the Grey King involves Lamora in his plan, coercing him into impersonating the Grey King during a meeting with the grief-stricken Capa Barsavi.
It's also the point when it was driven home to me that Lamora is not very interesting. How? When faced with being manipulated into assisting the Grey King, Lamora decides that he should do pretty much exactly as asked and get it over with as fast as possible:
"So we just sit back," said Jean, "and let him pull your strings, like a marionette on stage."
"I was rather taken," said Locke, "with the whole idea of not telling Capa Barsavi about our confidence game, yes."
"The coin involved has to be ... ludicrous. I doubt the Duke could keep a Bondsmage of rank on for this long. So who the fuck is this Grey King, and how is he paying for this?"
"Immaterial," said Locke. "Three nights hence, or two and a half now that the sun's coming up, there'll be two Grey Kings, and I'll be one of them." (p. 212)
That's right, he isn't going to try to find out the Grey King's plan or why he has been waging a war against the Capa or even who the Grey King is. No, he's just going to roll right over and do as he's told. (With the backup plan of possibly running away after.)
Lamora has none of the cleverness or engaging wit and bite of Brust's Vlad Taltos or Zelazny's Prince Corwin or any number of charismatic amoral protagonists with whom he invites comparison. He seems unusually uncurious and lacking in initiative—something that comes back to bite Lynch on the ass later in the book.
Things go bad and worse for Lamora—the Grey King merely intended to murder him and his gang after using him as a pawn in his scheme. Luckily for Lamora, though not for the reader, the Grey King and his hired Bondsmage, the Falconer, frequently act like fools. Each time they arrange to kill Lamora and his friends they seem to forget to check that the job actually got done.
Finally, Lamora and Jean, his sidekick, end up in the Falconer's power. Unfortunately, to allow Lamora to escape this situation Lynch has to make the Falconer do the equivalent of pulling out a dagger and stabbing himself in the stomach. Then, because Lamora has shown absolutely no initiative throughout the book, Lynch has to have the Falconer exposit who the Grey King is, his motivation for revenge and also all the details of his plan, because otherwise Lamora would never be able to foil it.
And while Lynch attempts to set up a motivation for the Bondsmage to make all these things plausible (unsurprisingly, I was unconvinced), it doesn't change the fact that Lamora does nothing to extricate himself from the Grey King's plans, nor does much to resolve the plot—all the answers are handed to him. He does do the running around to clean up the mess, and the ending ties together quite well, but all in all it is an unsatisfying reading experience. Which is unfortunate, because Lynch does a nice job of drawing the threads of the Grey King's revenge and Lamora's con together, and the climax of the book is quite satisfying. But I couldn't put aside how we had gotten there.
Intercut throughout the main plot are background sections intended to flesh out the characterization of the main characters and to provide depth to the city. Many of these are filled with the explanation for why Lamora was sold to Chains, the Eyeless Priest, or with some of Lamora's and Jean's exploits as children. Generally, they were quite effective and I enjoyed young Lamora far more than I did the older version. Others were little more than infodumps placed to provide necessary information. For example, when Lamora is captured by the Grey King, the story cuts away to a scene where Chains explains to Lamora the significance of the Bondsmagi before cutting back. Scenes like this one were awkward and tension-reducing.
There is some nice worldbuilding in this novel, including Gentled animals that have undergone a sort of creepy alchemical lobotomy, Elderglass roses that can drink human blood, and my clear favorite, the Teeth Show—a crazy axe and javelin fight between woman and shark. (The one place the worldbuilding fails is in the dialogue; it seems all too modern.) These touches hint at a world that is deep and strange—a world I wanted to know more of. Unfortunately, I don't want to spend more time in it with Locke Lamora.
The Lies of Locke Lamora has the trappings of what could be an enjoyable summer novel—not much depth, but a whole heck of a lot of fun. But for me it fails in the most basic manner: as long as the author can keep me turning the pages fast enough I won't think about how ridiculous some of the elements are, but the moment you drop the ball and I start to think you are going to lose me. Lynch lost me about a third of the way through the book, and never got me back.