It is not very often that I find myself in the position I’m currently in: rabidly, insanely delighted to levels that would terrify any sane person. I want nothing more than to shriek and squeal and jump around in delight. I want to pull a Lottie La Bouff from Disney’s The Princess and the Frog when she is at her most pleased. Those who have known me since college have likely seen me do something similar (though significantly restrained for the sake of propriety in public) often enough when I was younger, but I’ve had very little reason to do so in the last few years.
Books rarely turn me into a squealing fangirl. Well, they used to, with some frequency at that, but it appeared I had sobered up significantly since I turned a quarter of a century. This might partly be maturity, though I mostly attribute it to the fact that I am taking up my masters’, and am trying to set up a book review website, as well. Since my undergraduate years the need for distance and objectivity have been drilled into me, and it is something I try to maintain even in the book reviews I write, even though they are personal expressions of opinion and so need not be entirely academic.
Scott Lynch’s The Lies of Locke Lamora, the first book in a series titled The Gentlemen Bastards, shattered all of that. Most books that I enjoy press a small set of buttons but miss others: I like the characters, but feel so-so about the setting. I like the world, but the plotline is a bit wobbly for my tastes. I like the plot, but the characters do not necessarily fit a particular trope that I enjoy. This does not mean, of course, that do not like the book in question; it simply doesn’t make me want to jump around like I’ve eaten too much sugar, or write a review with a lot of italics for emphasis.
The Lies of Locke Lamora however, has done something only a very small handful of books have done in the past few years: it pressed all my buttons, at the same time.
First: the setting. I adore the Renaissance, as I have mentioned several times before in previous reviews, and enjoy it thoroughly in historical novels. However, when the Renaissance is used as an analogue for a fantasy world, as opposed to the usual Medieval period, then my enthusiasm goes right through the roof. Fantasy novels set in Renaissance-analogues are so rare that it almost hurts; the last one I read was Tigana by Guy Gavriel Kay, and that, while I enjoyed it enough, I did not particularly care for. As a matter of fact, I thought The Lions of Al-Rassan was a better read, and that one is set in an analogue of Medieval Spain during the Reconquista.
Camorr, the main setting of the novel, is an analogue of 16th-century Venice. While I have a deep, abiding bias towards Florence, I will admit that Renaissance Venice is an equally appealing prospect as a setting. Although the surface similarities between Venice and Camorr are obvious, it is the feel of Camorrian culture that really brings the similarity to life. The Renaissance, as a period in history, had its own particular vibrancy, an energy of creativity and mischief that does not seem prevalent in the Medieval period, and so seems absent in fantasies that are set in worlds that are Medieval-analogues.
Camorr, however, cannot be considered a carbon-copy of Venice itself. The culture of Camorr, while similar in some respects, is entirely its own. The way corruption is treated in Camorr, for instance, is interesting, and very Camorrian, but not necessarily Venetian. The culture of thieves and whores and gangs, the “Right People of Camorr,” as they’re called in the novel, is again very Camorrian and not Venetian. While something like the Shifting Revel of Camorr could conceivably have existed in historical Venice, the type of entertainments in the Camorrian version would probably shock even the most debauched Venetian. Thus, in reading the novel, the reader will recognize much, but discover much, much more.
Once, when I was younger, I liked my heroes to be appropriately heroic: noble, self-sacrificing, and just out-and-out good. Nowadays, however, I find myself inexorably drawn, and favoring, rogues: characters who are not necessarily noble or self-sacrificing, and whose morals might be more than a little skewed. Wit and cleverness are always appreciated – the sharper, the better. Ingenuity is vital, because that is what rogues are known for: the ability to use their brains and their wits more than their physical strength to get what they want.
In Locke Lamora, not only is the titular character an excellent example of the above, but he is also surrounded by people who are just like that, to varying degrees. Take Father Chains, the Gentlemen Bastards’ mentor. He educates his wards, including Locke, in the art of the con, and in the art of “false-facing:” pretending to be something one is not in order to better carry out a scheme. He is extremely intelligent, cautious, and a meticulous planner – nothing is ever for nothing when it comes to anything Chains does. He teaches the Gentlemen Bastards to become the best con-men, the best deceivers in Camorr. Locke is his star pupil, though even said star pupil is not without problems of his own – in the interlude chapter titled “Minor Prophecy,” Chains predicts that Locke’s cleverness will one day get him into such deep trouble that he will be unable to get himself out of it. Locke, only fourteen in that interlude, scoffs and says that will never happen. Unfortunately, at this point the reader is already aware that Chains’s prophecy has become all too true.
And now that I speak of Locke, I think it is only right that I talk about him, as well. Locke Lamora is everything I enjoy about rogues: witty, too clever for his own good, and (in the first book, at least) really rather shallow. Some readers have actually found fault in this, but I think that Locke is just right the way he is: a shallow, self-serving bastard, his only redeeming quality being his extreme loyalty to his fellow Gentlemen Bastards. This comes as no surprise: Locke really has not experienced true, genuine tragedy up until the events of Locke Lamora, and so can afford to be the shallow rogue that he is. Of course, later events will change things for him in a very big way.
It helps to keep in mind that Lynch plans to write a seven-book sequence of novels, and that Locke Lamora is only Book One in that seven-book series. It is quite obvious that Lynch is taking his time with character development for Locke, who will, in all likelihood, grow more complex even as he commits mistakes and loses people along the way. By Book Seven, I expect he’ll be quite an interesting, well-rounded character.
While it helps that Locke is an enjoyable character on his own, the other supporting characters are equally great fun as well. Jean Tannen, Locke’s best friend and the muscle to his brains, has a special place in my heart. When he first comes into Chains’ care it is obvious that he doesn’t quite have the same aptitude for crime as Locke, nor does he have the same easy confidence and good looks as the Sanza Brothers. He does, however, have a great deal of physical strength, the math skills of a merchant, and – maybe most importantly – a great deal of common sense. Jean’s role is not only to act as muscle for the Gentlemen Bastards, but as the Voice of Reason: a role that is in itself both difficult and necessary, given the way Locke is at the start of the novel.
And then there are the women. Though the central characters of Locke Lamora are men, there are quite a few females who play significant roles. Chief of them definitely has to be the mysterious Sabetha, one of Chains’s original proteges even before Locke came into his care – and who, it is stated very clearly early on in the novel, is Locke’s one true love. She is never seen in the novel, not even in the flashbacks, and is only ever mentioned in passing. This makes her even more intriguing, especially as the reader gets to know Locke and the rest of the Gentlemen Bastards better.
Aside from Sabetha, there are other, more visible female characters, all of whom are just as intriguing and fascinating and strong as the male characters. Nazca Barsavi, for instance, is initially introduced as the spoiled daughter of Capa Barsavi, and famous for her iron-shod shoes. As a grown-up, however, she is not just a spoiled daughter, but a capable and intelligent young woman with a good head on her shoulders. It is made known that, although she has a pair of older brothers, her father wants her to be his heir. It is implied that she is more sensible than her brothers, and thus is the best choice to take Capa Barsavi’s place as leader of the Right People of Camorr.
There are also Dona Sofia Salvara and Dona Vorchenza – the former a minor noble notable for her skills in alchemy, and the latter being something much, much more, than just Camorr’s resident gossip-monger to the rich and noble. Though they are a wife and a widow (or spinster, I’m not entirely sure), respectively, they both wield significant power in their own right: Dona Salvara’s reputation as an alchemist is entirely separate from her status as a wife (in fact it is implied it was her husband who was lucky to have married her, not the other way around), and Dona Vorchenza’s true role in Camorran politics might be considered one of the most important.
One other thing – perhaps the thing – that I loved most about this novel was the dialogue and narration. Everyone seems to have their own ready supply of wit, and even the narrative comes off as very witty, and quite funny as well. There is never a dull moment in this book, whether it is the Gentlemen Bastards ragging on each other, or the narrator describing some district or custom of Camorr. Locke and his closest friend and accomplice Jean Tannen have their own unique voices, though Father Chains is especially delightful. Be warned, however, that there is a great deal of swearing in this novel – not even made-up swearing, but actual, honest-to-goodness real-world four-letter-words, and they are used with remarkable frequency. Some readers have found this to be jarring, since the swear-words used tend to clash with the somewhat “higher” language used elsewhere, but I do not find the swear-words jarring at all. In fact, they have been used well, if rather copiously, and there are times when the swearing can get rather, dare I say it, poetic. It takes reading the book to understand what I mean, but the quote below should illustrate my point well enough:
“Someday, Locke Lamora,” he [Father Chains] said, “someday you’re going to fuck up so magnificently, so ambitiously, so overwhelmingly that the sky will light up and the moons will spin and the gods themselves will shit comets with glee. And I just hope I’m still around to see it.”
Needless to say, readers adverse to swearing might want to skip this book entirely, but I do hope said readers will at least attempt to cringe their way through the book, because despite all the swearing, it really is a very well-told story.
Overall, The Lies of Locke Lamora is a fantastic read – though I suppose this is already expected, given what I said at the beginning of this review. There is honestly very little that I found negative in this book, except maybe that it ends on a right and proper cliffhanger and I cannot get my hands on the second book soon enough. Of course, that flaw needs to be taken as a recommendation, because for readers who love rogues, and who love their rogues witty and far too intelligent and maybe potty-mouthed, then this is absolute perfection, and they shall be squirming in their seats to read the next book.