Bastards in Love and Politics – A Review of The Republic of Thieves by Scott Lynch

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Caveat: Before I begin, I think it would only be wise to put up a spoiler warning. I don’t know how many people have already read the book, but if the reader has strayed here from someplace else, not entirely aware of the nature of this review, then it’s only right to inform them that there are spoilers in this review, and if one wishes to avoid spoilers, then it would be good to avoid this review until one has read the book.

One last time: spoilers lie ahead, so do not read further than this unless you’re one of a select class of people who are “spoiler-proof,” or you’ve already read the book. This is your last warning.

I truly, honestly do not know how to properly begin this review. I’ve declared my love for Scott Lynch’s Gentlemen Bastards series here, there, and almost everywhere. I’ve tried to get as many of my friends as I possibly can to read it. I make references to it when talking about all the other things I read, if I think the reference appropriate. I openly laugh, scream, and occasionally outright cry over the books. I have stated publicly that I would marry Jean Tannen if he were real, that Jean Tannen’s qualities are some of the qualities of my ideal mate.

So when Hope gave me a copy of The Republic of Thieves, the long-awaited third book in the series, I entered a virtual lockdown, throwing aside all my other reading and all my other plans for reading other things in order to immerse myself once more in Lynch’s world. And since the time I’ve emerged from that world, I’ve spent a great deal of time wondering how to actually talk about the book. It was only today that I managed to figure out how to do just that.

The Republic of Thieves takes place almost immediately after the concluding events of Red Seas Under Red Skies. In the last novel, Locke found himself mortally poisoned by the Archon of Tal Verrar, and he and Jean have fled to Lashain to escape the Archon, as well as to find someone who might be able to cure Locke. While there, they are found by the Bondsmagi of Karthain – the same folk who were responsible for the deaths of Locke and Jean’s closest friends in The Lies of Locke Lamora, and who brought them to the attention of the Archon in Red Seas Under Red Skies. To say that Locke and Jean do not like the Bondsmagi is an understatement, but this time, they have no choice but to work for them. In exchange for curing Locke, the Bondsmagi Patience hires the two Gentlemen Bastards to help rig an election in Karthain. This doesn’t bother Locke and Jean much, until they learn who their opposite number is: Sabetha Belacoros, former Bastard and Locke’s one true love, who left him a long while ago and who still occupies an enormous space in his heart.

The novel’s format is similar to the format used for The Lies of Locke Lamora: alternating between past and present, with one informing the other. While the present tackles the ways and means Locke and Jean attempt to get the election to swing in favor of their employers, the past discusses Locke’s relationship with Sabetha, which significantly overlaps with how he deals with her in the present of the novel. This also means that many of the original Gentlemen Bastards and their friends, like the Sanza twins, their mentor Father Chains, and friend Nazca Barsavi, make reappearances – made all the more heartbreaking by the fact that they are, to a one, dead (the Sanzas and Nazca, in particular, died quite horrifically in The Lies of Locke Lamora). It must be said that, to anyone who has read all three novels, these flashback chapters will be a great source of emotional pain while reading the novel, and I firmly believe that Lynch was aware of that and did everything deliberately.

There is, however, the addition of chapters called “Intersects,” which are difficult to explain without giving away far, far too much, but which are crucial to the story and offer some interesting insight into what’s going on behind the behind-the-scenes, so to speak, as well as set up foreshadowing throughout Republic of Thieves and beyond, into the next novels.

My feelings for this particular iteration of Lynch’s series are almost the same as the feelings I had for the previous two books, The Lies of Locke Lamora and Red Seas Under Red Skies. It had almost all the elements I’d come to expect: witty writing, daring and seemingly-impossible hijinks, and excellent plot twists. Even better, this novel is the first time Sabetha Belacoros, a character who’s been mentioned in the last two books, makes her proper appearance in the series. Anyone who has read the first two books can completely understand my excitement for this third book.

However, note that I say “almost,” and there is a very good reason for that. This is not to say that The Republic of Thieves is a complete disappointment, but there seemed to be something somewhat-amiss about it. I’ll get to that in a bit.

First, the good parts. The fact that it involves Locke and Jean being themselves is good enough to count, and it’s a testament to Lynch’s writing that, time and again, he’s capable of getting his readers to care a very great deal about what happens to his characters. There isn’t a lot of Jean in this novel as compared to the last two, but though I missed him I can live with the lack of his presence for a while. After all, there was Sabetha to think about, and since she’d been mentioned but never seen in the last two novels, I didn’t mind it much when my favorite character in the entire series had to be put on the back burner for a while to give Sabetha a chance to shine.

And speaking of Sabetha, Lynch’s female characters are always well-drawn and interesting, and this novel is no exception. I might not always like them, but the fact that I can feel conflicted about them (which I think is better than simple like or dislike) is a good sign of how Lynch is handling them. I’m especially pleased with his handling of Sabetha, and her relationship with Locke. It takes reading the book to understand how complex and complicated that relationship, and Sabetha herself, really are, but I appreciate the fact that Lynch takes the time to make me feel really ambivalent about Sabetha. On the whole, I actually like her, but it’s difficult to get a real read on who she is because she isn’t always used as a point-of-view character: the reader sees her through Locke’s eyes, and that’s certainly not the best way to understand Sabetha, because Locke worships her hand and foot whether he admits it or not. I hope that in the upcoming novels, Lynch will allow Sabetha a chance to explain things her own way – not least because of what it could mean for Locke’s characterization.

The plot is everything one could expect from a Gentlemen Bastards book: Locke and Jean find themselves in a seemingly-impossible situation from which they can’t talk or bribe their way out, and have to confront seemingly-impossible odds. Through a series of exceedingly clever maneuvers and manipulations, they manage to get the results they want – well, sort of. That their opponent is Sabetha, a fellow Bastard, which just ups the ante since she’s familiar with the way their minds work. It was interesting watching them trying to out-maneuver each other based on the fact that they actually know how the other operates. There are also quite twists along the way that will leave the reader grinning or staring aghast (depending on what happens – though one in particular had me screaming, which is no mean feat) and the ending is far more of a killer than the ending for the last two.

And the wit – ah, the wit and the sarcasm and the swearing. I’ve always loved how Lynch does this particular aspect of his novels. Whether the characters are insulting someone or making a statement, one can always expect to hear something so surprisingly clever that one has to chuckle or laugh aloud outright at what one has read. Take, for instance, this gem, used to describe Sabetha:

“Well, hell. It’s been five years. Maybe she’s learned to lose gracefully. Maybe she’s out of practice.”

“Maybe trained monkeys will climb out of my ass and pour me a glass of Austershalin brandy,” said Jean.

Or this excellent scolding:

“You snot-nosed grand duke of insolence,” said Chains, growing louder with each word, “you ignorant, wet-eared, copper-chasing shit-barge puppy!”

Or this one, succinct statement about the desire for coffee, to which every hardcore coffee-drinker can relate:

“I could do public murder for a cup of coffee,” said Jean.

Honestly, I could go on and on here, but this is really one of the greatest pleasures about reading Lynch’s books. Of course, more sensitive souls wouldn’t like it, but for those of us who enjoy a good insult, or love our sarcasm to be so dry and witty it practically snaps and crackles off the page, then Lynch’s writing is a great pleasure indeed. It’s certainly one of the reasons why I wait so rabidly for his books, at any rate.

Now on to the reason why I used the word “almost” earlier. For some odd reason I can’t quite pinpoint, the plot in this book seemed to be somehow smaller, making it feel like Republic of Thieves suffers from the “middle-book syndrome” more often seen in trilogies. I define “middle-book syndrome” as the sense one gets, as a reader, wherein the second book in a trilogy feels like a transitional point between the momentous events of the first book, and the momentous events of the third. Compared to the many-layered heist-turned-quest for vengeance-turned-rescue in The Lies of Locke Lamora, and the casino heist-slash-pirate adventure in Red Seas Under Red Skies, the twinned plots of election-rigging (the plot in the present-time in the novel) and theater heist (the plot of a flashback story) don’t come off as equally jaw-dropping or awe-inspiring as the plots of the first two books, hence that sense of smallness. I was expecting something grand and insane – after all, Locke’s really, really good at coming up with grand and insane plots. But Republic of Thieves didn’t feel that way.

Of course, it could be entirely possible that I’m wrong to feel that way. I suspect that the reason for the sense of “smallness” is the change of focus in this novel – away from the plotting and the scheming, and more to the personal. This is the first time Sabetha is present in the flesh (so to speak) in any of the novels, so naturally exploring her relationship with Locke would be a priority – especially if she’s to make a reappearance further down the line.

Overall, The Republic of Thieves is almost everything a fan of Lynch’s series could hope for: the characters are as clever and as snarky and as well-written as ever; the plot is pretty twisted and has more than a few surprises awaiting the reader; and Sabetha is precisely what one could have hoped for in a female character with as complex and mysterious a background as hers. However, some readers may feel a sense of smallness in the plot, especially when compared to the grander hijinks the Bastards have gotten themselves into in the last two books, but in this instance it would be best to keep in mind that in this book, Lynch is obviously taking time away from the scheming to focus more on the personal. Sabetha’s around, after all, and she is such an important character to Locke that it does take an entire book to understand what she means to him. I all say nothing further on certain new plot developments, but I will say this: those developments are entirely, completely scream-worthy, all things considered, and will throw the reader for quite a loop.

Either way, I cannot wait for the next book The Thorn of Emberlain, which I’ve read Lynch call “Grand Theft Emberlain” elsewhere on the Internet. As someone who is entirely familiar with the Grand Theft Auto games, I am absolutely excited for that next book, and hope that it sees a return to the grander-level scheming Locke and Jean do so very well.

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