Horse Piss. That's right, horse piss; Scott Lynch went there and the world of fantasy will never by the same.
If Guy Richie cast a younger Johnny Depp in a film about a band of thieves and con artists trying to rip off the fat cat families in the Republic of Venice, would you watch it? I sure as hell would. Now imagine that bit of Ocean Elevenism cum Middle Ageiness, but with a dash of sorcery, the Godfather and a revenge plot that would make Old Boy
director Park Chan-Wook blanch in modesty and shame and you'll have a pretty good idea of what The Lies of Locke Lamora
is all about. Ordinary literary sensibilities would demand that you immediately put down any book with such a puerilely alliterative title, but that would be a mistake of the highest order. This novel is well-constructed, well-written and excitingly fun.
Locke Lamora and his crew of Gentleman Bastards (I know, I know the naming sense here reeks of either the paranormal romance or YA genre, but stick with me) are the slickest and most intelligent Right People in all of Camorr. In a Ventian-esque town literally overflowing with thieves, the Bastards distinguish themselves by pulling really big jobs on the nobility while most of the other gangs obey a strict code of "ethics" called the Secret Peace that leaves the nobility untouchable. Those who break the Peace answer to the Godfather - Capa Vencarlo Barsavi, who runs the criminal underworld in Camorr. The arrival of a potential rival, the Gray King, throws this orderly system into chaos and the ordinarily low-profile Bastards get caught in the middle of a huge conspiracy of vengeance and greed.
I don't do the real story justice here. Lynch creates a truly imaginative world with a lot of depth and a host of supporting characters that feel ingrained in their world; they don't exist as mere plot devices to push the story along. He also tries some bold moves with the narrative structure that mirrors the typical conventions we've seen in some of the more recent heist films like Ocean's Eleven
where we join the action in media res before the narrative cuts, at some pivotal moment, to the previously unseen set-up, at which point, when the plot continues, we see events in a new light. It's a bit gimmicky, but for the most part it works pretty well. Lynch certainly doesn't abuse it much beyond the first few chapters and cons. The one time this does not work is during the Spider con that Locke and Calo pull on the Salvaras. Lynch makes us aware that the police informing the Salvaras that they're being ripped off by a band of thieves are the thieves themselves before going back to show how the two broke into the manor, at which point success is a fait accompli and there is zero suspense. In fact, this was the only time in the book where I felt like I just wanted to skip a few pages and jump ahead to the main action.
For the most part, it ramps up the tension by showing the characters in impossible situations where just about the time you're going to ask, "How the hell are they going to get out of this?," you get "the set-up recap," which is always very, very clever. The book alternates between the main action and chapters that tell the story of Locke and the Bastards' pasts with brief sidesteps for world-building mythology and history that don't distract. Usually the flashbacks or bits of history are apocryphal and the nuances in these stories make for interesting parallels that converge in the main narrative like separate train tracks heading off and converging at the horizon. Usually I feel pretty ambivalent about such storytelling schemes. I tend to prefer one over the other and find that intervening chapters get in the way of what I really want to know. I think it a testament to Lynch's ability that I felt no such compulsion in this book. Each strand was interesting and their respective lengths so well-balanced that I was eager to get back to whatever was left off previously. Lynch also creates very interesting and likable characters and in the great post-George R.R. Martin fantasy tradition, feels no compunction about killing them off. In fact, the second half of the novel is a bloodletting of fairly epic proportions. The difference between Lynch and Martin, in my opinion, is that I actually cared when these characters died. You can't help but feel invested in some of the vendettas that get hatched through the course of the story. There are just enough hints at a wider world and character histories and mysteries to leave you with a sense of depth and curiosity that surely bodes well for the beginning of a series of books.
If I had to make a single recommendation to someone about the best book I'd read this year, it'd probably still be Cloud Atlas, but I'd probably say that The Lies of Locke Lamora
was the most fun and exciting. This is definitely going to be one of my go-to recommendations for my students in the Fall who are looking for books. It's full of violence and foul language, but it's also smart, witty and downright hilarious at times. In short, enough action to entertain a teenager, but enough wily conniving and historical allusions to satisfy the more mature and well-read mind. Recommended for people who like Martin's gritty fantasy realism, but are tired of things happening at a freaking snails pace.