The Lies of Locke Lamora is the debut novel by American novelist Scott Lynch, which introduces us to the Gentlemen Bastards, a cunning long-con gang in a decadent city under the shadow of several competing forces. This is a book that has been on my radar for quite some time, but I just never got around to picking up, and boy am I glad I did. I think I might just be taking away the ‘best debut I’ve ever read’ title from Patrick Rothfuss and sliding it along over here. Great characters, an engaging plot, several moments that actually made me laugh out loud, and a really impeccable sense of timing and pacing made this one of the best books I’ve read all year.
In this stunning debut, Scott Lynch delivers the thrilling tale of an audacious criminal and his tightly knit band of tricksters. Set in a fantastic city pulsing with the lives of decadent nobles and daring thieves, here is a story of adventure, loyalty, and survival that is one part “Robin Hood,” one part Ocean’s Eleven, and entirely enthralling….
An orphan’s life is harsh–and often short–in the mysterious island city of Camorr. But young Locke Lamora dodges death and slavery, becoming a thief under the tutelage of a gifted con artist. As leader of the band of light-fingered brothers known as the Gentleman Bastards, Locke is soon infamous, fooling even the underworld’s most feared ruler. But in the shadows lurks someone still more ambitious and deadly.
Faced with a bloody coup that threatens to destroy everyone and everything that holds meaning in his mercenary life, Locke vows to beat the enemy at his own brutal game–or die trying….
I think that one of the things I most enjoyed about Lynch’s writing in this book is the way that he seems to know the exact moments where a certain thing is called for, to separate this story from the tropey boring mess it could have been. Without the first little introductory chapter, I might have just shrugged and said ‘Oliver Twist clone, borrrring’ and moved along. But the various little vignettes that crop up in and around the main plot of the story keep showing you that something so much more interesting is going on. Right from page 1, you’re given the sense that this is something a little more ambitious and unique, and there wasn’t a single aside or flashback that I wished hadn’t been there.
I’ve actually seen some reviews criticising Lynch for the flashbacks, as though they somehow detracted from the main plot of the novel. Probably my favourite part of the whole book was the scene where Locke is confronted with the bondsmage The Falconer, in private for the first time, and before he can say anything, we drop into a flashback which is the lecture his mentor Chains is giving him about bondsmages. Now, a normal book would have just had Locke remember this in a couple paragraphs, and frame it more by way of an exposition dump. This would have been crappy. Instead, we flash back to a scene where Locke is learning about bondsmages. This is actually a really important and clever choice. This is information Locke already knows. He’s had the lecture, it’s in his head. There’s literally no reason at all for him to stand there like an idiot and have a nice remembrance about the fact that you’re supposed to be very careful to be very polite and not offend bondsmages. But -we- still need to know it, because it informs his behaviour. By framing it as a flashback scene and not an internal monologue, Locke remains intact as a clever and quick-thinking character, and we don’t bury the lead on the amazing opening line he delivers. (One of the moments I laughed out loud)
This is common throughout The Lies of Locke Lamora, it’s always better to show and not tell, but if you do have to tell, at least tell in a clever way. This is a very in medias res sort of story, and Locke absolutely has a backstory we want to know about. By showing us through flashbacks rather than have him explain himself to people who already know his deal, it felt like two great stories instead of one great story and some exposition.
And what a story. I’m a big fan of heist movies and ensemble casts. Guy Ritchie can make basically anything he wants and I’m good to go. My favourite moments in any heist are the ones where the protagonist, looking like they’ve lost, has planned things out so well, read the situation so well, that even this doesn’t mess with his plan. It can go too far, and at the risk of shoving you into a TVTropes.com black hole, the ‘Xanatos Gambit’ is basically what I’m talking about here. Locke is just so good at what he does, that even when it looks like he’s losing, he’s actually winning. Or he’ll figure out a way to adjust the plan to make it so he’s still winning. It’s done exactly enough to cement him as one of the great ‘Magnificent Bastards’ (probably no surprise that the Gentlemen Bastards have a similar name) without overdoing it and making it seem impossibly unrealistic. His team too are pretty great. The interactions between and with Calo and Galdo, the stalwart ‘Sam’ness of Jean, the sort of lurking mystery of Sabetha, all really created a milieu in which Locke operates that supports without overshadowing that he is still the brains and core of the operation.
I’m not even sure if there’s something in this book I want to set aside as something I didn’t like. Not everything was completely mind-blowing, but nothing was actually bad. That’s probably the most impressive thing about The Lies of Locke Lamora, usually even a great debut has some failings, and while there’s always room for improvement, even the worst elements of this novel still felt perfectly competent. I’ve already now read the other two currently existing novels, Red Seas Under Red Skies and Republic of Thieves and loved them both as well. I’ll probably put individual reviews for them up interspersed with some other content, just to avoid too much gushing all over the front page, but seriously, read these books. The whole thing is going to be seven novels, though the fourth, The Thorn of Emberlain still doesn’t have a release date. Knowing Locke, though, it’s probably already on our bookshelves and we just haven’t noticed yet.