Gentleman Bastard – Book List

Urban fantasy is a wide field, but few bring the creativity and originality to it that Scott Lynch manages with his Gentleman Bastard sequence. The Lies of Locke Lamora is a stunning work of urban fantasy, part character study and part mystery. Initially good, in my mind, a second reading left me amazed and eager for the sequel. I confess I am partial to books about thieves and con artists, but much as Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files has raised the bar for urban fantasy set in this world, Lynch has set the bar for fantastic tales of con artists in worlds that may never be. This is definitely the sort of fantasy I recommend both for fans of the genre and for people who are looking for a great adventure.

Reviews

1. The Lies of Locke Lamora

by Scott Lynch

The Lies of Locke Lamora cover image
ISBN:
9780575079755
Format:
Trade Paperback, 537 pages
Published:
Gollancz, 2006

Spoiler Alert! This review contains crucial details about the plot of this book.

Third review: February 28, 2015

I was a bad boy and only recently purchased Republic of Thieves. Instead of starting it immediately, I decided to delay the pleasure. It feels strange to think that the last time I read The Lies of Locke Lamora was five years ago. As I suspected, I had forgotten almost all of the actual plot details. I’m glad I decided to re-read this, and to read Red Seas Under Red Skies again, before I start the third book. Why read one great book when you can read three?

My appreciation for this novel has only ever increased. You can read my first two reviews below. I don’t have a lot to add to those. The book itself hasn’t changed, but I have. I’ve graduated from university, spent two years teaching in England, and now I’m back here, kinda-sorta teaching. I’ve grown up, might be a little more cynical and definitely more sarcastic than I used to be—so I thought I wouldn’t necessarily like this as much as I used to. I was wrong. The Lies of Locke Lamora took me back to the basics; Scott Lynch reminds me of how much I love stories about con artists and heists. Yet beneath that decoration, it’s more accurate to say that this is a book about friendship and loyalty.

Every major character, no matter where they lie along the spectrum of protagonist or antagonist, in this book acts how they do out of loyalty. The Grey King’s entire modus operandi is to avenge the deaths of his family. Doña Vorchenza is the Duke’s most loyal servant. The Salvaras have a touching marital loyalty going on. And then you’ve got the Gentlemen Bastards. It’s no accident, how all those flashbacks Lynch includes are object lessons in loyalty, perseverance, and trust. I know that in my first review I thought the flashbacks were more of a nuisance than not, but I enjoyed them a lot more this time. They’re an efficient way of building Locke’s character without constraining the story to a boring, linear trajectory.

As for Locke and Jean’s friendship … well, I want to keep this review spoiler-free, so I’ll only say this: “I don't have to beat you. I just have to keep you here ... until Jean comes.”

I mean, damn.

(Plus, if you’ve read Red Seas Under Red Skies, you know what happens. You know what I’m talking about.)

In this reading I was also struck by Lynch’s amazing ability with worldbuilding. He makes the world seem much bigger than what we actually see on the page. Some authors don’t have a very clear conception of what their world is like—there are a lot of blank spaces on their maps. Others have detailed biographies of every minor character—but the trouble is that they feel the need to share all those details with the reader! Lynch is among the elite rank of authors who’ve done the research, done the creation, but don’t drown the reader in extraneous exposition. He has invented months and a way of naming the years after the gods and whatnot, but he doesn’t include appendices explaining these systems, and he certainly doesn’t shoehorn such explanations into the text. We just roll with it. It sounds just familiar enough that it becomes part of the flavour of the novel, just alien enough that it helps build up some character for the setting.

It’s also worth noting that this is a dense novel. The paperback edition I have has normal-sized print, but it has slim margins and eschews any headers or footers besides modest page numbers at the bottom. It’s a long book too. That’s because Lynch packs a lot in it—plots within plots within plots within cons and schemes. And it’s awesome.

Other than that, I think my second review covers most of the bases. The Lies of Locke Lamora is, simply put, delightful. It’s a fantasy book I would recommend to anyone thinking, “I don’t read a lot of fantasy, so where can I start?” Magic exists, but it isn’t too in-your-face. And Lynch manages the whole gamut of emotion, from humour through farce and dialogue to the gutwrenching, stomach-punching tragedy of losing the ones we love.

It’s like a movie that you really like: even when you remember the details and the characters (which I didn’t this time around), you take such pleasure from hanging around them and watching them in their element. (I think this would make a great TV series and could work well as an adaptation—but that’s neither here nor there.) After reading The Lies of Locke Lamora three times, I’m starting to see why I keep re-reading it. And I’ve no doubt I will read it again, and again.

Second review, finished reading on October 9, 2009

In case the following new review doesn't make it absolutely clear, on a second reading, my admiration of The Lies of Locke Lamora has only increased. Even though I knew what would happen and anticipated every twist, I still enjoyed the book. While I don't think "re-readability" is a requirement for a great book, it certainly helps.

I quite enjoyed the story. It starts out as a con game and quickly becomes about intra-city politics, class warfare, and revenge. No one is whom they seem to be. There's just something so satisfying about watching Locke Lamora and his gang of Gentlemen Bastards execute a confidence game. Maybe I'm a sociopath; certainly it's a valid criticism that the protagonist of the book is a thief. As thieves and rogues go, however, Locke and his bunch aren't bad—they're certainly better than the cutthroat brigands who form one of the two antagonist groups. And the other antagonist group, the largely clueless nobility led by the slightly-less-clueless Dona Vorchenza, isn't much better—there's a reason we switched to democracy, right?

Locke Lamora is everything you expect from the brains behind a con game: sneaky, devious, and a smart-ass. He'll talk back to anyone—even the most scary character in the book, the Karthani Bondsmage known only as "the Falconer." When he's not patronizing you, you should be worried, because that means he's playing you, like he plays Capa Barsavi, once the most important criminal in Camorr, and Dona Vorchenza, Duke Nicovante's secret spymaster.

I suppose I should also telegraph my love for Jean Tannen, Locke's sidekick and muscle. Lynch has a nice way of introducing Jean: he beats up young Locke. Yay, I like when the main character gets taken down a notch! Jean's got brains too—he reads books—but prefers to let Locke build the schemes even as he cuts down anyone in the way. Their symbiotic relationship is perfectly summed up in one flashback scene, which is actually foreshadowing for the climax: "I don't have to beat you. I just have to keep you here ... until Jean comes." Awesome.

Camorr comes alive through Lynch's description of the way the city and its inhabitants operate. There's a great deal of exposition in this book, but it seldom interrupts the unity of the story. As a result, we learn all about the culture of Camorr, how other peoples view the Camorri, and what it's like to be a thief in the city. In a way, the city itself is a character.

And it fits perfectly into this novel's tone of badass underdogs versus ruthless villains. Both groups are equally matched when it comes to wits too; Lynch expertly balances the schemes of both the protagonists and antagonists to create a nice element of risk toward the climax. The first time I read this, I certainly didn't know exactly what the Grey King had up his sleeve; every time he stood up and pontificated his "actual" plan, we'd quickly learn it was just the uppermost layer of a Xanatos Gambit! And he's not the only one with a plan. Of course Locke is going to win in the end—at a terrible price—but along the way he suffers many setbacks. He's awesome, but he's flawed and far from invincible, which makes him a believable character.

Instead of learning about the Grey King's actual totally ultimate evil plan from his own mouth, we refreshingly hear it from the mouth of a tortured henchman whom Locke and Jean capture. In fact, although this book has a lot of exposition and flashbacks, it makes up for this by defying expectations when it comes to direct confrontations between two major characters. I cheered aloud when Dona Vorchenza jabbed Locke in the neck with a poisoned knitting needle, proceeded to tell him how he would now surrender, and he punched her in the face and stole the antidote before running away. Finally, a hero who does logical things when at the mercy of an antagonist! My relief is palpable.

Have I extolled The Lies of Locke Lamora enough? Are you crying out, "Enough, already! We get it, Ben; you liked the book!" Hopefully I've given you an idea regarding whether you'd enjoy reading it. This book is fun, while at the same time maintaining suspense and a sense of danger. If so inclined, you can grow attached to some of the characters. That's often difficult with even the best of books, but Lynch's style and way with dialogue make it easy here.

Of course I have some criticism to offer. It's much the same as what I said in my first review, however, so I won't repeat it here. I've included my first (and less well-written) review below.

First review, finished reading on September 10, 2008. Rating: 4 stars

The Lies of Locke Lamora offers entertaining characters who all seem to have schemes of their own, exciting action scenes, and equally excellent exposition. Scott Lynch has created a refreshing fantasy story that revolves not around "the chosen one" but around a thief. While this may not be original, Lynch's Locke Lamora is a charming thief with whom I bonded as he becomes the underdog through successive struggles in the story.

Alliteration aside, I enjoyed this book in a way I haven't for a while (mostly because I spent the summer reading The Sword of Truth series). When I reached the climax, I couldn't wait to turn the next page--unfortunately, I had to go to class. Lynch is a good storyteller; he keeps the reader interested while still managing to convey enough details to create a rich setting. Camorr is Venice, with a pinch of magic sprinkled among pseudo-science. I appreciate how Lynch seamlessly integrates magic into his setting: no endless speeches explaining the rules of the author's pet system of magic. I hate that!

Locke Lamora is an orphan who rises to become the leader of a gang of thieves for whom misdirection is everything. They regularly breach Capa Barsavi's Secret Peace--that the thieves of Camorr, or "Right People" as they call themselves, will steal only from commoners and merchants, not from nobles or the "yellowjacket" city watch. Yet to everyone outside their group, the Gentlemen Bastards seem to be nothing more than mediocre thieves. Unfortunately, Lamora's penchant for disguise catches up to him when he becomes a reluctant pawn in a power struggle for control of Camorr's thieves.

While Lynch does a good job weaving backstory into the book using flashback, some of the backstory seems superfluous, and that broke the unity of the story. I would pause and think, "Oh, that's nice. Can I get back to the plot now?" Some of the scenes could have been cut to tighten up the writing, and I would not have missed them.

The book was rushed toward the end--climaxes tend to lead to an increased pace, of course, but in this case I felt that the need for the climax drove the story toward an artificial resolution rather than the other way around. I can forgive Lynch for this simply because I derived great enjoyment from his characterization of Lamora toward the ending.

This edition includes a sneak peek at the second book in the series, and I must say that I can't wait to read it!

2. Red Seas Under Red Skies

by Scott Lynch

Red Seas Under Red Skies cover image
ISBN:
9780575079670
Format:
Trade Paperback, 630 pages
Published:
Gollancz, 2007

Spoiler Alert! This review contains crucial details about the plot of this book.

(Since this book features pirates, I'm using that as flimsy excuse to present my review entirely in "piratical" dialect, courtesy of this handy translator. Apologies to those who were expecting a sobre critique of literature in grammatical, precise English. Ye scallywag.)

I read this hot on th' heels o' me second readin' o' Th' Lies o' Locke Lamora|127455, about which I positively gushed in ever' way possible.

Goin' into this sequel, I be excited. I anticipated another brilliant adventure o' Locke Lamora an' Jean Tannen—an' thats what I got. Exactly what I got. Therein lies th' problem: th' best parts o' th' book be similar t' th' best parts in th' first book. Once again, Locke relies on a <a href="http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/XanatosRoulette">Xanatos Roulette</a> t' extricate hisself from a very messy situation, an' e'en by th' end o' th' book, they arent safe yet. As other reviewers be havin' lamented, however, th' worst offence be that o' shoehornin' one plot into th' other . . . after interestin' me in a very Ocean`s Eleven-esque casino heist plot, Lynch suddenly injects a gentleman o' fortune plot into th' story, which smartly takes o'er as th' "main" course o' th' book.

Now we reach th' point 'ere yer mileage may vary. Fans o' nautical adventures will probably enjoy this here log more than swabbies like myself who, while fans o' gentleman o' fortunes, aren`t fans o' havin' marine terminology bandied about while Jean an' Locke cool the'r heels on th' Sea o' Brass. Parts o' this here log bored me, which nerehappened in Th' Lies o' Locke Lamora. An' 'tis nay jus' th' fact that 't takes place at sea among gentleman o' fortunes; 'tis th' failed synthesis o' two disparate plots that irks me so much. By th' end o' th' book, Lynch attempts t' tie all th' plots together fer a grand climax . . . an' 'tis almost thar, but nay quite.

`Tis odd t' say this about a fantasy book, perhaps, but th' realism be sorely lackin'. In a sense, th' lies o' Locke Lamora be too extraordinary an' insouciant, whereas in th' first book, they be jus' th' starboard amount o' extraordinary an' insouciant. Savvy? By th' time we reached th' climax, I had trouble believin' Locke could truly get th' lad's an' Jean ou' o' this mess alive, an' triumphant—speakin' o' which, I did enjoy th' twist at th' very end regardin' the'r spoils o' victory.

Th' first wee chapters o' th' book be th' best. We get t' be seein' Locke at his nadir, resigned t' drink an' mope in a room in an inn while Jean goes ou' an' tries t' build a gang in th' wee, dumpy city t' which they's fled. Locke, whom we`ve grown t' love as a smartass an' badass, be reduced t' a self-pityin' shadow o' his former self. 't takes some tough love from Jean t' set th' lad's straight, after which th' two begin plottin' t' rob th' most heavily-guarded casino eremade by man: th' Sinspire.

Id like t' continue sayin' good things starboard now, but th' subject o' th' Sinspire forces me t' criticize another unrealistic aspect o' Lynchs story: everything be hyperinflated in its status. Th' Sinspire be th' ultimate casino, 'ere nay one, nay one single swabbie ever gets away wi' cheatin'. Th' Archon`s One good eye be th' elite swabbieal guard who would never betray th' lad's. An' so on. Th' superlatives begin t' get annoyin' … well, superlative. Once an' a while 't would be nice t' come across an average sort o' swabbie who t'ain't either a complete idiot or a Chessmaster. I reckon, however, what wi' Locke Lamora bein' so brilliant an' all, 'tis difficult t' challenge th' lad's wi' ere less than a genius.

Speakin' o' which, I miss th' Dona Vorchenza! She be an antagonist, sure, but I liked th' lass'. She be fun. Neither Requin nor th' Archon, Stragos, be particularly likable; in th' first book, while I cheered fer Locke, I sympathized wi' th' Dona`s loss. Here, I couldna care less about what happened t' Requin or his position o' power afterward. Stragos, on th' other hand … well, as I be readin' th' book, I wondered why a troper on th' Gentleman Sons of a biscuit eater page o' TV Tropes labelled Stragos an anti-villain. I dasn't agree wi' th' label, but I agree that Stragos didna deserve his fate, an' I be nay sure Locke an' Jean would be havin' had 't in them. Then again, I didna understand how Locke an' Jean let they's self get into th' situation o' bein' poisoned anyway. Last time someone poisoned Locke coercively, he punched them in th' face an' stole th' antidote.

Without th' poison, o' course, thars very wee impetus fer Locke an' Jean t' go nautical—or refuse t' swashbuckle o'er th' one extant keg o' antidote at th' end. (Oh, come on, dasn't tell me thats a spoiler. I wont tell ye who drank 't,kay?) We get a much stronger idee o' th' bond between Locke an' Jean in this here log. Again, Lynch likes his superlative expressions o' affection, so I started t' skim them scenes after these two reconciled wi' each other fer th' nth time. 't be nice t' be seein' occasional tension, tho. An' 't be good t' be seein' Jean get some action (ye know th' sort o' action I mean).

Red Seas Under Red Skies preserves th' strong, witty characterization that made Th' Lies o' Locke Lamora amazin' in th' best sense o' th' word. Unfortunately, 't lacks a strong story t' go wi' its characters. This series still has great potential; I canna wait t' be seein' who makes th' next move in th' ongoin' struggle between Locke an' Jean an' th' Karthani bondsmages. E'en tho me interest in th' series remains intact, however, Lynch`s writin' an' plottin' needs t' improve t' restore me faith in th' quality o' th' series.

3. The Republic of Thieves

by Scott Lynch

The Republic of Thieves  cover image
ISBN:
9780575084469
Format:
Paperback, 726 pages
Published:
Gollancz, 2014

Spoiler Alert! This review contains crucial details about the plot of this book.

When I re-read this book, I might give it five stars. It’s that close. I just have all these … feelings.

I’ve waited a long time to read The Republic of Thieves and brought it with me as an airplane/travel book. It did not disappoint. For a third time Scott Lynch manages to deliver an incredible adventure breathtaking in the depth of its intrigue and the passionate portrayal of its characters. Without question I liked it better than Red Seas Under Red Skies—there was no heist plot derailed by a pirate plot in the middle of the book—and in some ways it is indubitably superior to The Lies of Locke Lamora . After all, Lynch finally delivers on an unspoken promise dangled before the reader since that first volume: we get to meet Sabetha!

Having heard about Sabetha for two entire books, it’s a pleasure to finally meet her in the flesh. The Republic of Thieves introduces two Sabethas: Sabetha in her youth, when Locke first meets her in Shade’s Hill, and then later when they are reunited as part of the Gentlemen Bastards; and Sabetha in adulthood, having lived and conned alone for years, reunited with Locke in Karthain to match wits and compete against each other to rig an election. Young Locke courts Sabetha for the first time while they spend a summer on stage outside Camorr. Older Locke must reconcile his lust and love for Sabetha with the obstacles put in place by their Bondsmagi employers.

This parallel structure that worked so well The Lies of Locke Lamora once more provides a satisfactory look at how both Locke and Sabetha have grown and changed (or not changed, as the case might be). The previous books all featured great depictions of women; Lynch demonstrates how it’s possible to create a cornucopia of cultures with varying traditions and attitudes and still feature women characters who are diverse and interesting individuals. But The Republic of Thieves, with its character of Sabetha, is the superlative use of this talent. She is the foil to Locke’s Magnificent Bastard personality, and boy does she know how to take him down a notch or two, in both time periods.

I love how Sabetha explains to Locke why being with him is so frustrating. She points out the deference shown to him by the other Gentlemen Bastards, and then goes on to point out how he takes it for granted. That’s right: Lynch has Sabetha talk about Locke’s privilege. And it’s great to see him sputter and at a loss for words, because he is completely prepared to declare his love and extol her virtues and protest his fidelity … but there was no way for him to anticipate those critiques. Though I don’t know from personal experience, I suspect this is typical of many relationships … all the second-guessing one does is for nought, because usually the problem is that one is totally oblivious to what the problem is….

Locke’s fallibility has always been a strength of this series. He is clever, fast to think on his feet, and ferociously loyal—yet people still manage to get the better of him at times. The fun comes from watching him take revenge or escape by the skin of his teeth by improvising upon his improvisations. Every once in a while, however, something happens that he can’t improvise his way out of, not entirely. Something blindsides him, and there are genuine moments of bewilderment. Sabetha’s critiques of him are one of those, as are Patience’s revelations about his origins.

That’s the part I’m ambivalent about. On one hand, I love that Lynch continues to expand the mythology he is building in this world. On the other hand, it’s just not a direction I expected him to go in—and maybe that should excite me, but it doesn’t. I suppose I’m worried it’s a cludge to give Locke a little more angst without actually changing too much about the formula or format of the series.

Still, at this point in the game, I guess Lynch has earned a good deal of leeway from me!

The political machinations in The Republic of Thieves are great fun. Locke’s energy, as Jean observes, has never been higher in recent memory. He inhabits the carefree character of election manager Sebastian Lazari and comes up with all manner of interesting schemes. I kind of expected the contest to end up the way it did—Lynch foreshadows the outcome, rather obliquely, in the flashbacks—but it was still well-executed.

Likewise, the theatrical subplot in the flashbacks is also great fun. Locke, Sabetha, Jean, and the Sanzas find themselves embroiled in their very first major con game—more of out necessity than avarice or ambition—and it’s so great. Complication upon complication piles up, and only their quick wits and specialized skill set allow them to escape.

If, like me, you’re a fan of this series, then there’s little that you won’t like in The Republic of Thieves. It’s once more a fun book that nevertheless has high stakes and a strong emotional arc. Lynch is a master at creating characters you care about and plots that you can sink your teeth into.

If you’re new, don’t start here. I mean you could, but that would be shooting yourself in the foot. It is so worthwhile to start at the first book. You’ll gobble them up like the richest, most filling of desserts. And then, like me, you will be stuck waiting for the next book … soon….