Tuesday, November 2, 2010

The Lies of Locke Lamora - Scott Lynch

In the spring of 2007 my girlfriend won a contest organized by the Elf Fantasy Fair, one of the larger Fantasy oriented events in the Netherlands. The price included a meet and greet with one of guests of honour of our choice. We went over the list and quickly figured out we didn't have a clue who most of these people were. The only name that was vaguely familiar was that of Scott Lynch, who's début was a big hit in the English language world. The Lies of Locke Lamora was doing quite well in Dutch translation too. To make sure I didn't come across as a complete idiot, I quickly ordered the book and it arrived with a week to spare more me to read it. It took me just tree days. The Lies of Locke Lamora proved to be one of the best books I've read in 2007. In think my verdict at the time was that it suffered from a slight overuse of the word 'piss' but that it was otherwise excellent. After this reread my opinion hasn't changed.

The Lies of Locke Lamora is set in the city of Camorr. The city-state of Camorr thrives on trade and is a centre of ruthless mercantilism on the Iron Sea. The city is ruled by an ageing Duke who's ideas on justice are quite hard. Hanging of thieves is a common occurrence and more colourful punishments are frequently meted out as well. To keep crime in his city at an acceptable level, the Duke has made a pact with the leader of Camorr's thieve guild, Capa Barvasi. An agreement that prevents the city's thieves from preying on the nobility in exchange for certain privileges. This tactic has worked very well for the past two decades. There are always some who are not happy with those restrictions however. In recent years the Thorn of Camorr, a mysterious thief thought to be a rumour, has conned several members of the city's nobility out of huge sums of money, relying on sense of honour of the nobility to prevent them from talking. And now he is getting ready for a new confidence game, once again threatening the balance of power in the city.

A second strand of the story is set years earlier. It deals with Locke, a young boy fallen in the hands of a man called the Thiefmaker. This man runs a gang of boys and girls too young to be of use to the other gangs in the city and learns them the tricks of the trade in a rather brutal fashion. Locke proves to be a great actor and thief but he does not usually think beyond the immediate consequences of his acts. This gets him in trouble more than once. When the Thiefmaker finds out Locke is responsible for the deaths of several members of his own gang, there is only one option. The boy has to die. Unless the Thiefmaker can sell him to Father Chains, the man who runs the most peculiar gang of thieves in the city of Camorr.

Scott Lynch has the doubtful honour of being on the list of most anticipated releases of the year in the fantasy genre for several years running now. After the release of Red Seas under Red Skies (2007), the second book in what is planned as a seven book series, it grew very quiet and book three, The Republic of Thieves was postponed again and again. Earlier this year, what I assume to be part of reason for this became apparent when Lynch posted on his Livejournal that he was seeking therapy to deal with the bouts of depression and panic attacks he's been suffering. The contrast with the man I met couldn't be greater. He was in a very good mood that day. Obviously enjoying his time at the Fair, probably slightly bewildered by all the fruitcakes pretending to be elves around him. I certainly hope he'll be able to find that cheerful guy I met in April 2007 again. It looks like The Republic of Thieves will see publication next year, so I am going to try and reread the second book before that time a well.

The Lies of Locke Lamora is one of the strongest débuts I've ever read. Lynch wrote a thoroughly entertaining tale, combining a very interesting fantasy setting with what is essentially a heist story. There is some good action, smart dialogue, a dash of caper and a sympathetic but flawed main character, all worked into an irresistible mix. I suppose it is not the most complex or deep work of fiction I have come across, the book doesn't aspire to that. It is a terribly fun read however, in terms of sheer entertainment value it succeeds gloriously.

What I mostly admire about this book, and what I think raises it above other strong débuts, is the techniques Lynch uses to tell the story. A large part of the novel is written completely out of chronological order. The author weaves two story lines into his tale that are set years apart, the present story line is contained in the regular chapters and the past story line in interludes. Within the chapters he also writes out of chronological order, show us a scene and then going back to how this event came about. It sounds a bit confusing but Lynch manages in such a way that the story is perfectly clear even on a first reading. For an inexperienced author this is quite an achievement. The downside is that Lynch seems to like cliffhangers and awful lot. As a reader, I think it's very easy to overuse this technique and Lynch is constantly in danger of doing so. I must admit it didn't bother me in this novel, I guess the author recognized this danger as well.

The setting Lynch uses is a port city reminiscent of medieval Venice. As with a lot of fantasy, this novel contains quite a few made up words. In this novel, most of them seem to be derived from Spanish and Italian, reinforcing the Mediterranean atmosphere of the city. The author has clearly invested in developing his world. He describes a city with a turbulent history, founded by an ancient race that disappeared long ago but left remnants that cannot be reproduced by the humans that took their place. Lynch leaves all manner of historical and geographical hints that could be used in later books. He doesn't burden the reader with things they don't need to know (yet) but it is clear that he is planning ahead. Something that can also be seen in what is revealed about Locke's past. Lynch is very selective in what he shows the reader in the interludes, hinting at things to come in future books. There is one member of Father Chains' gang that has yet to make an appearance in the series. Someone who clearly has a lot of influence on Locke.

It is clear that Lynch is not done with this setting and these characters but despite this, The Lies of Locke Lamora stands very well on its own. The book is an absolute joy to read. It remains to be seen if Lynch can manage to keep meeting the high standard he set in future books, I have my doubt if this approach will work for seven books, but even if that does not turn out to be the case, this book should absolutely be present in the collection of any fan of the fantasy genre. You'll rarely find an author so in control of the story, with such a feeling of what to tell the reader and when to do it. If you haven't read it already, go find a copy.

Book Details
Title: The Lies of Locke Lamora
Author: Scott Lynch
Publisher: Bantam Books
Pages: 499
Year: 2006
Language: English
Format: Hardcover
ISBN: 0-553-80467-7
First published: 2006

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