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Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Richer and Cleverer than Everyone Else: Scott Lynch’s Gentleman Bastards


“There’s no freedom quite like the freedom of being constantly underestimated.” – Scott Lynch, The Lies of Locke Lamora  ♦ 
I first became aware of Scott Lynch’s Gentleman Bastards fantasy series after The Republic of Thieves, the third book (of a projected seven), was published in 2013. I’d read praise for the book from the great George R.R. Martin, who called Lynch “a bright new voice in the fantasy genre,” and I couldn’t agree more. When The Lies of Locke Lamora first hit the shelves a decade ago, the relatively unknown Lynch was lauded as the next big thing in the genre, and when Red Seas Under Red Skies was published a year later, he proved he wasn’t just a one-trick pony. Then, after a grueling six-year wait for fans of the series, The Republic of Thieves was finally published, and Lynch carved his name among other greats in the genre such as Brandon Sanderson, Terry Pratchett, Patrick Rothfuss, and George R. R. Martin himself.
    The Gentleman Bastards series centers on Locke Lamora and Jean Tannen—the best of friends, brothers in all but blood, and, most importantly, thieves. Lynch’s story follows the duo as they steal from the rich and royal, those who take from the common man. We see Locke and Jean take on city rulers, pirates, and sorcerers, all with a smile on their faces and knives up their sleeves. We see them topple governments, cheat casinos, and rig elections. We see them through love found and love lost, through rich and poor, thick and thin. But I digress.
    Locke Lamora is the garrista (leader) of the Gentleman Bastards and priest of the Crooked Warden, the Benefactor, the Nameless Thirteen. The Bastards are but one of many gangs found in the fictional city of Camorr, which is not unlike Venice during the Renaissance. Their small gang is comprised of orphans—the twins Calo and Galdo Sanza—the mysterious Sabetha Belacoros, and Jean Tannen, who discovers he has a knack for dealing death. They are thick as thieves and serve as the family each other never had. Raised by Father Chains, a con man posing as a blind priest, they are molded for his own little scheme. The underworld of Camorr is controlled by the Secret Peace, an unspoken treaty between Capa Barsavi, the coldblooded overlord whom all of the gangs of Camorr pay homage, and the city’s Duke with his Spider. The Spider makes doubly sure the thieves don’t get too ambitious and turn their greedy machinations towards those whose blood runs blue.
    In The Lies of Locke Lamora, we see Locke and company try and tease out as much coin as they can from a young don and his wife, but along the way they run into their fair share of trouble, including such colorful (and deadly) antagonists as the mysterious Gray King, the shadowy Spider, and the fearsome Bondsmagi of Karthain. As the story progresses, Lynch gives the readers glimpses of how the Gentleman Bastards came to be, including how Locke and Jean first came to learn their skills and grow as friends. The best part of these flashbacks is that they are often related to what is going on in the present and will give a glimpse as to how the Bastards will conquer a present challenge. These flashbacks continue throughout the books and are extremely well done, giving historical insight into the Bastards and context to the situations the Bastards face.
    Lies is fast-paced, lending itself to a quick read, but is thick enough to attract readers of epic fantasy. It might seem like a long, heavy read at first glance, but it is far from that. The book reads easily, it doesn’t demand too much from the reader. It is smooth and seamless, especially in its action sequences. Lynch has peculiar ability to put actions into words; I never had a problem discerning who was doing what to whom, and the scenes are so seamless that they really showcase Scott Lynch’s prowess as writer. A first-time reader of the series will have trouble putting down Lies—I know I did.
    The city of Camorr is another standout point for this novel; it functions not just as a backdrop for the Bastards but as a character in its own right. From the Floating Grave to the Shifting Market all the way to the lofty Five Towers, Lynch has built a city that lives and breathes as much as the flesh and blood people who inhabit it, a world for that reflects the credo of the Bastards—richer and cleverer than everyone else.
    However, there are moments in the first book where Lynch’s inexperience as an author stands out, whether it’s an ill-chosen word here or an awkward plot device there, but those are easily outshined by the beauty of the world he has built and the strong characters he has provided. The biggest knock I have for Lies is that there are times where the cruel, vicious, and often extremely bloody occurrences strike an odd discord with the humor and playfulness of the novel’s dialogue— when someone is being force-fed to a hungry and enraged shark, for example, one would think that sarcastic comments would be in the very back of one’s head, not on the tip of your tongue. But these are relatively small complaints; The Lies of Locke Lamora is an exceptional first novel, and it absolutely serves as a welcome introduction to the series.

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Red Seas Under Red Skies, the second book in the series, takes place two years after the events of Lies and places Locke and Jean in the city of Tal Verrar, and in the hands of the Archon, Maxilan Stragos. Stragos wants Locke and Jean to travel the open seas causing trouble and rousing the pirates of the Ghostwinds to action, all to secure his position as Archon. The only catch? Locke and Jean have never sailed on a ship as anything other than passengers . . . oh, and Stragos has poisoned Locke and Jean with something only he has the cure to, to force them to comply. (Meanwhile, the duo is also employed in a long con that’s coming to fruition at the Sinspire, Tal Verrar’s center for any and all kind of debauchery.)
    The second installment of the series does fall short of the majesty of the first, but that should not deter anyone wishing to continue the series. If you love the characters of Locke and Jean, then the book will not disappoint. In fact, Red Seas excels in areas where the previous book was lacking—the overall plot is smoother sailing (no pun) than the previous book, there aren’t as many emotional sucker-punches delivered, and the dialogue is vastly more appropriate for the tone of the novel. Red Seas is not without its faults, though . . . there seems to be two different stories fighting for supremacy, the piracy arc and the Sinspire arc. Between these two, there’s almost too much plot happening, which forces everything else in the novel (such as character) to the backseat. Lynch crafts an elaborate structure but with very little to support it, which results in a book that feels a little shaky, as well as being a little too long by perhaps a hundred or so pages.

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 The third book in the series, The Republic of Thieves, takes place immediately after the events of the previous. Locke and Jean need to deal with that pesky poison Stragos kindly dosed them with, but to do so they need help from the infamous Bondsmagi of Karthain, who agree to help, but with a price: Locke and Jean must rig an election in favor of the political party the group of Bondsmagi support. Sounds like an easy enough task for the duo, until they hear who they are going up against: Sabetha Belacoros, Locke’s lost love and former Gentleman Bastard who is his match in everything when it comes to thievery. This is the first time readers get to meet Sabetha, other than a causal mention in previous books, and she does not disappoint. Sabetha pushes Locke and Jean to their absolute limits, resulting in the best versions of Locke and Jean for the readers in the series so far. The story’s plot is much simpler than its predecessor, which allows for the characters and their actions to really shine. This book also gives some possible answers to some of the bigger questions presented by series, including those surrounding Locke’s past, the mysterious Eldren, and the monuments they left behind. As nothing is perfect, there are some issues here, pacing being one of the book’s biggest faults. While there’s plenty of action going on in the story, it just takes forever to happen. Also, there were times where Locke’s obsession with Sabetha was comically overdone. He turns into absolute mush whenever she is around and is completely blind when it comes to her. There were also a couple of deus ex machina moments, where Lynch had no way to save the Locke and Jean other than some sort of divine intervention.
    All in all, though, the series is extremely interesting and allows the reader to dive in and lose him- or herself in the world of Locke Lamora. The series is a great blend of fun, style, and action, almost as if the Ocean’s 11 movie series had a baby with a fantasy author. With a fourth book titled The Thorn of Emberlain scheduled for release later this year, I am excited to see Locke and Jean take on the world once again.
  • About the Author
    Jake Grace is in his third year at Miami University, seeking a degree in Creative Writing. An avid reader, he hopes to pursue a career in literature. When you don’t find him reading a book, you can find him looking for one.

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