The Lies of Locke Lamora

by Scott Lynch

Cover image

Series: Gentleman Bastards #1
Publisher: Bantam Spectra
Copyright: July 2006
Printing: July 2007
ISBN: 0-553-58894-X
Format: Mass market
Pages: 719

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When we first meet Locke Lamora, he's being sold to Chains, the Eyeless Priest of the Temple of Perelandro, by the Thiefmaker. He's a young orphan who had been found after one of the islands of the city of Camorr had been isolated due to plague, bought from the city Ghouls who clean up after the periodic plagues by the Thiefmaker and brought to his underground hideout on Shade's Hill, there taught to be a pickpocket and thief. But at the start of the book, he's being sold to the Priest because otherwise the Thiefmaker is apparently going to kill him. This is the prologue.

The next time we meet Locke Lamora, he's a man. He's setting up an elaborate confidence game with three other men, two of whom are recognizable as other boys in the service of Father Chains from the prologue. The con is audacious and complex, targetting one of the rich merchants of the city and involving quite a bit of disguise and acting. It lasts for much of the book, running underneath everything else that happens.

The Lies of Locke Lamora is a secondary-world fantasy set in a city reminiscent of an Italian city-state and a world that feels roughly Renaissance-era. There is magic, although it takes some time before that becomes apparent. There is also widespread belief in gods, although the truth of that belief is left in question. Most dramatically, there is Elderglass, the ancient substance out of which some of the greatest buildings and numerous other relics are made, which is completely indestructable and which catches and re-emits the light of day at nightfall. Elderglass was made by the Eldren, a vanished ancient race that built the original cities that were discovered empty and re-inhabited by humans. (Including some indestructable buildings that are half-destroyed.)

But the highlight of the world-building is the city of Camorr. There are realistic cities in fantasy, but they're relatively rare compared to kingdoms and countries, and few of them are as lovingly detailed and as central to the story. The Lies of Locke Lamora takes place entirely within the city, with all the world-building that is usually lavished on an entire world concentrated on it. The detail shows. We see everything from the docks to the counting-houses, from the street gangs to the nobles, and meet a huge variety of the rulers of the city, both official and unofficial. It's at turns beautiful and grimy, depending on the part of the city, with Elderglass artifacts mixed into its construction and a canal- and water-based transportation network that adds variety and unusual settings. I love to see this attention put into a city, to see an author realize that there's more than enough room in a large city to put all the detail that's often spread across continents.

The story itself is told in two threads. One is "present day," following Locke and his friends and their con, which is a caper story slowly complicated by the presence of a wildcard force in the city named the Grey King. The other thread tells how Locke got to that place, starting as a child sold to Chains and building up the origins of the Gentlemen Bastards, and is a great picture of the education and early adventures of a talented thief and con artist. The story was, I think, where the book suffers a bit. It's a long book, and it has a tendency to meander, particularly during the banter and extended setup of the "present day" thread. Throughout the book I was generally more interested in the flashbacks showing Locke's history and disappointed when the attention went back to the current day, which is a sign of poor pacing balance between the strands. (Also, while Locke's creative dishonesty is always delightful, I liked his attitude even more as a kid.)

The plot also turns out to be relatively simple. Although Lynch spins many elaborations and flourishes around it and takes quite a bit of time to start it moving, the underlying structure is one of the basic plots of fantasy, one where the protagonist is put through hell on the way to the conclusion. I winced when I realized the structure that was emerging, since that plot usually involves getting the reader upset and angry to invest them in the story, and there's a fair bit of that here. It is effective, and it's a way to add a lot of dramatic and emotional weight to the eventual conclusion, but I wished the emotional arc were a bit more complex, or at least not quite as predictable. (That said, the payoff is dramatic and worthwhile, in part because of the emotional string-pulling.)

This is a very solid fantasy and one of the better city fantasies I've read. It didn't blow me away to the degree that I know it did some, but it was a very enjoyable reading experience that held my attention for hours at a time. Locke is a great character, particularly as a kid; the sheer audaciousness of what he pulls off and the way he approaches morality make for a complex and sympathetic character who is neither quite hero nor anti-hero. I love how the characters are deeply embedded in the culture of Camorr, a culture that's not going to be easily overturned or changed and that has substantial influence on how they see the world and define their place in it. Despite some daring and lucky adventures, Lynch's characters are not revolutionaries who want to overturn the social order. Nor are they really conservatives who seek to defend it; they try to prevent some actions, but mostly they're trying to survive, thumb their noses at some enemies, and do what they love to do. And that's an appealing thing to read about.

This is a book to save for when you want something long and engrossing, a book where you can explore the background in leisure. But for that mood, definitely recommended.

Followed by Red Seas Under Red Skies.

Rating: 8 out of 10

Reviewed: 2011-09-08

Last modified and spun 2015-10-23