I was alerted (thanks Kate!) to Scott Lynch's just-released novel Red Seas Under Red Skies, which looks like more swashbuckling piratey fun in the vein of some of my other recent reading. But it's the second in a series, so I first picked up its predecessor. This post is a spoiler-free review.
Scott Lynch: The Lies of Locke Lamora
At first I didn't think much of the fact that the main character's name is Locke; it's an actual name with an old-timey sound, evoking Enlightenment philosophers and spurious silent e's, and so it's not too surprising to see it used in fantasy. But when it turned out that Locke Lamora is a gentleman thief with a heart of gold who pines over his lost love, I started to wonder if this weren't a deliberate reference to another character of that name. Nevertheless, I was willing to extend the benefit of the doubt... until I read the chapter where he steals the clothes off a merchant.
This is not to say that the character is lifted directly from his video game counterpart; Locke Lamora has his own style, perpetrating elaborate and lucrative scams on the nobility of his home city Camorr. The first chapter opens in the middle of one such plot, and depicts the unfolding con with a Tarantino-esque nonlinearity, in which the game only becomes clear when the pieces are assembled at the end of the chapter. It's a nice trick for keeping up the readers in the dark when the protagonists have all the information, and is used fairly often early in the book.
However, Locke gets caught up in much more serious business in the course of executing his latest scheme, and about halfway through the book the story becomes correspondingly darker. The narrative structure likewise becomes more linear as Locke loses control of the situation. The pace becomes faster and faster until all the various plot threads come together in a frantic finale.
It's not a deep book, but it's a very well plotted and gripping thriller, one that I thoroughly enjoyed and devoured in three days. The book shares many aspects of its protagonist: clever and witty, a flair for the dramatic, full of surprises. And, well, the stealing: aside from the familiarity of Locke himself, the city of Camorr is a fantasy version of Venice, complete with near-Italian names and phrases (and some appropriate geographical neighbors); several of the characters hew to well-known archetypes (e.g. the mob boss Capa Brasavi); the fantasy elements need little explanation as they are for the most part standard tropes. But I think this is just a way for Lynch to avoid spending too much time on world-building and get right to the action. For presumably the same reason, the backstory gets chopped up and presented in short interludes between chapters. All this could be cause for complaint, except that it's assembled in a very compelling and effective manner. The interludes are usually relevant to whatever's happening in the main story at the moment, but I really liked one in particular, placed just after a cliffhanger ending to a chapter, that ended up paralleling the action very nicely.
What Lynch is really going for is not a grand, sweeping epic, but the fantasy equivalent of a heist movie or gangster film. (The reviewers quoted in the front of the book liked to cite Ocean's Eleven, but that comparison seems to be more suited to the second novel where the characters reportedly rob a casino.) The novel succeeds admirably, both at achieving a cinematic feel and at maintaining the requisite pace and suspense. Highly recommended.Tags: Books