The Lies of Locke Lamora
by Scott Lynch
Paperback edition, Bantam, 2007
The Lies of Locke Lamora came out in 2006, but I only got around to it in 2019. I’m coming out of a long period where I did not read current science fiction or fantasy, only old favorites. It caught my attention at Value Village, one of my favorite places in Seattle to buy used books, because of all the buzz it’s had. It’s completely warranted for the most part.
(NOTE: There are some spoilers in this review.)
Lies is a rollicking, genial fairground ride of a fantasy, less deep than it intends to be, but very good for what it does — depicting a roguish buddy adventure for which Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser series was the basic template. There’s a team of five in the book, but Locke Lamora and Jean Tannen are the core members, embodying, respectively, brains and brawn, but also acting and business, planning and fighting. There’s a healthy dash of Asterix and Obelix as well. Lynch’s creations are far more cerebral, however, and more self-aware. They are confidence men, running their scams out of a temple dedicated to the god of poverty and charity from a basement hideout that would put the Batcave to shame, while catering to the upscale tastes of Bruce Wayne. The book has been described as grimdark by some reviewers because of its focus on vice, but it really isn’t. It’s a lark, and the sheer glee of the author shines through as he constructs the plot along with the glee of the protagonists as they construct their scam of the century.
The story takes place in Camorr, a canal-filled city based on Venice, but with the muggy climate of a hot summer in New York City, and with that city’s crime, too. The city becomes its own character in the book, a place of seediness and mystery, yet also great wealth and ostentatious displays of it. It’s an exquisitely designed gamer’s paradise rendered as the background of a novel, giving life and color to the adventures within. The naming conventions are Italianate, some actual, like Lorenzo, others made up with an Italian feel, like Barsavi. I give the author lots of credit for doing historical research. Much in here could have come from City of Fortune: How Venice Ruled the Seas, the history of Venice I read for the 2018 Reading Challenge. There are twists, though. Instead of the Doge (Duke) of the city symbolically wedding the sea, we have female athletes who fight sharks with battle axes. It’s a lot of fun, though I could have done with less of the local color, especially the descriptions of clothing. But what made it excessive also made it very real. I felt I could walk into it at any point.
Miracolo della Croce a Rialto, by Vittore Carpaccio
In contrast, The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, the fantasy book I had read previous to this, had a world that felt less real and more stylized, like an expressionistic movie set. In contrast to Lies the things that happen to Jemisin’s characters were both horrible and affecting, which is what the author intended, and indeed it was a different kind of book. I could go on about male vs. female ways of writing here, and which is better or worse, but I won’t.
The structure of the novel is interesting too. Instead of telling the story of Locke Lamora, a completely average human save for his skill at impersonation and thievery, in a linear way, we move back-and-forth. We begin at Locke’s genesis, where he escapes a fire in a poor neighborhood and is taken in by The Thiefmaker, the Fagin-like leader of a ring of pickpocket children that operates out of tombs in the cemetery. In roughly the first half of the story we watch Locke, Jean, the Sanza brothers and apprentice Bug set up an elaborate scam on an unsuspecting noble which is contrasted with Locke’s rough life with the pickpockets, then with Father Chains who trains him to run scams. This was fun and I was waiting for the scam to go wrong so the main plot could get started. The back-and-forth structure meant some events became confusing though. At one point the noble target is visited by a member of the Duke’s secret police who warns him of what Locke is planning for them and advises them to play along with it, as the secret police have things under control and are waiting for the right moment to catch the thief. Then in the next chapter we switch to Locke & Co. dressing as the secret police in their hideout, preparing to visit the noble, and I chuckled, foreseeing the trouble they will run into with their scam if the real secret police have warned the target. I thought this was the trigger point of the plot and looked forward to the mayhem. But no, we actually skipped back in time and everything was all right.
That said, the first half of the book was better plotted than the second half, and the last eighth of it, where things begin to fall apart in a way that didn’t fit with the story’s earlier tone.
The real plot begins when Locke is drugged on his way home from visiting his marks and taken to the Gray King, a mysterious assassin who has been killing the men of Barsavi, the current crimelord of the city. The Gray King tells Locke he must impersonate him at a meeting with Barsavi but doesn’t explain why. This is the first time ever Locke finds himself in a bind, and we move away from the scam plot which was loads of fun into a more standard and sober one. Appealing characters start to die, some in sadistic ways. Though it’s something that would normally bother me as a reader because the previous tone was so gleeful, it didn’t. Emotional consequences were not examined at length because it just wasn’t that kind of book. The tone remained breezy, and I could easily imagine the deceased characters as actors only playing their roles, popping up backstage hale and hearty after their exits were made. I can guess it’s because of the RPG influence on the author, where deceased characters are just that, characters, and can be used to game with another day. No sweat.
The story then becomes a mystery/thriller as Locke & Co. try to stop the Gray King from his nefarious plot to destroy Camorr. The tension is ratcheted up and kept me turning the pages. The intrusions to the past continued, some of which filled in the details of the characters’ previous lives, and started to feel more like intrusions, but they also leavened the cartoonish nature of the plot. (Incidentally, this method of telling a SFF story by going back-and-forth with anecdotes, myths, diary entries, etc. all started with Ursula K. LeGuin’s novel The Left Hand of Darkness, as I found out the other day. How the field cross pollinates.)
However, the two sections fit together uneasily even with this device. I had the feeling that Locke, who had been set up in all the chapters before as a cool, confidant badass, was being shoehorned into the plot and his character suffered. For example, when Locke is drugged for the first meeting with the Gray King, he thinks the wife of the noble he’s scamming has poisoned the ink of the document he handled earlier — meaning she knows the true nature of Locke’s scam. But Locke never follows up on it or thinks about it again. And when, in the end, Lock is captured and exposed as a criminal, liar and cheat, he must save Camorr by revealing a wild plot that no one is likely to believe. We might have had the grounds for some delicious examination of what happens when a habitual liar must tell the truth. Yet that irony is never explored, Locke instead getting his point across by lots of sputtering and cursing. The side characters had continued to be well done and rounded out up to that point, yet the main character took a big step back, becoming a puppet. As a reader I expected some deeper examination of him at this part, but all I got was lip service to his trauma. An older or more skilled writer might have been able to pull it off; this was the writer’s debut, and though solid, he was not 100% there yet.
Still, it’s a loving tribute to games and gaming and the creators of those games. I give it five stars.