Trained from childhood as a thief and con-artist par excellence, Locke Lamora employs a silver tongue and quicksilver mind to divest the rich of Camorr of their excessive wealth. No sooner do Locke and his associates initiate their latest scheme, however, than they find themselves at the mercy of the mysterious Gray King, who intends to use them as pawns in his bid to take over the city-state’s underworld. As the Gray King’s diabolical plan unfolds, Locke finds his skills tested as never before as he struggles not only for his own survival, but also for the survival of his friends and Camorr itself.
In this scintillating debut novel, Scott Lynch establishes himself as a rising star of fantasy fiction. Like Patrick Rothfuss, Lynch is a natural storyteller with a keen intellect and a gift for richly detailed, imaginative world-building and intricate plotting. The Lies of Locke Lamora is a fast-paced, entertaining, stilettos- (and hatchets-) against-sorcery tale that is both self-contained and well-positioned as a cornerstone for further adventures. It does have its share of weaknesses: excessive and gratuitous profanity; good but not deeply developed characterization; a few locales that are either too complex to describe or else inadequately described; and a lack of any comment on the human condition or truth that will change one’s life. In short, it’s a tale intended as pure entertainment… and as such, it admirably succeeds.
Highly recommended for fans of thieves, caper movies, and well-written sword-and-sorcery. Recommended with a caveat to fans of high fantasy and anyone distasteful of profanity and violence. Four gleaming white-iron stars.
If you travel to the canal city of Camorr, be warned that it’s a city thick with thieves and gangs. And the cleverest of them all is Locke Lamora and the Gentlemen Bastards, but their schemes go very badly awry when the mysterious Gray King and his sorcerous companion move in on the ruling crime boss.
The Lies of Locke Lamora is one of the best and most unique fantasy stories I’ve read. It’s a grand swashbuckling tale of adventure and revenge. Think Thieves’ World in Venice with Don Corleone as boss of the crime syndicate, and Farhd and the Grey Mouser as the resident trouble-makers.
Scott Lynch has created a unique and fascinating world full of wonderful creations such as a crime boss who rules his empire from a houseboat, his little daughter who sits on his lap drinking ale and kicking subordinates with her steel-toed boots, a blind priest who begs for alms and eats gourmet meals off fine plates in his luxurious cellar, noblemen who live in glowing glass towers, a blood-sucking rose garden, alcoholic oranges, and women who fight jumping man-eating sharks for sport. Not great literature, but truly entertaining!
I finally read The Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch. I don’t see what all the fuss is about. Other than stunning visuals of a strange and glorious archipelago city, vivid descriptions, engaging characters that we care about, and a story where the stakes are real, what does the book have to offer, really? I’ll admit that the story — the plot — is far from your usual fantasy fare, but are these things enough to sustain seven hundred pages? The answer is yes, not only sustain, but create a book I fell into and didn’t want to surface from, even after I turned the final page.
The plot of The Lies of Locke Lamora is more caper than quest. Other reviewers have compared Locke and his best friend Jean to Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser, and they do seem to be updated takes on those classic characters, in an accurately realized criminal underworld with as many rules and protocols as that of the Duke’s royal court. Lamora and his band of buddies are confidence tricksters, possibly the only ones in the city of Camorr. They pay tribute and (allegedly) allegiance to the Capa Barsavi, the city’s criminal kingpin. While Locke and his team, the Gentlemen Bastards, plot their biggest scam yet, events overtake them; a mysterious assassin is killing all of Barsavi’s henchmen. The assassin alone is one thing, but he is working with a bondmage, the most powerful type of magician in the land. This makes him unstoppable. All too soon Lamora is entangled in this plot and people around him begin to die.
The book is long because Lynch also gives us the background of Lamora and Jean. As an orphan of five or six, Lamora tagged along with a group that had been sold to the Thiefmaker. Very soon, the Thiefmaker traded Lamora off to Chains, a blind priest of the Nameless Thirteenth God. Chains is also the leader and mentor of the Gentlemen Bastards, and teaches his thieves to read, write, do sums, cook, use the correct fork, serve a meal, cultivate languages and accents, and, in short, become professional con men and imposters. The story shifts back and forth between the current events in Lamora’s life and his childhood education.
Lamora is also a refreshing fantasy hero because he is, well, not heroic, at least not in the traditional sense. Lamora is small. He is not particularly handsome. Barsavi describes him, approvingly, as “prudent.” As for the martial arts, well, Chains has this to say:
You and I both know that you have multiple talents, Locke, genuine gifts for a great many things. So I have to give this to you straight. If it comes down to hard talk with a real foe, you’re nothing but a pair of pissed breeches and a bloodstain. You can kill, all right, that’s the gods’ own truth, but you’re just not made for stand-up, face-to-face bruising.
Lamora is smart, and in spite of the fact that he is quite close to being a sociopath, loyal to those close to him, and this is what gets him through the trials he faces in the book.
The setting of Camorr is also beautiful and different. The city exists in a lagoon or harbor and was built in the ruins of an older city, one built by a race that is no longer there. The descriptions of the Elderglass towers and other artifacts of the earlier inhabitants lend an air of true strangeness to what could otherwise be a pretty standard fantasy setting.
The language and the violence in this book are both brutal; just be warned. In spite of that, everything about this book pleases. If you’re one of the dozen or so folks left in the world who haven’t read it, you might want to check it out. Got a vacation coming up? This would be just the thing.
I’m not much for rereading books. There are just too many new books, and there will never be enough hours to read them all. I understand the arguments in favor of rereading, but I just do not wish to take the time.
So it was with some surprise that I found myself rereading The Lies of Locke Lamora, the first in Scott Lynch’s GENTLEMEN BASTARDS trilogy, as a sort of early celebration that the third book in the series will be out this autumn. After all, it’s been seven years since The Lies of Locke Lamora was first published; my memory needed to be refreshed, I figured. I had no idea that I would so thoroughly enjoy myself with this picaresque novel of a thief who has enough honor, arrogance and talent to power an empire.
We first meet Lamora when he is a child being sold by the Thiefmaker to the Eyeless Priest of Perelandro. He wound up in the loving hands of the Thiefmaker with a large number of other children when a plague killed their parents. It’s a better life than slavery, but not by much. Still, Lamora takes to it — rather too well, in fact, which is how he comes to be sold to the Eyeless Priest. That’s when his education in the art of the con game begins, and Lamora is a prize pupil. His imagination, which got him into trouble when he was a simple sneak thief, is a genuine asset in his new career. He studies hard, learning languages, accents, currencies, and politics, all the better to impersonate whomever he might need to. He has fellow students: Calo and Galdo, twin brothers; Sabetha, who is offstage for the entire book, a name only dropped every now and then, the woman the grown Lamora loves; and Jean, the muscle.
The novel alternates between telling the tale of Lamora’s childhood and training and the tale of the adult Lamora’s current con: a complicated ruse involving his impersonation of a wine merchant from a vineyard renowned far and wide. The subjects of his con are Don and Doña Salvara, some of the nobility of Camorr, the city state in which Lamora and his gang do their business. It’s a classic con, one that promises riches to the victims if they’ll only do something just slightly dishonest. In the meantime, though, Lamora must deal with Capa Barsavi, a sort of king of thieves, and the Gray King, who seems to be challenging Barsavi for mastery of Camorr’s underworld. The Gray King has the help of a bondsmage, one of a small guild that is respectfully feared by all. Nearly everyone has a role for Lamora to play, and if not, they’re trying to catch him. The plot is rich and complicated, and a joy to read.
What sets Lynch apart from many other writers, though, is his ability to describe a person, a place, a set of clothes, a drink or just about anything else in so much detail that reading the novel is almost like watching a movie, only better: it’s all there, in your mind’s eye, beautifully rendered with precise and highly visual language. Lynch describes the adult Lamora this way, practically rendering him invisible:
Locke was a medium man in every respect — medium height, medium build, medium-dark hair cropped short above a face that was neither handsome nor memorable. He looked like a proper Therin, though perhaps a bit less olive and ruddy than Jean or Bug; in another light he might have passed for a very tan Vadran. His bright gray eyes alone had any sense of distinction; he was a man the gods might have shaped deliberately to be overlooked.
It’s a good way for a con artist to look: able to blend into any crowd, hard to describe to the powers that be. Or take this appeal to another one of the senses, the sense of taste, as Lynch describes a drink not available at any bar I know of:
Conté moved adroitly to fill this request, first selecting a tall crystal wine flute, into which he poured two fingers of purest Camorri ginger oil, the color of scorched cinnamon. To this he added a sizable splash of milky pear brandy, followed by a transparent heavy liquor called ajento, which was actually a cooking wine flavored with radishes. When this cocktail was mixed, Conté wrapped a wet towel around the fingers of his left hand and reached for a covered brazier smoldering to the side of the liquor cabinet. He withdrew a slender metal rod, glowing orange-red at the tip, and plunged it into the cocktail; there was an audible hiss and a small puff of spicy steam. Once the rod was stanched, Conté stirred the drink briskly and precisely three times, then presented it to Locke on a thin silver plate.
The drink is called a ginger scald, and my tongue rather hurts just thinking about it. And Lynch is able to provide this level of detail for more than 700 pages, offering metaphors that charm (“Pinpricks of firelight were appearing across the city as though an unseen jeweler were setting his wares out on a field of black cloth”), descriptions of action that are cinematic, and pictures of a city left behind for humans by unknown aliens that gleam and glow.
In many ways, this is one of the better adult fantasies I’ve read in quite a while. Locke Lamora is a con artist, with the emphasis on both “con” and “artist.” He’s the leader of a close-knit gang of five con men.
“Locke is like a brother to us, and our love for him has no bounds. But the four most fatal words in the Therin language are ‘Locke would appreciate it.'”
“Rivaled only by ‘Locke taught me a new trick,'” added Galdo.
“The only person who gets away with Locke Lamora games—”
“—is Locke Lamora—”
“—because we think the gods are saving him up for a really big death. Something with knives and hot irons—”
“—and fifty thousand cheering spectators.”
The brothers cleared their throats in unison.
Locke and his gang gleefully plan and execute elaborate cons to swindle the rich nobility in their city of their gold, for no real reason other than their love of putting one over on other people (the money they get mostly sits around their hideout unused) and because this is what their mentor raised them to do.
Locke and his friends are in the middle of an excellent con, when their lives — and the lives of everyone in the underworld in the city of Camorr — are complicated by the arrival of a deadly foe known only as the Gray King, who has a seemingly unbeatable sorcerer, the Falconer, assisting him. The Gray King is insistent on Locke playing a role in his plans, and as those plans slowly unfold over the course of the novel, the stakes keep rising and the body count goes higher.
The story is set in a fantasy world where some people (mostly ruthless ones) have magical powers, the wealthy live in lovely, glowing, indestructible towers built by some mysterious alien race before their time, and deadly animals like wolf sharks and salt devils (dog-sized spiders) are anxious to kill you. The world-building in this novel is outstanding.
The narrative jumps back and forth between Locke’s boyhood days as an orphan and his adult adventures. It was a bit confusing at first, but once I got into the flow of it I really appreciated the insights into the growing-up years of Locke and his friends, and how the past informs the present. In the end the two timelines tie together in some very soul-satisfying ways.
This is an imaginative, well-written and well-plotted novel, but it gets pretty grim and bloody in some scenes, and countless F-bombs litter the pages like confetti. It’s a bit too much for me personally to totally love this book or to continue with the series, but if you like hard-hitting fantasies, this is a very good one.
Content advisory: lots of gore; lots of swearing. Not for kids or clean-reads-only readers.
The Lies of Locke Lamora introduces the reader to a world of politics, intrigue, history, and thieves. Locke is the leader of a particular gang (The Gentlemen Bastards) who don’t play by the rules — not even the ones set out by the king of the underground. Before this can even begin to get them into trouble however, there are other things in the works for them. It is a story of deceit, betrayal, blood, life, and inevitable revenge that keeps you turning pages until the bitter end.
I couldn’t put The Lies of Locke Lamora down. It’s a common saying, but I found this book so enthralling for so many reasons that it became my constant companion until I had read it through (twice).
The characters are well thought out and developed people. Every single character, whether they are around for two paragraphs or twenty chapters, is a real and deeply imagined person. The frequent flashbacks introduce us to how the Gentlemen Bastards once were, which helps us understand how they are in the present. This is not to say that that they would be less without the backstories — their reminiscences of their shared past is a story in itself, and reveals character traits that make sense in a way that is not at all contrived. The time Lynch spends on character development in no way impedes the rest of the story — the plot speeds on at a pace suitable for a cast who are always five steps ahead of the game.
Another point in favour is the setting. The city of Camorr (and the world it sits in) is rich with history, culture, customs, magic, and strife. The city is its own character — a human dwelling place atop the remains of a civilization long gone. The mysteries of that past unknown civilization create a depth to the world, even if we’re not sure why yet. The many canals used as the main means of transport are reminiscent of our Venice but in a gritty, here-there-be-magic kind of way. (I know that “gritty” is the overused buzzword of the decade, but I feel it is truly warranted here.) This isn’t a story where you’ll find many, if any, happily-ever-afters.
I could go on and on about the things I loved in The Lies of Locke Lamora, but there are a few things that stuck out as problems for me.
First, the frequent and long flashbacks. They serve an excellent purpose, providing insight into the past of not only the Gentlemen but of the city and the people and the culture of the place, but they have a couple minor drawbacks. In the thick of things and especially when the plot in the ‘present’ picks up speed (which is almost always, in the best way) these interludes of long-time-ago tales are mildly infuriating. I am willing to concede however, that it was done this way to intentionally halt the reader and make them wonder for a while. What wasn’t totally admissible was the numbering system. Each ‘flashback’ was labelled as such, and had its own internal mini-chapters/parts. I’m still not quite sure I understand it fully, but at times it was quite jarring and going back to check exactly what kind of chapter I was in was necessary — the few times I put the book down for more than ten minutes, that is. Overall, I’m still on the fence about whether they were irksome enough to really call a grievance, or if I’m just trying to find something to criticize.
Second, and last: the past. There was once a grand and mysterious civilization living where humans do in the present of The Lies of Locke Lamora. But perhaps it’s too mysterious. I hungrily awaited the time at any point in the book where we’d get something, anything of a glimpse of what that civilization could have been — to no avail. In the end, it’s a gorgeous and curiousity-thwarting backdrop to a very different story.
The Lies of Locke Lamora is an incredibly dynamic novel. The plot is complex and fast without being confusing or rushed, the characters have moved into the realm of being truly human, and the setting is a breathtaking wonder for both the people in the story and the reader. Perhaps one day Lynch will allow us to visit the past he has created, but for now we have to settle with the adventures of some high-class thieves. In the end, I don’t think that’s settling at all.