October 22, 2006

BOOKS: The Lies of Locke Lamora, Scott Lynch (2006)

Lynch's setting is the city of Camorr, one of those faux-Italian-Renaissance cities -- minor nobles, starving peasants, guilds of thieves and whores -- so popular in cheesy fantasy novels; if there's a specific model, it is perhaps Venice, as Camorr is a city of canals and islands.

I am normally allergic to this sort of thing, but The Lies of Locke Lamora won me over completely. It's a thrilling joyride of a story, with exciting plot twists, terrific characters, and a world so thoroughly imagined that entire novels could be written around some of Lynch's throw-away details.

The hero (such as he is) is Locke Lamora, leader of a band of con men who call themselves the Gentlemen Bastards. Locke and his team specialize in long cons, elaborate setups designed to trick wealthy nobles into handing over their money; imagine a Renaissance-era version of Mission: Impossible (the TV series, not the movies) to get a sense of what they do. So skillfully do the Gentlemen Bastards work their magic that even the Capa Barsavi, ruler of the Camorran criminal underworld, believes them to be mere street theives; he has no idea that the weekly dues Locke pays him are a mere pittance compared to the money he's actually making.

It's a comfortable life Locke and the Bastards have created for themselves, but when a new player arrives on the scene, he threatens to destroy the entire setup. The Gray King wants nothing less than to depose the Capa Barsavi and become the ruler of Camorr's underworld himself; Locke finds himself caught in the middle, with the Gray King and the Capa each trying to use him as a weapon against the other, and must call upon all of his skills to find a way to survive.

The con games that Lynch creates are ingenious and great fun; the battle scenes are exciting and unpredictable, and the stakes are high (don't assume that all of your favorite characters will survive to the end of the book). The twin plotlines -- the con game Locke is working, and the Gray King/Capa battle -- are cleverly woven together in the final act; and the frequent flashbacks to young Locke's training at the hands of the blind priest, Father Chains (who is actually neither blind nor a priest), are skillfully worked into the story.

This is reportedly the first in a series of Gentlemen Bastards novels; it is a pleasant surprise to note that the reader is not left hanging in mid-story for volume two. That's not to say that there aren't a few loose ends, and there are background details that are clearly waiting for later volumes (the mysterious disappearance of the woman who was Locke's great love, for instance; or the history of Camorr, which is built on the ruins of an ancient alien civilization). But The Lies of Locke Lamora stands on its own as a delightful and ingenious novel; I can hardly wait for Lynch's next book.

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