Tuesday, 1 August 2006

The Lies of Locke Lamora

Scott Lynch

In the ancient city of Camorr, where bridges and towers of indestructible Elderglass stand as a reminder of the ancient race who once made their homes here, Locke Lamora makes his living running confidence games on the rich. He and his tight-knit gang, the Gentlemen Bastards, are just one of the hundreds that pay fealty to Capa Barsavi, the criminal overlord of Camorr, but they are the only ones that dare breach the crime lord’s Secret Peace with the nobility and prey upon the upper classes. They play a dangerous game; not only is the Duke of Camorr’s disturbingly competent spymaster searching for them, but any slip might see them on the receiving end of the Capa’s famously terminal displeasure.

Just as Locke and his companions make ready to embark on their latest and most ambitious scheme, things are about to get much more complicated. Caught up in a web of intrigue, murder and deception, the Gentlemen Bastards will have to use all the tricks of their trade to stay ahead of the pack… and stay alive.

‘The Lies of Locke Lamora’ isn’t just fun to say out loud – it’s fun to read, too. The lyrical style present in the novel’s title can be found throughout, from flowing and evocative descriptions to catchy, witty dialogue. Scott Lynch has a genuine talent for turning old clichés on their heads, and the resultant writing is as fresh as new-baked bread.

Lynch’s style makes something new of his setting, too. Camorr is a bustling fantasy city in the middle of a semi-renaissance, busy with organised crime and foppish nobles, and seems to owe a little something to every city from Rome, Venice and Dickens’ London to Pratchett’s Ankh-Morpork or China Miéville’s Bas-Lag. Yet in Lynch’s description it’s possible to see something new: a place divided between the rich and the criminal where the poor are left to suffer without any protection at all. It’s a city of uncommon, casual brutality, where floating amphitheatres house bloody shark-baiting matches and the Watch are a credible threat. Yet there’s beauty, too, in the twilight glow of the Elderglass towers and the razor-edged glass flowers of the Hungry Garden, and it’s the author’s poetic descriptions that make Camorr stand out in the Fantasyland Tour Guide.

If characterisation suffers a little in comparison to such well-crafted scene-setting, that’s no great surprise. Locke and his gang suffer the two-edged curse of sharing the same wit and verve in their dialogue, which can make them difficult to tell apart in conversation. Hints of that selfsame wit can be found in other groups and characters, too, and enjoyable as it is to read such eloquent speech, realistic depiction would be better served if each character possessed a distinct voice of their own.

Still, much effort seems to have been put into fleshing out Locke and his friends. They might all talk the same, but the flashbacks to their younger days that appear throughout the narrative do much to build them up as individuals – while also serving to weave the necessary exposition into the tale without too much of a break in pace. Rather than break up the flow of the narrative, these flashbacks also somehow manage to fit well into natural pauses and heighten the anticipation for a return to the tale, while still proving entertaining in their own right.

The structure of the novel, then, does an excellent job of spicing up what is at heart a fairly simple plot. Locke Lamora’s adventures feel something like a cross between ‘The Godfather’ and the BBC TV con-artist show ‘Hustle’, with treachery and revenge as standard. Yet for all his vaunted brilliance, when things fail to go according to plan our hero seems strangely incapable of improvising. Admittedly he seems to land himself so deeply in trouble that there’s no obvious choice but to cross his fingers and hope, but you’d think that a master con-man whose expertise in planning complicated deception might be capable of taking a more active role in his fate.

Minor flaws aside, ‘The Lies of Locke Lamora’ is an excellent work and all the more astonishing for being Lynch’s debut novel. It shows its author to have a genuine talent for storytelling and particularly for descriptive prose, and one that I look forward to seeing develop over the course of the ‘Gentlemen Bastards’ series. As such, the novel will find pride of place on my ‘Magic and Misdirection’ shelf.

This review was originally written for SFcrowsnest.com