The Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch


Do you enjoy anti-heroes, scoundrels, vengeance and blood?
If so, huzzah! ‘The Lies of Locke Lamora’ is for you.

It’s a boys-own adventure, the stuff of campfire legends. Tintin and Ocean’s Eleven and James Bond rolled into one. A Big Fish story, figuratively and literally, in that it is both crammed full of large sea creatures and also home to whopping great bald-faced lies. It’s the Three Musketeers, only there are five of them, and they’re pretty much just thieves. It’s a tale of piracy and plunder, with flashing blades, brash promises, and flying crossbow bolts. Pow! Zing! Bam!

For the 13-year-old boys in the crowd, there is no -mark me- NO romance. Nada. Zilch. Not even boy-girl kissing on the lips. There’s a very short scene with a prostitute that goes nowhere, and a marriage proposal that goes nowhere, and a long-lost girlfriend who never appears. Otherwise it’s 100% BROmance. All dudes bumping fists and comparing dagger lengths and pounding back brandy while watching gladiator sports, all the time.

It took a while for ‘The Lies of Locke Lamora’ to sink its hooks into me, possibly due to my deep-seated fear of sharks, giant squid and of course, sharktopuses (sharktopii?). Sets in this book are vivid, but wet. The City of Camorra, where we lay our scene, is a cross between medieval Venice and Amsterdam, full of canals and bays and harbours and floods, with fantastic glowing alien glass towers thrown in for flavour. It’s also got a teensy problem with gang violence and organized crime.

(No, really: Batman himself would roll up his bat-windows, lock his bat-doors, and run red lights to get out of Camorra before anyone stole his bat-rims. Makes Gotham look like Disneyland.)

Rarely have I seen such meticulously constructed sets, detailed with sights, sounds, and perfumes; painstakingly crafted to feel foreign and familiar at the same time. From the pantheon of the Thirteen Gods, drawing on our Greek and Roman myths, to details of the ascension of powerful Dukes and Dons, Capas and cutthroats: Camorra, Emberlain, and the Marrows are a great place to send your brain on vacation.

If I had to compare Lynch’s stuff to the work of another author, I’d say China Mieville’s ‘Perdido Street Station’ was the last book I read that was as juicy and stinky and lush and vicious. This book is oozing with blood and gore, wine and brandy, alchemy and other dark arts. Steampunk elements abound, including hand-crank chain elevators and obscure locking mechanisms.

So, I obviously enjoyed the setting. What didn’t I like? Well… two things.

First. The dialogue frequently irritated me. It was a little too cocksure, too sarcastic, too twee, too modern for the archaic setting. The first few pages of egotistical blather between the Thiefmaker and the Eyeless Priest were such a pissing contest that I struggled through them with some difficulty. And the jarring use of expletives felt more like Tourette’s than tough guy talk.

I’m not against the word “shit” – I use it myself, when I’m feeling verbally lazy. Note the “lazy” – shit is a shortcut, an abbreviation for a lengthier expression of amazement or anger or remorse. I want more eloquence from an author like Lynch, who delights on one page with the vulgar little gems he’s capable of writing, then throws a bucket of cold colloquialism over me. The brevity of “No shit?” is so inconsistent with the rest of Chains’s scripted, convoluted wordplay it made me flinch.

Second. I plead, I cry, I howl the feminist lament of gender inequality. Where are all the women? Others may disagree, but I feel that there are no significant female characters in the book. Yes, there are the bloodthirsty Berangias sisters, presented with no womanly characteristics whatsoever: They’re essentially dudes with boobs, and their dialogue mostly paraphrases “I’m gonna git you sucka!”. There’s Nazca Barsavi… Nope, I don’t even want to discuss Nazca.

There’s Lady Salvara the alchemical botanist, who has only one scene apart from her husband. Never explored in depth or given a backstory, she sticks to proper wifely tasks like seducing likely investors, pruning the topiary, and breeding alcoholic fruit. Zzzz. Boring.

I’ll avoid spoilers, but there’s one “powerful” hidden female character, whose entire power stems from the conceit that “NOBODY would expect a WOMAN to have power!” *gasp* And who incidentally is proven both physically and mentally inferior to men on three separate, important occasions in the book. She’s ensorceled, mocked, beaten and duped. Sigh.

Then there’s Sabetha – or at least, the promise of Sabetha, also known as “the character who wasn’t”. This was the deepest cut of all.

Author! I implore you, do NOT dangle the promise of a sassy female counterpart to ease up the testosterone-soaked atmosphere of your sausage-party, if she never fucking materializes. Ever. Why name her at all, if she doesn’t appear in the text? She’s a complete red-herring, a convenient door-stop to prevent Locke from expending his energy on a romantic subplot.

Several prostitutes whose actions were sketched out as bare footnotes to history saw more development than the mystery member of the team of (aptly named) GentleMEN Bastards. I’m sure this is all an elaborate set-up for the next books in the series, but it was poorly done to give no hint of her at all in 500 pages of sprawling narrative, where more than half the text is backstory.

[N.B. I looked up the not-yet-published books in the series - apparently the mythic Sabetha doesn't make an appearance until BOOK THREE. Don't hold your breath, people.]

A good work, a fun world, a thrilling conclusion. Terrific job interlacing Locke Lamora’s childhood backstory with his current day machinations. Could have used a firmer hand holding the editor’s pen.

3 of 5 stars / bookshelves: read, sci-fi/fantasy, 499 pages, Publisher: Bantam (2006)
Read from September 02 to 26, 2012

One thought on “The Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch

  1. curgoth says:

    Book 2 does a lot better on the girls score. There’s an LJ entry from Lynch somewhere where he laments how book one turned out; he made a detailed involved world with roles for women, and lots of non-white people of various types. Then, for the first book, accidentally wrote an entire book with just white dudes in it.

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