An orphan in the fantastical city of Camorr, six-year old Locke Lamora is such a lying, scheming, overzealous thief that the Thiefmaker has no choice but to get permission to kill the little troublemaker before he rips the fabric of underworld society. In a last-ditch attempt to make some money off him instead, the Thiefmaker sells him to Father Chains. Chains might look like a humble priest, but he’s the leader of a small gang of talented thieves called The Gentleman Bastards. Locke fits right in, and along with several other children Chains trains him to be a master thief.
About twenty years later, the Gentleman Bastards – Locke, Calo, Galdo, Jean and Bug – run the city’s biggest scams in total secret. Everyone thinks they’re small-time thieves when in fact they’ve become quite rich. This is exactly what Chains taught them to do – steal from the nobility and…. hoard all the money because they don’t really know what to do with it, they just love scheming and stealing from rich people. Under Locke’s leadership, the Gentleman Bastards always have brilliant plans with big hauls.
But Locke is so slick, smart and successful that it’s perfectly clear to anyone who knows anything about stories that he’s soon going to get his ass handed to him and even his fantastic lies won’t get him out of trouble. And that’s what happens when the Grey King shows up.
This mysterious man starts killing the city’s most fearsome garristas (gang leaders) as if they were no more threatening than flies. The murders rapidly undermine the power of Capa Barsavi, the mobster boss of Camorr to whom all gangs musts pay their dues. The Gentleman Bastards fear that Locke could be the next target, but the Grey King has something far worse planned for him.
It’s only about halfway through the book that we actually encounter the Grey King, however. The Lies of Locke Lamora is a fun read but it does spend quite a lot of time setting up the world, Locke’s character, and the Gentleman Bastards. Which isn’t a bad thing – I enjoyed hearing about Locke’s schemes and his performances as a consummate liar and actor. He’s a fantastic character, an ideal anti-hero: cocky, snarky, ruthless but not evil, so flawed but so remarkable, devious, but fiercely loyal to his friends. You won’t mind getting to know him instead of just rushing headlong into the main plot.
The Lies of Locke Lamora also has some of the most intensive world building I’ve come across. It’s impressive, but it can be a bit overwhelming. It seems like half the book must be devoted to world building – the districts of Camorr, its social structures, culture and religions, the practice of alchemy and other forms of magic, the social structure of the underworld, the smells, the tastes, the colours. Most notable is Camorr’s unique architecture – the world of the novel was once populated by a race of long-dead beings – Eldren – who left behind their gleaming Elderglass structures. Elderglass is virtually indestructible, and at twilight (called Falselight), the sun’s rays reflects off the glass for “an hour of supernatural radiance”. It’s one of about a thousand things in this book that I would really, really love to see in film.
Others include a garden of fatally sharp glass roses that ‘drink’ blood, the “Shifting Market” located on a river, the secret Elderglass basements where the Gentlemen Bastards have their headquarters, an alchemically designed orchard on a boat. It’s because the world building can be so impressive that it doesn’t drag the book down. Although you probably won’t have a good grasp of the world without a re-read or two, you’ll still enjoy reading about it just because it’s awesome.
On the darker side is the city’s underworld. Camorr has over a hundred gangs. It’s almost hard to imagine that some citizens are just ordinary people because it seems like the city is thrives on crime:
‘Gods, I love this place,’ Locke said, drumming his fingers against his thighs. ‘Sometimes I think this whole city was put here simply because the gods must adore crime. Pickpockets rob the common folk, merchants rob anyone they can dupe, Capa Barsavi robs the robbers and the common folk, the lesser nobles rob nearly everyone, and Duke Nicovante occasionally runs off with his army and robs the shit out of Tal Verarr or Jerem, not to mention what he does to his own nobles and his common folk.’
‘So that makes us robbers of robbers,’ said Bug, ‘who pretend to be robbers working for a robber of other robbers.’
Almost all the major characters are criminals or engage in some kind of socially sanctioned violence. In the central plot, thieves and killers fight against other thieves and killers. Capa Barsavi rules the underworld through murder and torture. The Grey King isn’t really any worse; he’s the villain mostly because he upsets the social balance and targets the characters we’re meant to empathise with. Whether a character is a good guy, bad guy or victim generally depends on their relationship to Locke. Locke and the other Gentleman Bastards might have a higher moral standing than their peers but only because their victims are nobles rather than common folk or merchants.
One thing I wanted to mention is that Camorr seems to have a more egalitarian society than you typically see in fantasy with quasi-historical settings. When it comes to minor characters – gang members, business people, civil servants, etc. – the genders seem well-balanced. On the downside, it’s still not fully egalitarian (apparently it’s difficult for fantasy writers to be that imaginative) and the narrative favours male characters. Most of the antagonists are male. The Gentleman Bastards are all male, except for a mysterious character named Sabetha, who is mentioned multiple times but never, ever appears on the page. Capa Barsavi admits that his daughter Nazca is the perfect person to become the next Capa, except that she’s a woman so he can’t possibly choose her over her brothers. Admittedly, some physically and socially powerful characters in the novel are women, one of whom is a criticism of male dominance, but their roles are smaller than those of the male characters.
The hype also spoiled this book for me a wee bit. I hadn’t read any reviews, but I heard several times that it was a brilliant, and that it was dark and violent. I think it’s a great book, but it didn’t blow me away. And these days, a book has to be pretty twisted or brutal to stand out as such. Perhaps because I was bracing myself for an onslaught, The Lies of Locke Lamora wasn’t as brutal as I’s expected. Ok yes, it includes some pretty graphic torture, a character drowned in a barrel of horse urine, savage beatings and murders, and aquatic monsters that rip people to shreds, but authors like George R.R. Martin and Gillian Flynn still deliver much heavier blows. Unlike them, Lynch also balances out the grim bits of his story with adventure, humour, and the fantastic friendship of the Gentleman Bastards. This is no bad thing, obviously, it’s just that very little of the novel’s darker content made much of an impact on me. Especially after reading A Storm of Swords.`
That said, it’s still compulsively readable. I didn’t race through it, but whenever I put it down to take a break, I’d soon be thinking about how nice it would be to curl up with it again. At over 700 pages, it gave me about a week’s worth of good reading. I’ve never really empathised with people who say they prefer long books because there’s more to enjoy – the quality of a story has no relation to its length, and if a long book becomes boring it’s torture – but with The Lies of Locke Lamora I understood the point. It’s good fun, and you know you can look forward to a lot of it. At the same time it’s not so long that you’re intimidated by how much time it’ll take, and it doesn’t have an open ending that insists you move on to the next book in the series right away. The ending paves the way for the sequel, but provides satisfying conclusions to this plot.
I will be reading the sequel, Red Seas Under Red Skies, and not just because I received a review copy of book three, The Republic of Thieves. The Lies of Locke Lamora is fun, well-written, dark but not grim, and Locke Lamora is a superb character. I’m curious to see what he does next, and what other wonders his world holds.