Title: The Republic of Thieves
Author: Scott Lynch
Series: Gentleman Bastard #3
Published: 8 October 2013
Publisher: Del Rey (Random House)
Source: eARC from the publisher via NetGalley
I just finished a 5-week long read-along for The Republic of Thieves, and I’m really glad I chose to take part because there was so much in this book that I wanted to talk about that I would have despaired of writing nothing but a review for it. Now I don’t feel so bad about having to leave out all the spoilers, although I have made some general comments about one aspect of the plot, that some might consider a mild spoiler.
At the end of Red Seas Under Red Skies Locke didn’t know for sure if he’d really been given a fatal custom-made poison. Well, he was, and now he’s dying horribly while Jean desperately searches for a cure. Unfortunately, the situation remains utterly hopeless until they get an offer of salvation from a Bondsmage named Patience. Locke and Jean have nothing but loathing for the Bondsmagi after the Falconer murdered their friends in Camorr, but without Patience’s help, Locke won’t live another day.
In exchange for curing Locke, Patience wants the two Bastards to rig an election in the Bondsmagi city of Karthain. The election itself is not important – no matter who wins the Bondsmagi will ensure that the city is run properly. What they’ve done is turn the election into what they call the Five-Year Game. The two opposing factions within the Magi support the opposing parties in the election, and every election the Magi recruit someone to rig the election in their party’s favour. The magi factions that ‘wins’ the election wins prestige, so Locke and Jean are expected to take the game very seriously, especially when considering their opponent. Because when Patience’s rivals learned who she was recruiting, they sought out the only person in the world familiar with the Bastards’ methods – Sabetha Belacoros.
Running parallel to the Five-Year Game is a flashback plot in which we finally meet Sabetha and learn her history with the Bastards, beginning with Locke’s first encounter with her at Shades’ Hill. This plot line also fills in more of the Bastards’ childhood, right up until their turbulent teens. So turbulent in fact, that Chains decides he needs a break and kicks them out. He sends them to the town of Espara to help an old friend who needs actors for his theatre troupe.
Of course, nothing about this mission is nearly as simple as the Bastards expect, and the moment they arrive in Espara they have to start running cons that require as much skill as being on stage. It’s as tense and exciting as the Karthain plot with one major drama running through both – Locke and Sabetha’s relationship.
It’s actually the main attraction in The Republic of Thieves if not the main drive of the plot. Sabetha’s absence in book 1 and even book 2 was really weird, given that she was one of the Bastards and had Locke so beguiled he never slept with anyone else after they parted. She was only mentioned as someone who grew up with them (but never appears in flashbacks), and who Jean never speaks about for the sake of sparing Locke’s feelings. The only good thing about this is that it drummed up a lot of anticipation for her appearance, which is perhaps what Lynch intended.
And… Well at first I was disappointed. Locke falls for her the instant that he sees her, when he’s only “five or six or seven years old”. But Sabetha doesn’t seem all that impressive at this point, and Locke’s infatuation is very strange for such a young child.
Later, when both Locke and Sabetha are Bastards, it bothered me that she doesn’t share the kind of camaraderie that the boys have. She doesn’t quite feel like part of the gang, and her character wasn’t as funny and upbeat. The fact that she’s the only girl obviously factors into her behaviour, but mostly it seemed awkward for Lynch to put her into the narrative now when she should have been there all along. The result was that she didn’t seem to fit into the space that had been left for her.
But I should have had more faith. As Sabetha’s character and her relationship with Locke develop we get to understand so much more, and previously incongruous details suddenly make sense. My feelings about it all kept changing, and I loved discussing these issues in the read-along. I’d side with Sabetha, then with Locke, get really upset with one or both of them, but be happy with they got things right. Locke’s feelings are driven by simple infatuation, but his younger self is impeded by his lack of knowledge about girls in general, and his lack of understanding about Sabetha in particular. Her feeling are more complex – she likes Locke but refuses to simply be charmed by him like everyone else is. She would never just fall for him; it has to be a careful choice.
I don’t normally take this much interest in a romance, but Lynch makes it intriguing, mixing it up with all the other attractions of the plot. And there are plenty. We get to see much more of the Bastards’ youth, and the nuances that went into Locke’s development as a character. Calo and Galdo are back with all their characteristic humour. Chains’s fatherly affection made me feel all warm and fuzzy, but it was also good to get a more critical perspective of Chains from Sabetha. We have another three locations to add to Lynch’s massive world: Lashain, Espara and Karthain. We learn more about the mysterious and extremely powerful Bondsmages, who will undoubtedly play a major role in future books. There are even hints of supernatural forces whatever power might have done away with the Eldren.
One thing I need to discuss in detail though, is the election. I found it unsatisfying, largely because it’s not really political. The game is mostly played with bribes, blackmailing, and a series of childish pranks and cheap tricks that Sabetha and the Bastards play (mostly on each other). Some of the pranks – like dropping snakes down a chimney to ruin a party – are presumably intended to tarnish the opposing party’s reputation, but that seems like a lousy way to win votes.
It was very entertaining, but at the end of the election our three protagonists had almost no noticeable influence on the election’s results. I don’t know if the votes would have been any different if they weren’t involved, and at the end of the day it doesn’t seem like they played the game they were recruited to play.
In Locke’s other schemes, he understood what his marks wanted and how they behaved, and used that in elaborate or at least entertaining cons. But there’s no con here, and we never find out what the Karthani want from their politician or see Locke, Jean and Sabetha use that to their advantage. I know politics is boring but Lynch could have made it interesting. The series has involved plenty of light politics already: The Secret Peace; the rise of Capa Barsavi (which led to the revenge of Capa Raza/The Grey King); the unstable politics on Emberlain on which the Austershalin Brandy scheme was based; the Archon of Tel Verrar trying to recreate the war that put him in power.
None of that was particularly complicated, nor did I find it boring to read the very long conversations or info dumps where these schemes were explained or enacted. I’m assuming that most if not all readers who made it to book three liked it as well. Why couldn’t Lynch have done something similar here? All the amusing pranks could have been part of a larger scheme, and the theatre experience from Espara could have played a role in helping them address large crowd or something. As it stands, the Espara plot has no link to the Karthain one, save Locke and Sabetha’s tumultuous romance.
I know we’re told from the beginning that the election has no real political importance, but it still feels empty, a neglected aspect of the plot. And the thing is that it’s more important as a plot device than a political event within the novel. In many ways, this book is a stepping stone to the rest of the series, and the election serves as a reason to save Locke’s life, a ways to connect the main characters to the Bondsmages, and then move them into place for upcoming events. After reading the books so closely for the read-along, I felt a lot of details were a bit thin, a bit contrived. They made perfect sense in terms of moving the narrative in a desired direction, but didn’t make that much sense for the characters or the plot.
So, out of the three books in the series so far I’d say that this is my least favourite, but even then it was still a great read packed with things I loved – the humour, characters, character development, world building, scheming. The story had me hooked throughout and there were so many little moments I was glad I could pick out and mention in the read-along. If I had to choose I’d say the Espara plot was more enjoyable than the Karthain, with proper cons and a great deal more tension and danger. That said, it can’t beat the Karthain plotline for sheer drama and amazing food (sadly the younger Bastards can’t afford decadent meals, and I’ve always liked the bizarre dishes and inventive wines in these books).
There are some devastating reveals and events in this book, and the series is making some serious progress. Already, the Austershalin Brandy scheme from book 1 feels like a lifetime away. Even thinking back to the beginning of Republic makes me feel like I’ve come on a long journey, and you can see from the ending that there’s an even longer and more dangerous one ahead. There are even more questions left unanswered than in the previous books and it’s like I can feel the series gearing up for a transition into truly epic, world-spanning plots. And it’s going to be so, so awesome.
For more in-depth discussions, check out my read-along answers (naturally, these will be full of spoilers):
Part 1 – prologue thru Intersect I (pages 1 – 136)
Part 2 – chapter 3 thru interlude “Bastards Abroad” (pages 136 – 292)
Part 3 – Chapter 6 thru Interlude “Aurin and Amadine” (pages 293 – 413)
Part 4 – Chapter 8 thru chapter 10 (pages 417 – 577)
Part 5 – Interlude “Death masks” thru epilogue (pages 578- end)