Locked on Lies
The Lies of Locke Lamora comes as frequently recommended as Name of the Wind – perhaps even more often. The lengthy first novel by Scott Lynch is an epic thief adventure in the tough and gritty streets of Camorr. It follows the colour life of Locke Lamora and his talented band of Gentleman Bastards as they rob from the rich and save the city. Or something like that.
It could have been something fun and interesting and light to read. Instead it was bog down by excruciatingly inconsequential world building that bloated the story to over 500 pages of text. While I appreciate the author’s desire to explain how the rag-tag band of thieves met and learned the exceptional skills of their evil trade, too much time spent on things that ultimately didn’t matter. The story suffered from a lack of clear direction and solid writing. It was a rookie mistake that gives The Lies of Locke Lamora a rating of passable. It was not actively offensive, but it certainly was not good.
The main antagonist of the tale, the dastardly and mysterious Grey King, is not introduced until we have read 1/3 of nothing. Eventually it becomes apparent that the Grey King is the evil Lamora must stop in order to save his life. The stranger in grey is described at several points as being vaguely familiar. This led to speculation on my part. Was this man Lamora’s long lost father? (Because of course he is an orphan.) Was he actually the man responsible for shaping Lamora, a man we thought was dead but had no actual evidence? While I am glad Scott Lynch avoided the father cliché, I was a little sad to discover the Grey King was absolutely no one we could have predicted. Written the manner he had, I expected the reviel to tie things together better. Instead, it is yet another thing about this questionable world I simply had to accept.
About the same time the Grey King is introduced, or a little later, the author suddenly realizes he needs wizards – so bam! We now have Bondmages. They come out of nowhere and serve only a questionable importance. A great deal of time is spent explaining why Bondmages can do anything and yet do not overrun the city. It brings to the forefront a common problem with magic in fantasy land, and that is the lack of boundaries. Magic can and literally does anything. Yet the vast majority of people cannot perform nor do they have access to this power – which if it actually existed would be world changing. So, instead we have all powerful Bondmages being tied to a very exclusive and greedy guild. The price of their service is an active deterrent. The power of the guild is supposedly protection against their murder. How does our clever thief circumvent this last problem? Well he violently maims the Bondmage working for the Grey King. And somehow, since Lamora did not outright kill the Bondmage, he will not face the retribution of the possessive guild. I am a little suspect of their logic.
From the very beginning the narrative flips back and forth in time. This is not an inherently bad idea. Its use however, left much to be desired. As far as I can gather the flipping back and forth between present and past serves no purpose other than to swollen narrative. Really, do you need to fall back in time a few hours to explain everything in detail? For example: our intrepid protagonist sneaks his way into a heavily protected building of a wealthy Don for a private discourse with the owner. Great, I can get behind a thief setting up a complex con. So, why do you need to destroy the mystic of the thief by rewinding and explaining in painful minutia the steps Lamora took to get there? It added nothing but another chapter I had to slog through. And again, it made Lamora look stupid – or the world look stupid. If he had that easy of a time getting into the building, why wouldn’t someone else find it equally as simple?
There were some serious structural issues with the world itself. From rumour and cover I was led to believe this novel took place in Venice. Now, I have actually been to that marvellous Italian location. I have walked the narrow twisting streets, strolled over the bridges that link the tiny island and ridden down the canals that form the major thoroughfares. Venice is a fascinating testament to human engineer. To visit now is to see a world caught in time with the crumbling facades of bygone glory next to the modern attempts to cling to life. No doubt Venice, or some fantasy version, would make for an excellent setting. However, if that was the inspiration, then Scott Lynch has never seen a postcard of Venice let alone been to visit. The world of Camorr is an illogical mess of mountainous islands, rivers, wide lakes, perhaps a lagoon, and deep underground caverns. I could not for the life of me understand the geography. I was personally affronted by the lack of understanding for the natural world – you cannot have underground caverns if you live in the middle of a lagoon. And where did the mountains come from? And why on this green earth are horses cluttering the streets? You talk at great length of boats and barges; there would be no land for the wide streets and stables needed for animals of such size. It is a confusing mash of discrete ideas. Sure there are interesting fantastical elements, but the number of which in this city alone breaks my emersion in his world. It simply doesn’t make any sense, in any way.
Finally, the language – a major means of storytelling – lacked a streamline understanding for the narrative the author wished to communicate. It felt like Scott Lynch wanted to accomplish two things, the creation and exploration of a gritty world of crime; a look into the very depths of human civilization. At the same time he was desperately trying to build witty rakes who could charm their way out of the most dangerous situations. The language of the story reflected these to discordant ideas of dark despair and light con. We would go from unnecessarily crass language to banter filled with endless quips. It didn’t fit. It was grating to read and often the moments of humour fell flat. There was no proper build up for what were supposed to be funnier moments. And the constant quips, the lack of serious motivation of Lamora and his gang, failed to build up the darker elements.
In the end the greatest crime of the book was simply that it was boring. I couldn’t care about a thief, who largely didn’t seem to care about what he was doing either. I couldn’t find the motivation to feel sorry for Lamora when at any point he could have (and probably should have) walked away. No one was really invested in the thief – except the Grey King and that didn’t make much sense. Ultimately, the Lies of Locke Lamora was a lengthy, banal story that was a job to read. It was not the worst I have read, it was not that offensive. It was not also the best I have read. The Spirt Thief was a far more successful story about a rogue thief and his misfit gang.
So, any more recommendations you want to suggest?