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Minireview: The Republic of Thieves, by Scott Lynch

The Republic of Thieves continues Lynch’s “Gentlemen Bastards” series, detailing the adventures of two “gentleman thieves”, Locke Lamora and Jean Tannen. Set in a detailed fantasy world which is apparently built on the ruins of a much older civilization, the series is a brilliant romp which oscillates between a heist story and bloody horror (sometimes with overlap). The first book, “The Lies of Locke Lamora” was set in the city of Camorr, and detailed Locke’s origin story and how he and his companions crossed path with the Bondsmagi, with fatal results. In “Red Seas Under Red Skies”, Locke and Jean try their hand at piracy, and now here, in the third book, the Bondsmagi force Locke and Jean to help rig an election in the city of Karthain. Turns out there are various factions within the Bondsmagi, and not quite everyone there wants to kill Locke. At least, not immediately.

Also entering full-frame into the story is Sabetha, Locke’s “lost love” from earlier times, now running a gang of her own. Some of the best portions of this book involve the one-upmanship between her and Locke, as their mutual game becomes less and less of a game and more something deadly serious.

It’s a great read, like the two previous books. It doesn’t fall into easy narrative solutions very often, and there are twists and turns aplenty. At times it’s the “Ocean’s Eleven” of the fantasy world, at other times it’s something a lot more brutal and nasty. It doesn’t pull too many punches, and that makes for a powerful story where nothing ever feels quite safe.

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Minireview: Red Seas Under Red Skies, by Scott Lynch

Red Seas Under Red Skies is the sequel to Scott Lynch’s awesome debut novel, The Lies of Locke Lamora. Now, writing a sequel to an acclaimed debut is tricky at the best of times – people will naturally be comparing it to the first book, and if you are writing a true sequel, it’s extremely hard to get the same sort of impact. If for nothing else, the fact that readers will already be familiar with your world blunts some of the “newness”.

All of that is valid for this book, but make no mistake: it’s a very good book. No, it’s not quite as good as the first one, but it’s still a damn good and entertaining read.

The action starts some time after the events in the first book. Locke and Jean, having (barely) escaped Camorr with their lives, slowly start to rebuild something in the vein of the old “Gentlemen Bastards” – if for nothing else, to give themselves a purpose. An audacious plot to rob the main casino in Tal Verrar gets one complication after another, and soon that initial heist is the least of their problems. The pair gets forced into piracy… well, at least into pretending to be pirate captains, and hilarity (and bloodshed) ensues. There’s a lot of nautical terminology thrown about, some of it invented for this fantasy world. Locke and Jean, landlubbers both, are ill-equipped to deal with the nautical realm, let alone active piracy.

Like the first book, it switches between lighthearted heist romp and very dark sections; comparisons to China Miéville are easy to make, at least to some extent. The fantasy world of these books remains interesting and ambiguous… it’s clearly not Earth, it might be a far-future post-hightech world, or it might “just” be an interesting fantasy world. Lynch is pretty good at leaving out exact descriptions on some things, making some of the threats in these books quite scary since we’re only given frightening glimpses, not details. One passage through a foggy island channel is especially nice and creepy… without much description about the actual threat at all.

If the book has a fault, it’s that it wraps things up much too quickly. It’s a big book and it uses close to 800 pages to slowly describe an intricate tangle of plots, subplots, betrayals and blackmails… and then suddenly wraps up, in what seems like a heartbeat. It’s almost like the author suddenly realized he’s way over page count limit, and forced himself to end things asap. It’s a bit jarring.

That said, it’s one hell of a swashbuckling pirate-flavored tale. If you’re read the first book, do yourself a favor and read this one too. If you haven’t read “The Lies of Locke Lamora” yet… what’s wrong with you? Off to the bookshop you go. Shoo.

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Minireview: The Lies of Locke Lamora, by Scott Lynch

Good, non-derivative fantasy books aren’t all that common, but in The Lies of Locke Lamora Scott Lynch manages to pull off a fairly impressive debut. I bought the book because it had been receiving a lot of praise on various sites on the ‘net, and now having read the thing I have to concur. It’s not flawless, but it is a good, rollicking tale of thievery, murder and suchlike mayhem.

Set in the city of Camorr, it’s the tale of Locke Lamora and his “Gentlemen Bastards”, a group of thieves in a city of thieves. Camorr is explicitly built on top of “alien” ruins and is a crazy mixture of fantasy Venice and China Miéville’s New Crobuzon (at least in “feel”). Is Camorr set on an alien world, and is this set in humanity’s future? Or is it “just” fantasy, with explicit alien elements? Who knows… that distinction does not matter to the story. The city is interesting and baroque, and while there is magic (or something called “magic”, at least), it’s firmly in the hands of a sinister group of people called “Bondmages”.

All that aside, this is Locke’s story. Starting out as an orphan thief who “steals too much”, he narrowly avoids execution by landing in the tender care of a local priest… who turns out to be anything but. Locke’s singular abilities as a thief eventually make him the leader of a merry band of thieves, and over the years they manage to accumulate quite a fortune. Locke cultivates a myth of himself as the “Thorn of Camorr”, a supernaturally good swordsman and master thief who can walk through walls, and who does the Robin Hood thing. In reality, Locke is a barely competent swordsman and his main gift is his brilliant mind and his ability with disguises. Also in reality, the poor don’t see a penny of what he steals.

The story is told as partial flashbacks to Locke’s childhood and training, and partly as “what is happening now”. When we get to the “now” part, Locke and his gang are planning the biggest heist of their career. Things proceed mostly on track… until a third party intrudes forcefully. Also at the same time, the mysterious “Grey King” is terrorizing the mafia-like thieves guilds of the the city, killing of “capos” one by one. Since Locke has sworn fealty to one of those capos, events conspire to entangle him in the same web of murder and conspiracy. What starts out as a pure cash-based heist takes a decidedly deadly turn, and suddenly Locke and his friends are fighting for their lives against an enemy nobody has even seen in person.

It’s a good tale, and quite a page-turner once it gets going. It’s a bit slow around the beginning and doesn’t quite flow smoothly at all times, but those are fairly small complaints. The city of Camorr is exotic and interesting, as are the inhabitants. While it starts out as a sort of “Ocean’s Eleven in fantasy Venice”, it slowly becomes more bloody and serious as events progress. Well worth reading, especially if you’re bored with “stock” fantasy.

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