The Lies of Locke Lamora, Scott Lynch

Gollancz, 2006, 505 pages, C$24.95 tpb, ISBN 0-575-07802-2

Hype is two-edged sword: If it’s true that I wouldn’t have read Scott Lynch’s The Lies of Locke Lamora had it not been lauded on-line, it’s also true that it made it impossible to pick up the novel as “just another fantasy book”. This is, after all, the novel that touched off the Great Blog Critic-Payoff Crisis of 2006, which contributed to the end of Emerald City and megabytes of bitter debate about the nature of on-line criticism.

It almost makes me want to avoid reviewing the book.

But I’ve got a monthly quota to fill, and The Lies of Locke Lamora has spent more than its fair share of time on my bedside table. So here goes.

The most intriguing thing about Scott Lynch’s debut is how it marries the conventions of caper thrillers with the environment of a fantasy novel. Our titular hero is a master con artist, a man able to fool just about everyone into handing over their money. Locke Lamora isn’t particularly smart or handsome, but he’s got what it takes to be a gifted con artist: a gift for gab, a murderously effective education and a strong circle of friends with unique areas of expertise. The Lies of Locke Lamora is built around a structure that follows Lamora during a particularly stressful period, and interleaves that story with interlude that explain who Locke Lamora and his friends are, and what has made them the way they are.

This is where, as an infrequent (and, frankly, generally uninterested) fantasy reader, my impressions part ways with the critical consensus. While many have lauded the completeness of Lynch’s vision of Lamora and the city he lives in, I found myself skipping ahead whenever I hit another historical interlude –which is to say every other chapter.

I have no major problems with the bulk of the novel’s plot: As Locke thinks he’s pulling off a grand coup by defrauding a rich merchant, troubles comes looking for him as a mysterious “Gray King” decimates the local criminal power structure. Blackmailed into doing the Grey King’s bidding against his own boss, Locke has little time to figure out how to pull his own skin out of the fire. If he does manage to do so, it’s not certain that he’ll be able to do the same for his friends… Before the book is over, Locke finds himself rediscovering his conscience, using his illicit skills for the greater good and doing things he would never had imagined doing pro bono.

If The Lies of Locke Lamora had just been about that plot thread, chances are that I would have been far more upbeat about the book: the fusion between caper plotting and fantasy setting is interesting, and the low-key nature of the fantasy (save for the magicians, one could almost squint and imagine Locke running around a slightly different version of medieval Venice) doesn’t overwhelm the particular nature of Locke’s story.

But the constant flashbacks do drag down the story every couple of pages. They alone explain why the book spent nearly three months on my bedside table, even as I was tearing through other books: Though I was enjoying myself in Locke Lamora’s world, I would close the book every time I’d hit another flashback, and feel no particular impulsion to pick it up again.

I can only hope that the further volumes in the Gentleman Bastard sequence are finished with the flashbacks and will proceed at a faster clip. The richness of Lynch’s prose is satisfying, and the inclusion of modern sensibilities in the dialogue (which is to say: frank Anglo-Saxon swearing) is pleasantly honest in a sub-genre that often tiptoes around harsh expletives.

Not being much of a fantasy reader, there are definitely limits to how much I can like the book, but that’s all right: such reactions come along with the Hype, and fantasy readers who somehow happen to read this review are far more likely to like this book than I did. I see with some satisfaction the The Lies of Locke Lamora landed Scott Lynch on the Campbell award shortlist: a fitting achievement for a novel that, despite its length, is already reasonably successful.

Not entirely successful, but if all it takes is a bit of selective skimming… the hype may have a solid basis to it.

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