"I'll grant the Lamora part is easy to spot, the truth is, I didn't know about the apt translation when I borrowed it...I just liked the way it sounded. But what the fuck ever gave you the idea that Locke was the name I was born with?"
- Locke Lamora
Just a little bit of business before the review proper:
And for this week, thank God I have a Kindle. I recently moved to some (gladly) temporary lodgings, and so most of my books are over at my other temporary lodgings. Eventually I'll settle down somewhere permanent and get a real job and all of that. Hopefully sometime soon, too. But since I don't have access to all of my nefarious resources, I am forever glad that I have a little electronic book that I can carry around with access to some of my temporary collection on it.
Enough advertising, though. I've been a fan of the heist novel, TV show, movie, and the like for quite a bit now. It all started with the film Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels, which gave me a set of sympathetic though down-on-their-luck criminals, as well as various others who were inadvertently caught in the same twisted situation. And it was fun to watch. From there, I started watching other crime-comedies, including such staples of the genre as Snatch, Ocean's Eleven, and the TV series Leverage, among countless others. So when I found a book on the shelf at the LaFarge Library in Santa Fe that purported to combine the heist and con premise with a fantasticized (and yes, that's a word now) Venice, wild horses couldn't keep me from getting my hands on it and reading it.
The story begins with the Thieftaker, a sort of Fagin-like character who takes in orphans and uses them to steal from the middle-class, selling a particularly troublesome orphan to a blind priest named Chains. In short order, we find out that 1) the kid has done something baaaad. And not just heinously audacious, but something worth murdering him over, and 2) that Chains is not blind, not a priest, and nor particularly interested in upholding the laws of reason and order that govern the city. To this end, he trains the young boy, who calls himself Locke, to take over a diverse band of thieves known as the Gentlemen Bastards, whose entire point is to scam the rich (something kind of unspeakable in this society). The book bounces back and forth between Locke's training, in which he learns to fight, con, and otherwise swindle people out of every cent they have, and how he uses these talents in the "present day" setting. A shadowy figure, however, emerges from the underbelly of the city to offer a job that Locke and his crew can't refuse, though, and soon it's down to the Gentlemen Bastards to save the city (and themselves) by pulling every last trick they know.
It's nice to finally have a book in this blog that trades on dialogue. A lot of how Locke gets through situations can be attributed to his gift for speech and his quick wit. While the cons do have physical elements, mainly down to Locke's best friend Jean who serves as the group's "hitter", it's mainly about the speech. And there is a lot of it. Scott Lynch, the author of this book and its (as-yet unread) sequel, seems to have watched a ton of crime movies and knows his genre inside and out. Locke is made a sympathetic protagonist, despite being a bit of a monster on some level for manipulating everyone he meets, and he and his crew are much more sympathetic than the nobles they dupe, which is a large distinction. While the descriptions of the city are fantastic (Gladiators fight giant sharks! Brandy-infused oranges! Big crystal spire-castle!), it's really the characters that are the meat of the story. And meaty they are. There's one villain, introduced somewhere in the second "act" of the story, who you spend every page wishing a cruel and unusual punishment on. When it finally comes, it makes it that much sweeter. Despite the nature of it, it still brings a smile to my face every time I read it. Likewise, Jean, Locke, and their assistant Bug are people who despite their larcenous and sometimes nefarious nature are people I find myself wanting to spend more time with. They're fun.
Furthermore, the thriller aspects of the book handle their load with all the tension and suspense that they need. I've revealed one or two spoilers here, but overall, there's a certain sense of surprise when things happen the way they do. The escapes really feel narrow, the rewards really that great, and the plans remarkably intricate and well thought-out. By the end, when everything seems resolved, it all makes sense for the time, and when you get there, you will be pleasantly surprised by the outcome, given everything that has come before.
Sadly, the mood whiplash is the problem. The book cannot decide sometimes whether it's a grim and gritty crime story, or a lighthearted caper, leading to a constant tug-of-war in some sections of the book. While it can be argued that the sudden plunge into seriousness signals a change in the book's setting-- that the Bastards are playing with people who are much better at the game than they are, it still keeps the lighthearted trappings a little bit. Also, if you have a problem with swearing and harsh language, probably give this one a miss. These people are criminals, and they act and talk like it. If you could get through a British crime film, or maybe In The Loop without much trouble or offense, it's a little tamer than the language in that. But since from page three, Chains starts an obscenity-laden diatribe on why he won't buy Locke and the language doesn't improve from there, I'd suggest those of an easily-offended temperament go elsewhere.
But is the book good? Oh, fuck yes. It's hard to find an original book on the concept of "One last job", but this is it. You will constantly be kept guessing as alliances and reasons change. Some motives are played with multiple times before being revealed to be something else entirely. And overall, it's a wild, sometimes shocking, always enjoyable ride through a criminal underworld, meant to interest both fantasy fans and crime-thriller fans alike. While it may never be part of my personal collection, it's something I've already picked up and read several times, each time noticing a new and different twist I hadn't before. And hopefully, you'll pick it up and find just as much to like as I do.
Next Week: The Orphan's Tales: In The Night Garden by Catherynne M. Valente