Saturday, March 29, 2014

The Republic of Thieves

              Okay, so the rundown is as follows: The Republic of Thieves by Scott Lynch is about two confidence tricksters, seen before in The Lies of Locke Lamora and Red Seas Under Red Skies, who try to rig an election for the Deep Roots party in the fantastical city of Karthain. It's a tautly-plotted, tense, hyper-stylized book with brilliant, sharp dialogue and memorable characters, and Lynch handles the complexity brilliantly.

                However, the book has several flaws in the form of infodumping to gratuitous extremes, a sudden veer into left field in the final act, and a severe sense that the series is no longer as grounded as it used to be.

               In the end, I wholeheartedly recommend buying this book. I honestly hope you won't regret it, I certainly don't, and regardless of what you have to do, I highly suggest that you read it. 

More, as always, below


"I keep asking myself...are we smarter than that woman's chicken?"
"At the moment, it's an open question."
- Sabetha and Locke

         I have to admit, when I opened up The Republic of Thieves, I was a little afraid I'd be disappointed. Scott Lynch's first novel, The Lies of Locke Lamora, was an absolute rager. A towering powerhouse of ideas that actually seemed, well, new. It was a strange low-fantasy novel full of unexpected twists and unsettling villains, and remains (despite the tension and the reluctance I have to read it more than once) one of the best books I've read in the past few years. But I've run into problems with authors where their first novel was a massive powerhouse, and then subsequent novels disappoint me partly because I expected the quality and tone of the first and got...something different. Occasionally, something lesser. No matter what you do, there's always the danger that you'll do something so well it'll be a tough act to follow. 

        Now, there is something I've neglected to mention in the above paragraph, which is that Republic is Lynch's third novel. I did not get a chance to read the second one, Red Seas Under Red Skies as a certain website that shall go unlinked did a delightful job of spoiling it for me the week before I read it. So he has had another novel with which to either disappoint or work out all the kinks, but since I never read it, I shan't speculate. Point is, I went into this with the mild apprehension that an author I love might disappoint me in some way, shape, or form.

And? Well, read on...

             The Republic of Thieves is the story of Locke Lamora and Jean Tannen, the protagonists of Lynch's projected seven-book sequence. The two men are confidence tricksters and thieves of the highest order who make their living trying to pull off huge scores and cons. I say "trying", because recent events have left Locke fatally poisoned and Jean emotionally traumatized. By this point, Locke is bedridden and able to do little more than hurl insults at his friend and protector. Jean bears them willingly, but is running out of options and forced to do little more than watch his friend die a painful death. After a last desperate attempt to get an apothecary to Locke puts the law on to the two of them and leaves our heroes in a room stripped almost entirely bare, things look grim and both men face their end. 

              But this would be a very short book if the heroes died in the opening chapter, or at least a much trippier one. Salvation comes in the form of a "bondsmage" named Archedama Patience, one of a secret college of magi who take contracts and could very possibly manipulate the structure of the world itself. Patience comes to Locke and Jean with a seemingly simple offer: The elections in the magi's home city of Karthain are coming up. The rules for the elections are very clear: No mage is allowed to interfere directly, but they are allowed to work through pawns called "exemplars". Whichever political party is in power at the end of the election wins. Either way, the exemplars are put up well, and at the end of the election they are given money and passage out of the city. Win or lose. Even better, Patience will erase all debt and heal Locke of his fatal poisoning.

               Naturally, Jean and Locke immediately smell a rat, but there really is no other choice than to take Patience up on her offer. Things are further complicated when Sabetha, a former member of Locke and Jean's former gang, turns up as the exemplar of the opposition party. Further adding to the unease is that Patience seems to be working toward some strange purpose she refuses to tell anyone, and that she seems overly interested in Locke. Locke and what few allies he has will have to navigate through strange currents and double-crosses to arrive at the game's finish. But winning-- much like staying alive-- may cost them more than what they're willing to pay.

                    I suppose what I should start off with first is the plot. Republic of Thieves is a twisty, densely-plotted book, tying together three separate plots into one complex story, and it does it quite well. The twists aren't well-telegraphed, but a sharp-eyed reader will be able to see the threads in advance, and the conclusions all fit the premises quite nicely and in a way that feels fairly organic. Despite a plot that flashes back and forth between the past (when the protagonists are forced out of their home and into a theatre company to put on the titular play) and the present (the magi election), with brief interludes framed as conversations between the magi about events happening in the plot, it never seems like it gets too convoluted. And each plot on its own has a complex structure, as most of the moves have to remain hidden until the right time. Keeping one in the air is a feat in and of itself, but that Lynch is able to switch between them and juggle them so deftly is even better.To add to this, the two plots involving Locke's crew, the Gentleman Bastards, form a nice counterpoint. One is lighter in tone but less assured in its plan's structure, and the other is darker in tone, but the players are more assured the plan will work. In the end, this makes the highs higher and the lows lower, knowing how things reacted in a simpler age. 

               Next, I love the sense of tension. Even having read a Scott Lynch book before and knowing full well that everything will eventually go pear-shaped (It's a Scott Lynch book, and it's a crime novel. If something doesn't go wrong or someone doesn't get drowned, I feel like the mark's been missed a little), Lynch still delivers a tense book without it getting gratuitous or silly. It's a testament to his skill that even as the fates of all these characters and their schemes are more or less destined to go awry in interesting ways, Lynch wrings every last bit of hope and optimism he can from the situation to keep the readers believing that yes, things will be different, things will work out, the plan will go off without a hitch. And it actually works. I never felt teased or like I was bait-and-switched, and when the counterplots turned out to be the one thing in the situation I hadn't noticed, not gonna lie, I was pretty pleased that I'd had the rug yanked out from under me. 

         And finally, it's good to see Scott Lynch kept his sharp sense of dialogue. While not as sharply funny as Locke Lamora, and definitely not as tight, the banter still keeps a quick pace. Lynch also uses his expletives more carefully in this book, deploying them more to "punch up" the dialogue rather than the liberal scattering used in his first book. The lines fly back and forth quickly, and the pacing-- and this is important since so few people do this-- is actually adjusted based on who is speaking. Locke and Jean talk in a flurried back-and-forth with insults, but when Locke speaks with Sabetha, the pace is slowed due to her more methodical speech. I could actually hear the drone in the actors' voices during the theatre portions, and the officious tone of Sabetha's majordomo (whose habit of wearing tight leather pants causes him consternation not once, but twice). And it's great when a book takes that kind of effort to connect with its readers, to have the dialogue and pacing match the events going on. 

          But there are issues. For one thing, of what I have read of Lynch's work, this is, in fact, the least-grounded book in the series, one where the mysticism and magical overtones are more overt. While an emphasis on the secret workings of Lynch's world make for great reading, one of the better things about Lynch is that even with a rather outlandish fantasy world, things stayed more or less grounded to a certain degree. With Republic of Thieves, the usual internal logic takes off into a left turn that is kind of silly and outlandish for the books if true, and if false, a very good attempt at either misdirection or convincing the readers that the series is going off the rails. Parallel to this is the reintroduction of a rather hated villain who should have stayed put where they were rather than being reintroduced, though I will wait to pass judgement on that.

            The other issue is exposition. There is a lot of it. I understand that a lot of questions in the Gentlemen Bastards books have been left unanswered, and that Lynch feels he is obligated to answer those questions rather than just leave the threads dangling. But spending an entire book going over the enigma that is Sabetha and what the bondsmagi do and the eighty billion other expository declarations characters make really weights down the book and it starts to become a slog. Now, I also understand that exposition is all the rage these days, with such authors as Samantha Shannon and others packing their books full of details they feel one needs to know, but I expect better from Scott Lynch than I do from Ms. Shannon, and less infodumps would have created a leaner, tighter experience that allows the reader to engage more.

                 But in the end, this is a worthy follow-up to Lies, and a welcome addition to my shelf. Buy this book. If you don't take my word for it, take the word of the billions of other voices shrieking its praises. I look forward to reading this once I forget all the plot twists, and I definitely look forward to whatever Mr. Lynch produces in the future.

Necrophenia by Robert Rankin
A block of Peter Straub with:
- Koko
- Ghost Story
- Floating Dragon
- Shadowland.

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