The Gentleman Bastards: Book I
I must begin by saying that the rather fabulous cover you see here is not the cover of the edition I’ve borrowed from the library, which is instead one of the standardised bright yellow books in the Gollancz 50 series. Although the title had caught my attention on previous visits – alluringly alliterative, it tumbles off the tongue very nicely – the blank yellow cover had never quite drawn me in. This time, however, I caved in. And thank God I did. Needless to say, if the library copy had had the cover you see here, I’d have got round to reading this several months ago. I’m just not the kind of girl who can resist shadowy figures with tricorn hats and swords, against semi-fantastical Venetian backdrops.
I’m not even sure I can describe the feel of this book, but I’ll give it a go: The Lies of Locke Lamora is the kind of thing you might get if you blended Oliver Twist with Gormenghast, threw in a handful or two of The Godfather, and added a hint of Scaramouche, served up in a setting that looks like Venice crossed with the more insalubrious parts of 17th-century Naples. There are soupcons of fantasy – mysteriously ethereal glass structures left by an ancient vanished civilisation; animal bonding; alchemical lighting offering a kind of proto-electricity – but these little hints of the mystical aren’t really the point. The point is simply to sit back and enjoy the ride.
Our hero is Locke Lamora, the garrista or headman of a gang of second-level thieves, the self-proclaimed Gentleman Bastards. Firmly entrenched within Camorr’s underworld hierarchy, Locke and his four companions get by on a modest level of thievery each week, paying their tithe to the gangland boss Capa Barsavi. What no one outside the gang realises is that the Gentlemen Bastards are actually far, far more than they seem. Behind the facade of low-level thieves, they are the best, brightest and most successful conmen in the city, devoting time and money to building up elaborate scams to part the Camorri nobility from their fortunes. Thanks to a thorough education in all aspects of dissimulation since boyhood, they can disguise themselves and pass convincingly as any rank or any nationality. And Locke is the best of them – as well as being the brains behind the whole operation. We meet the Gentleman Bastards as they are preparing to pull off their biggest scam yet – but all is not well in Camorr. Some of the top garristas are being quietly picked off by a murderer calling himself the Grey King; Capa Barsavi is starting to get nervous; and somebody or something is following Locke Lamora. Before the book is out, he will be faced by several offers he can’t refuse – but which he really, really, really wishes he could.
While I can’t help comparing this to The Name of the Wind in terms of the scale, ambition and detail of its fictional world, The Lies of Locke Lamora is a rather different kettle of fish (or sharks, if you prefer). The Name of the Wind is an adventure story told as a tragedy; The Lies of Locke Lamora is a tragedy told as an adventure story. And, despite its magical elements, Camorr is gritty and dark and urban enough that it feels very different from most of the other fantasy landscapes I’ve read about. In fact, with its dense warren of streets and islands, canals and bridges, Camorr is so vivid that it feels like a character in its own right. There’s no map in my edition and Lynch pulls no punches – you’re dropped into the middle of a bewildering city whose geography and social structure are fed to you in slow doses – but by the end of it I had a very clear flavour of the different districts, even if I’m still not quite clear how some of them fit together.
The world-building in general is extremely good, helped along by the fact that, while certain aspects are very strange – the Elderglass – others are more familiar – the Mafia-like structure of Camorri society, for instance. And Lynch manages to work in an awful lot of history, politics and general knowledge along the way, without making any of it obtrusive or distracting – which is quite some feat. He is also remarkably good at dialogue, much of which is the kind of banter that would usually irritate me, but which actually works here, emphasising the deep friendship between the various Gentleman Bastards. Oh, and there’s a lot of swearing. Lynch is fond of colourful prose – and, considering his characters, that feels entirely true to life. Indeed, Locke’s comments here virtually sum up the spirit of the book: ‘I guess that’s that. I’m all out of rhetorical flourishes; let’s just go get the bastards and pray for a straight deal.’
Everything is related with an underlying sense of humour, which reminded me occasionally of the Discworld novels (‘to say that he was an intemperate, murderous lunatic would wound the feelings of most intemperate, murderous lunatics‘). This humour is so necessary precisely because it helps to lighten a story in which the setting is dark and claustrophobic, and the labyrinthine plot revolves around intrigue, hidden identities, revenge and murder. This is a dangerous world, after all, and there are some unpleasant (but very creative) torture scenes, along with a lot of brutal violence. The death-by-bag-of-broken-glass is not something I’m going to be able to put out of my mind for some time yet, I fear. Now, violence can be excessive in books – it can feel gratuitous – but here, although there’s lots of it, I didn’t feel that was the case. In fact, considering the type and values of the society we see in Camorr, it helps to underline the precarious nature of the Gentleman Bastards’ existence. Taken as a whole package, the grit and the humour and the dense, absorbing plot come together with a punch of real dramatic power. It completely gripped me – or, to put it in Camorri terms, it ambushed me in a dark alleyway, put a bag over my head and bundled me off in a gondola.
Clever, rough and as audacious as its hero, this is definitely something to read if you like your fantasy dark and with a twist – if you haven’t read it already. If the next book takes us away from Camorr, as I suspect it will, I’ll be disappointed to leave the city behind; but I look forward to seeing how Lynch develops his storyline (most of the loose ends are very neatly tied up at the end of this book). Speaking of the next book, I’m thrilled to see that there’s an existing sequel, Red Seas Under Red Skies, and a third book, The Republic of Thieves, will be out in October – with another very snazzy Venetian-inspired cover. Hopefully they will live up to this first book in the series…