The Republic of Thieves: Scott Lynch

★★★

The Gentleman Bastards: Book III

Having devoured The Lies of Locke Lamora and Red Seas Under Red Skies over the summer, I was impatiently waiting for this third book in Scott Lynch’s splendid series. The first two novels dazzled me with their twisting plots-upon-plots, their unusually rich settings and their sheer dexterity. This third book, however, is a different beast both in structure and in atmosphere; and I’m not entirely sure that I like the change (when an author has proven to be extremely good, I become especially demanding).

As yet it’s merely the slightest hint of concern, and I’ll come to it later on behind a well-flagged spoiler warning. Otherwise, Lynch’s hallmarks are all still here: there are moments when the story charges along at the speed of an out-of-control carriage, and several of his dialogues left me giggling in delight, but it just doesn’t quite match the sheer brilliance of the first two novels. Besides, my Kindle edition was cursed with sloppy proof-reading, which meant that every time the word ‘stories’ appeared it was spelled ‘storeys’, causing little outbursts of pedantic exasperation.

The last time we saw Locke and Jean, after their con in Tal Verrar, things weren’t exactly looking up; and we rejoin Locke on his deathbed as Jean scours their current haunt of Lashain in search of someone – anyone – who can help. When that help finally does come, it’s from an entirely unexpected quarter: the Bondsmagi of Karthain. The Archdama Patience offers to cure Locke on condition that he and Jean accept a commission she has come to offer them. It is time for the five-yearly Karthain elections and, although the Bondsmagi do not interfere directly in politics, each of their two factions allies itself with one of the two political parties for the duration of the campaign. Locke and Jean are to be brought in as strategy directors for the Deep Roots party (for aristocrats and the old guard; very much the underdog). It is their task to use all their creativity and ruthlessness to win the election for that party – within certain rules, of course.

Locke isn’t really in a position to refuse, but the job turns out to have a fairly major catch. Patience’s opponents in the other faction of Bondsmagi are aware that she intends to hire Locke and Jean. To balance matters out, they decide that like must be met with like. The Black Iris party (more populist; more successful; rivals of the Deep Roots) must have someone capable of matching their wits. And so Jean and Locke find themselves set up in direct opposition to the one person in the world who has the ability to completely thrash them: their old friend Sabetha. We’ve heard about Sabetha a lot in the previous books – mainly because of Locke’s enduring crush on her – and when she finally strides into the pages she doesn’t disappoint. Consummately in control, determined and fiercely intelligent, she is out to win the election for her party – whatever it takes. And so Gentleman Bastard is set against Gentleman Bastard, and the game can begin. For Locke, it is spiced with the mingled joy and despair of love, as he sets out to tackle two hefty challenges at once: handicapping the Black Iris party in every conceivable way; and winning back Sabetha’s heart (one gets the feeling that the book is more interested in the latter than the former). It will test his ingenuity to its extremes.

Unlike the previous two books, this has two parallel storylines. One is in the ‘present’ with the election and the other is in the ‘past’, giving us more insight into the Gentleman Bastards’ upbringing and their integration into an acting troupe in their teenage years. This section gives the book its name, as the youngsters help to put on Lucarno’s The Republic of Thieves (which Lynch quotes from so extensively that it’s in danger of becoming a third parallel plot, though I rather enjoyed it). This ‘past’ storyline is good fun and certainly explains a little more about Locke’s complicated romance with Sabetha, but I do wonder whether it had to be told here.

The presence of two stories running in tandem meant that I could never quite abandon myself to either of them, and it also meant that the election storyline never had the space to develop into the richly madcap escapade that it surely deserved. It had its moments, of course, but I didn’t have the glittering plates-spinning-in-air feeling that I did with the first two books. Lynch is a smart enough author that he doesn’t have to explain his characters’ inner emotions – indeed, I find it more enjoyable to simply be thrown into the deep end and be expected to cope, as has happened so far in the series. I wonder if the ‘past’ storyline was added because Lynch’s mind seems to be very much on the Gentleman Bastards’ younger days at the moment. He’s planning to publish a prequel collection of novellas in 2015 (Update: This doesn’t seem to have happened) and I don’t see why the acting escapade (much as I enjoyed it) couldn’t have been included there. That would have left room for the election plot to blossom into something that readers could really get their teeth into.

Another side-effect of the two plots is that the entire book is dominated by Locke’s mooning around after Sabetha, with an associated agony of misunderstandings, silences and simmering jealousy. Now, it’s amusing to see Locke on the back foot for once but, for me, the extensive adolescent angsting was laid on a tiny bit too thick.

Here be spoilers, so tread carefully. What concerns me with this instalment is that it begins to nudge the story out of the tracks that served it so well in the first two books. I enjoyed those so much because they were stories about two old friends who were tackling the world head-on, with only their wits, their imaginations and the odd dose of brute strength on their side. There were fantasy elements, but these simply gilded the lily. Despite Locke’s excellent education and his resourcefulness, he’s just an ordinary con: indeed, Lynch went to some lengths at the beginning of the first book to point out exactly how mediocre Locke is in all things, such as height, attractiveness, colour of hair etc. This novel seems to be laying the groundwork for revealing that Locke is in fact not ordinary at all. I don’t yet know whether Patience’s revelations are going to be true or whether this is just some kind of huge tongue-in-cheek bluff on Lynch’s part; but my heart sank a little.

It looks as if this could end up being yet another fantasy series in which the Mysterious Orphaned Protagonist turns out to have special significance (powerful mage / dark lord reborn / lost king etc.). What’s wrong with writing sparky fantasy about immensely clever ordinary people? This series has been so wonderful because it’s about a smart, funny, odd-couple pair of brilliant tricksters; and I’m sure that Locke and Jean have masses of mileage in them yet as just that. One of the things I liked so much about this series is that it promised to thumb its nose at traditional sorcerers and-hidden-powers fantasy, and I’m just a little troubled that it seems to have taken a left turn and potentially be heading precisely in that direction. What do others think?

Let me reiterate, though: a book that falls short of complete and utter brilliance is still pretty damn good and this is a novel full of wonderful dialogue, witty comebacks and imaginative use of snakes. Lynch is without a doubt one of the best fantasy writers working at the moment and it’s precisely because I’m so fond of these books that I worry about where they’re going. At least, if it does go further down the dreaded route, I am going to expect some seriously incredible cons and plots to make up for it.

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12 thoughts on “The Republic of Thieves: Scott Lynch

  1. Heloise says:

    It seems you zinged right past me in reading this, as I still have about 70 pages to go. 😛 With that proviso, I do share some of your concerns, while I did enjoy the novel it was not quite the compelling read the first two were. I don't blame it so much on the parallel story lines though – I rather like what he did there, presenting a mostly continuous flashback narrative rather than the fragmentary bits he did in the earlier novels.

    The issue with Republic of Thieves, as I see it, is that it's main story thread just is missing any kind of urgency. It's fun, but one never has the feeling that anything really depends on it – for the mages, it's basically just an entertaining diversion, and Locke's life has been saved before he arrives in Kathairn, so he is basically just doing a job he has been hired for. And related to that, there seems to be a distinct lack of agency for Locke and Jean here – I keep waiting for a big revelation that they somehow managed to collude with Sabetha after all and pull off some huge, breathtakingly brilliant heist, but it just doesn't seem to happen – he just gets pushed around a lot and seems almost completely reactive in this novel, a much more passive character than we are used to.

    Having said that, it is still a very entertaining novel, with lots of superbly imagined details and heaps of witty banter. Just not as much as previous volumes, but hopefully the next one will be back to form. As for mages etc, however, I think it was always understood that somewhere along the way The Gentleman Bastards would be turning into Epic Fantasy, and I think we're seeing the beginning of this here. I admit, I'm rather intrigued about what we find out about Locke's origins (assuming it is true, of course, which we probably should not be too sure of) and I found myself rather liking Patience as a character.

  2. The Idle Woman says:

    Ha ha – just saw your email! What you say in your second paragraph here is absolutely true: the lack of urgency (and agency) is another reason that the election plot doesn't really get off the ground. And yes, it's also utterly true that Locke is primarily reactive rather than proactive here! Maybe that's why the book just doesn't have the same wow-factor. Interesting that you weren't so bothered by the parallel storylines. I think that if this was the first book I'd read by him, I wouldn't have minded these at all, but I felt that the first two novels were so rich and dense and wonderful in the way that they dragged me deeply into the plot, that I really felt the difference here. For me it was like he was writing two different stories at once. (I loved both of them – I just regretted the feeling that they both stopped each other being even more engaging.)

    Regarding the whole mage etc. aspect, I actually wasn't aware that there was this kind of plan for the series, mainly because I did my usual thing and hopped merrily into the first book without a clue of what it was about. And I thought, “Aha! This is something a bit different from the usual epic fantasy!” And so it won my heart. Ah well. (You know me: I'm an awkward beggar and like my fantasy to be slightly on the less 'fantastic' side). 😛

    And now we have established that I am *very* difficult to please (!), either way, it will be immensely interesting to see what happens next. 🙂

  3. The Idle Woman says:

    P.S. Oh God, 'storeys' drove me bonkers. By the end it was like some kind of innovative torture. There was one particularly special moment when it happened twice on one page, which came in for some special cursing.

  4. Heloise says:

    I don't really expect The Gentleman Bastards to be the next Wheel of Time, I'm pretty sure Lynch will do something very different with the genre. I suspect, from the list of titles and short descriptions here that the Epic bit will be marked by a concern with politics rather than magic, ad that the title Republic of Thieves will turn out to have been somewhat prophetic. (But I have to admit that I don't mind some magic in my Fantasy as long as it's a bit more imaginative than “white bearded guy in a robe hurling fireballs”).

    And I see what you mean about the flashbacks, and even agree up to some point – but I think te price Lynch paid for the depth of the background was that they were wandering about a bit aimlessly, while this time the flashbacks have a sense of direction and a narrative arc (other than “some bits from Locke's youth”), and overall I still think that's an improvement.

    I also suspect there might some mirroring be going on between the two threads (and the play, actually – in fact, I can't help but wonder if that will not have a wider-reaching significance for the rest of the series), but I'll have to actually finish the thing to say anything detailed about that. (Mostly the relationship betwee Locke and Sabetha,though, which seems to run parallel in both threads.)

  5. The Idle Woman says:

    Goodness, just imagine if it did turn into Wheel of Time! We'd better keep a close eye on things in case all the female characters start tugging at their braids. 😀

    OK, well maybe the outlook isn't quite as bad as I'd feared. I will go and have a look at that list in due course. Politics is good; I like a bit of political skulduggery in my fiction. Fingers crossed for a general absence of fireballs. Regarding the parallels, I have no doubt you're right: I thought there was probably some wider significance in the play as well and there were definitely similarities to be traced between the two time periods. Hmm. Anyway, I'll let you get back to the book and finish those last 70 pages and then you can let me know if they change your take on it at all…

  6. Heloise says:

    I guess sometimes it can be a good thing not be a native speaker, because things like “storeys”, while doubtlessly annoying, don't grate my nerves on quite such an intuitive level. 😛

    And will do – I'm still hoping that Lynch will spring some big surprise twist in the end that puts a different perspective on everything that has gone before, but I'm afraid I'm being overly optimistic there.

  7. Heloise says:

    A bit late, as the flu finally caught up with me and I was laid low for a week – I did finish Republic of Thieves before I got all woozy and addle-minded. My basic impression did not change, but there's some additions I'd have to make. For one thing, so it turns out it was not all games-playing and frivolity. Still, it came rather too late in the novel to make much of a difference, there just was no sense of this during the tale itself. – Also, after reading the Epiologue I can better understand your concern about where the series might be going – I am somewhat worried that this might be the start of some kind of “Dark Lord Rising” kind of plot myself now. Time will tell, and for the moment I'm still optimistic and continue to look forward to The Thorn of Emberlain. 😉

  8. The Idle Woman says:

    Aha! So you see, there is some justification for my qualms. 🙂 So sorry to hear you've had the flu! Hope you're now feeling much better and that you had some good books to keep you company when you were in bed.

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