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.