The lies of Locke Lamora

The lies of Locke Lamora / Scott Lynch

It’s not uncommon to label something “genre fiction” as a way of dismissing it. When somebody who does this then comes across a “genre” book they enjoy, they are faced with a choice: do rhetorical somersaults to justify why it’s not really a science fiction novel or rethink their assumptions about conflating descriptive labels and value judgments.

Even folks like Nancy Pearl (who as a librarian should know better) are guilty of this. Pearl did it with The sparrow. It seems to be a universal phenomenon with The handmaid’s tale. People frequently treat Octavia Butler that way as well (although her works are also at risk of being exiled to an “African American interest” section featuring a jumble of books whose only link is the color of their author’s skin).

People seem to think that if it deals with serious issues then it can’t be sff. Considering the genre’s roots in Shelley* (also a victim of “it’s important therefore not sf”) it’s an attitude I don’t really understand.

*yes, sad/rabid puppies, science fiction is literally the child of feminism. Chew on that.

It’s more common with science fiction than with fantasy, as it’s easier to dismiss fantasy as “fairy stories” (although with the popularity of Game of thrones it’s starting to happen with Martin). It also helps that many of the stories that get this “not sf” label are dystopian.

So what does this have to do with The lies of Locke Lamora? If you haven’t guessed by now, this is one of those books. I’m not sure why, as it’s very clearly a fantasy novel. Secondary world, wizards, impossible alchemy … It’s not even a book that addresses serious issues in any great depth. Still, the library were I worked when I read it kept it in the regular “fiction” section, and the blurbs in the mass market copy I own now claim that it is more than just genre fiction.

I assume that people read it who “don’t like fantasy” and then had to justify their enjoyment somehow.

A propos of nothing, I didn’t read this book for quite a while because I kept misreading the title as “The lays of Loch Lomond” and thinking it was historical fiction. It wast until I saw the cover art for the third book in the series and realized that this was something I would enjoy. 

Yes, I judge books by their covers all the time.

Plot summary

Locke Lamora is an orphan taken in by the priest Chains and trained to be one of his “Gentleman Bastards”, robbing from the rich in the name of their god and consistently flouting the underworld’s “secret peace”, an unspoken agreement between the city’s criminals and its government that allows criminal syndicates to operate more or less openly as long as they refrain from targeting the wealthy or law enforcement.

So how is it?

I really liked it. It’s fast paced, fun, and never loses sight of the fact that as lovable as the Gentleman Bastards are they are still ruthless criminals.

The Gentleman Bastards series draws equally from Ocean’s 11 and Rififi in a fantasy setting more than a little bit reminiscent of Renaissance Italy. The best film comparison is probably French cult classic Man bites dog – it’s humorous but still quite dark. It’s not quite as intense as Game of thrones and its sequels or the Sword of truth series, but it’s not far.

One thing that helps temper the brutality is that there are consequences. Committing atrocities is a great way to turn allies into enemies and that goes for heroes and villains. (See also: Rififi)

This book isn’t written in a noir style, but thematically it’s noir through an through. The questionable means used by the protagonists, the emphasis on revenge, etc., etc.

One of the blurbs compares it to Dickens. I’m really not seeing it, unless all it takes to be Dickens is a group of orphans being taken in and trained to be thieves.

It’s a good book that’s only mildly disturbing while managing to maintain a sense of humor while telling a surprisingly dark story.

Recommendation

This is a great crossover novel, especially for fans of Game of Thrones. It keeps the emphasis on the characters and off the magic and tells a recognizably human story rather than a cosmic one.

It’s also good reading for fans of heist films and books about loveable rogues in general.

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