"I don't know quite how to put it. I've got kids that enjoy stealing. I've got kids that don't think about stealing one way or another, and I've got kids that just tolerate stealing because they know they've got nothing else to do. But nobody - and I mean nobody - has ever been hungry for it like this boy. If he had a bloody gash across his throat and a physiker was trying to sew it up, Lamora would steal the needle and thread and die laughing. He… steals too much."
I find myself without much to say about Scott Lynch's The Lies of Locke Lamora (2005). Usually, on this blog, 'not much to say' are famous last words, but in this case I truly mean it: I found Lynch's debut fantasy novel a perfectly pleasant, breezy read, but in the end not a particularly memorable one.
It's a tale of a glittering city, its semi-seedy criminal underbelly, and the preternaturally capable thief, Locke, who challenges it all and, naturally, triumphs against all the odds. Every so often Lynch gestures to grittiness:
The Elderglass Vine crouched over the cobblestones of the road that passed west and crossed, via stone bridge, from the Narrows into the green depths of the Mara Camorrazza. It was a sagging three-story beast of weather-warped wood, with rickety stairs inside and out that maimed at least one patron a week. Indeed, there was a lively pool going as to which of the regulars would be the next to crack his skull. It was a haunt of pipe-smokers and of Gaze addicts, who would squeeze the precious drops of their drug onto their eyeballs in public and lie there shuddering with visions while strangers went through their belongings or used them as tables.
But for the most part you sense his heart isn't really in it; at its heart, this is a heist book, in which crime is fun, villains are larger than life cacklers, and the worst that can happen is the hero getting a bit roughed up. (Indiana Jones style, Locke takes quite a few punches, but invariably rallies before long, to deliver a quick punchline and plunge into his next scheme.)
It's all nicely put together: that lovely alliterative title, the cinematically intercutting structure (we switch repeatedly between present-day capers and origin-story flashbacks), the basic formula of action - brawls, heists, showdowns - punctuated with quips. Although it's longer than it strictly needs to be, it's a smoothly entertaining ride, with some fun passages. It just never really surprises.
The eponymous Locke is a foundling, troublemaking child - the boy who steals too much, as discussed in the opening quotation to this post - who's taken in by a twinkly Fagin and his gang (whom the young Locke thinks of, endearingly, as "strangely pleasant crazy people"). Over the course of several flashbacks, we see him in training to be a protagonist:
"What am I going to learn? Other than setting tables?"
"Everything!" Chains looked very pleased with himself. "Everything, my boy. How to fight, how to steal, how to lie with a straight face. How to cook meals like this! How to disguise yourself. How to speak like a noble, how to scribe like a priest, how to skulk like a half-wit."
Young Locke is more absence than personality; he has little to say for himself, either in viewpoint narration or dialogue. In one early conversation, his side of things goes as follows: "Locke shook his head"; "Locke knew a good time to nod vigorously when he heard it"; "Locke nodded"; "Again, Locke nodded, doing his best to look rueful". This extends into his adulthood, both in terms of his endlessly quippy but essentially unrevealing persona, and even in terms of his appearance:
Locke was a medium man in every respect - medium height, medium build, medium-dark hair cropped short above a face that was neither handsome nor memorable. [...] His bright gray eyes alone had any sense of distinction; he was a man the gods might have shaped deliberately to be overlooked.
This is due partly, Lynch suggests, to deliberate cultivation for the demands of his lifestyle. Locke's whole life is one of artifice, of disguises created and cast aside as part of his con artistry. He rarely interacts with people, it seems, as himself, and so much of what he does say and do is studied, calibrated, constructed for the situation he finds himself in:
"Yes." Don Lorenzo fiddled with his optics. "But Lukas, somehow, sitting here discussing the possible destruction of your House and a move to a city half a thousand miles to the south, you don’t sound… entirely displeased."
Locke used a particularly endearing wry smile he'd once practiced before a mirror-glass for weeks.
This artifice does give a slightly hollow feel to the book, however; lead character and narrative alike are polished to a shine but somehow just not quite vibrant. I enjoyed the Pratchett-esque one-liners ("The Thiefmaker tried to let a vaguely sincere expression scurry onto his face, where it froze in evident discomfort"); I enjoyed the set pieces and the moments of silliness, the most exuberant of which tend to cluster around Locke's fellow Gentlemen Bastards (as they style themselves) rather than Locke himself:
No, prudence was out. Bug had to win. The presence of that rubbish pile made a great and glorious stupidity very possible.
He was in the air before another thought crossed his mind. Arms out, falling backward, staring up into the hot near-noon sky with the confident assurance of all twelve of his years that death and injury were things reserved solely for people that weren't Bug. He screamed as he fell, in wild exaltation, just to be sure that he had the foot patrol's unwavering attention.
The city, Camorr, is painted in broad strokes of pop cynicism, like a noir voiceover that got hijacked by Tarantino motormouth irony:
"Gods, I love this place," Locke said, drumming his fingers against his thighs. "Sometimes I think this whole city was put here simply because the gods must adore crime. Pickpockets rob the common folk, merchants rob anyone they can dupe, Capa Barsavi robs the robbers and the common folk, the lesser nobles rob nearly everyone, and Duke Nicovante occasionally runs off with his army and robs the shit out of Tal Verrar or Jerem, not to mention what he does to his own nobles and his common folk."
We're told repeatedly that this is a gender-equal society; Lynch uses "men and women" scrupulously where many fantasists wouldn't bother, including in crowds of mob-enforcer thugs. It's superficially refreshing - a genre writer who remembers the other half of the population also walk the streets of fantasy cities and have jobs and things! - but the novel never quite puts its money where its mouth is. The first time a woman is actually named is on p. 52 of the edition I read, and vanishingly few major characters are female; the few that are tend to be extraordinary in that "See, I love women, me! Especially when they're beautiful and smart and ass-kicking!" way that geek culture has. An image like "Quiet as guilty husbands coming home from a late night of drinking" used of the Gentlemen Bastards on a job is fun and inventive, but rests on gendered assumptions about marriage that seem out of place in a society supposedly so equal, and the fact that it's a significant plot twist that a shadowy, notoriously Machiavellian figure turns out to be a woman, when everyone assumed it was a man, says to me that Lynch isn't so much imagining a gender-equal world, as simply importing today's gender assumptions into his story without bothering to engage with them very much.
Towards the end, even Locke's quips start to get a bit tired and over-familiar. In some cases, because they literally are over-familiar; compare:
"Do you have a plan?" Jean's eyes said he was curious but wary.
"Not even remotely. I don't have the first damned clue what we're going to do. But all my best plans start just like this." (p. 183)
"Out on the town? You have a plan?""No," said Locke. "Not even a speck of one. Not the damnedest idea." He grinned weakly. "But don't all of my better schemes start like this? I'll find an opening, somehow… and then I suppose I'll be rash." (p. 398)
So, yeah. In conclusion: undemanding fun, but I don't feel any pressing need to read another instalment of Locke Lamora's adventures.