Two years ago, I was bumming around a bookstore and saw display that stopped me cold. It was for a newly released book, and the cover depicted two figures dressed to the nines in Venetian masks and attire. Now, I’ve mentioned before that I’m a huge fan of Venetian Carnival, so it’s no surprise that I was immediately, “Oh hey there, Good Lookin’. You waitin’ for me?” The novel was Republic of Thieves, a title that also completely had my interest. Picking it up, I read the back, and was sad to see that this was the third book in Scott Lynch’s Gentleman Bastard Series. Being that I’m not one of those weirdos that starts a book series half-way through and expects to somehow understand it (seriously, what is it with people that do that?) I set it down and thought, “OK, I’ll get to you later.”
The series remained on my radar for a while, and I knew that fans absolutely loved it. Finally, in April 2015 I picked up the Audible audio edition of The Lies of Locke Lamora, narrated by Michael Page. I have a problem that the more things are hyped to me, the more likely I am to be disappointed in them. So walking in with a mountain of hype and a vague idea of the story, I gave it a listen.
I mean, WOW.
The book was far more than I’d expected and I was hooked. Over the next month I read the remaining books and wanted to share my thoughts on what I loved, what I liked, and what disappointed me.
Published in 2006 when I was still figuring out how to put words together, Lynch was kicking down the doors with his debut novel. The story opens much like a fantastical Oliver Twist with very young orphan being taken in by a Fagin-like thief master. However Locke isn’t some sweet child like Oliver, but more like the Artful Dodger cranked up to 11. After some tales of his childhood misadventures, we are introduced to the now adult Locke Lamora and his team of Gentleman Bastards who run elaborate and high-stakes cons on the city’s nobility. We go back and forth between young and adult Locke as the novel goes on.
The first thing that really captured my interest was the dialogue. It’s wonderful. It’s hilarious, clever, vulgar, and beautiful. This is the type of book where you could be perfectly content just listening to our heroes chat about the weather. The characters are all well done, from the lowliest bit-character to the main heroes and villains. Finally, the world is fascinating and cool. From a Venetian-style city with islands and canals, to the elder glass ruins of some unknown and bygone race, Lynch set his story in a world that is both alien and familiar. Once I was done reading it (or listening to it, since it was the Audible version) I immediately read it again just to study what Lynch had done.
So after reading Book 1 twice in a month, I figured it was time to continue the series with Book 2. The problem was that I was walking in with massive expectations and Red Seas Under Red Skies did not meet them. The book picks right up after Lies of Locke Lamora, and we still have the elaborate world with elder glass ruins and wonderful dialogue, but the story just seemed messy.
While the first book was very tight, with everything coming back, Red Seas Under Red Skies wandered around and went off on long and ultimately useless sub-plots. It starts with a brilliant setup as Jean and Locke are running a long con, then their plan goes sideways. Troubles pile on troubles and lies pile on lies and this is where the book begins to suffer. In the first book, problems went away, usually by escalating into worse problems, but here the problems just pile on without any of them resolving. This becomes a little too much as Jean and Locke are juggling a massive number of false faces and personas to the point that it becomes very confusing.
While the heroes are struggling to keep all their plates spinning, everything becomes more convoluted with strange tangents that go nowhere. The two largest examples are when Locke goes to a town to commission a set of chairs required for the con. The story starts going into detail about the horrible way the nobility and rich treat the poor. Then nothing comes of it. While it was neat world-building, it was a lot of attention spent on complete background stuff that drags the story down. The other big one occurred when Jean and Locke get jumped by a really stupid highwayman. The scene goes on for entirely too long, but concludes with the highwayman “owing them one”. Nothing ever comes of it. We never see this guy again. Maybe we’ll see him in a later book (he isn’t in Book 3) and if he does show again, a flashback at that time might be more suitable than it was in Book 2.
There is one more thing that irritated me about the book, and it’s a pet-peeve of mine that I’ve brought up before (I’m looking at you, Stephen King). We have a “terribly mysterious” character that is working behind the scenes against our heroes because their “employer” wants them to. The employer is never named, even when we are in that character’s head, they are only referred to as their employer. This is a cheap gimmick that storytellers use to add mystery and to hook a reader. Most of the time it simply irritates me. I especially hate it when the reader has a dozen hooks and suspenseful things already keeping their interest and having a blatantly “I’m going to taunt you with this mystery. Aren’t you curious?” move has the opposite effect on me. Had we not already had so much going on, I might have been intrigued. But here I wasn’t.
Now please don’t think that I didn’t enjoy the book. I honestly did. I enjoyed it quite a lot. I loved the characters. Lynch’s clever dialogue is awesome. His world-building is amazing, and there was a point where Locke’s luck and clever antics involving a sudden reputation he gets dropping a barrel caused me to laugh so hard that I thought I was going to crash my car listening to it.
Unfortunately, Red Seas Under Red Skies was less than the first book. I think Lynch might have had too many ideas going on and threw too much into it. I don’t know. But my initial disappointment caused me to re-read it after I had finished the series and judge the book off of what it was and not off of what I wanted it to be. The results were the same.
Finally, the book with the cover that first drew me in. Take a moment to look at that thing. It’s freakin’ awesome, isn’t it? (The answer you’re looking for is, “Oh, fuck yeah!”)
The third installment was a definite improvement over the second, but still not quite to the level of the first book.
The Republic of Thieves is two stories that alternate back and forth, similar to the flashbacks in Book 1. The first picks up right after the end of Red Seas Under Red Skies as Jean and Locke are still dealing with Locke’s issues from the finale. Once that’s solved, they’re drafted into service of the Bonds Mages into assisting with an election. The other side of the election has hired their own outside adviser as well: Sabetha, the Gentleman (Lady) Bastard that we’ve always heard of and never met and the love of Locke’s life.
The second story is a flashback to the Gentlemen Bastards when they were young and learning under Chains (yay, we get to see Chains again. I love that guy). They are assigned with their first real job without him (damnit, it was nice seeing you for only 2 minutes, Chains). They are posing as a group of actors that join a troupe of players that are performing a play titled, The Republic of Thieves. During this job, Locke is professing his love of Sabetha while trying to keep the troupe operating. There is a minor noble that becomes involved with the troupe’s affairs and also falls for Sabetha and chaos happens (Imagine if Shakespeare wrote Moulin Rouge and that’s what you get). I loved the flashback story that is about one half of the book. It was fun. I enjoyed the characters. I loved the way Lynch has problem after problem pile on and how the heroes are scrambling to keep everything going as they fix one just in time for 2 more to occur.
The same cannot be said for the present-day story. The recruitment of Jean, Locke, and Sabetha into this election feels so forced and so weak that I just couldn’t buy it. Now, I’m also a little biased against politics in my fantasy. It bores me. Locke is still pining over Sabetha and while I did enjoy the interaction between them, Jean got dumped into a backseat role. As a huge fan of Jean, I was not pleased.
Ultimately the book ends with the setup for the next installment. I has a good hook and doesn’t have the fulfilling ending that Book 2 had. Many readers were annoyed with the big twist and teaser for Book 4, but I was rather excited about it, honestly.
The Fourth book, The Thorn of Emberlain, is set to come out next year. I’m very eager to read it when it does. Scott Lynch has written a fun and exciting series, and while I might not have enjoyed the 2nd and 3rd books as much as the first, I did enjoy them all. If you haven’t read Scott Lynch, I strongly suggest you start.