Although I prefer to write fantasy, hypocritically enough, I find it often difficult to be completely enthralled by fantasy novels. Often I find the same archetypes presented slightly differently in lieu of any heartfelt originality, hackneyed themes found scattered across the genre are explored in much the same way, such that it feels as if each author is simply rebranding other creations. Sometimes the stories, written specifically for younger audiences, censor the grit that would exist in darker, older times, or they are written with too much grit, relying heavily on shock and awe to convince the reader how the real the world is.
Thankfully, I've had the pleasure of eating my arrogant pessimism with modern fantasy writers. Most recently, it was Scott Lynch who took the pleasure of kicking my teeth in with The Lies of Locke Lamora, Gentleman Bastards, Book I, and I couldn't be happier to have been all but coerced to finish this book in just a few sittings despite the excitement of traveling while I did. (The author coerced me with his charm. In case the humor wasn't terrible enough, here's that sentence spelled out for you.)
The story is complexity done with remarkable dexterity. To sum up the plot:
In the city of Camorr, we follow the Gentleman Bastards, a group of thieves who've decidedly had enough with the trope of pickpocketing, mugging, and stealing into houses late in the evening. These aren't gutter thieves like their peers or other authors would first believe, or at least, they are determined to alter their otherwise grim destiny. They're unassuming aristocrats with an endless array of costumes and masks who have a propensity for snaking their way into positions of swindling the rich.
But beneath all the culture, they can fight like the street urchins they are when need be.
Brought up to be citizens of class specifically to steal from the highest echelons of society, Scott Lynch's Gentleman Bastards live comfortable in the deepest bowels of one of the most destitute cities, but they take trips to the dining tables of royals as double-dealers and false-facers. Ambitious, cunning, but arrogant as all hell, the Gentleman Bastards tangle themselves into knots with both nobles and their own organization, 'the Right People'.
One thing that made Scott Lynch stand out from other fantasy authors is the ease by which he takes you on tours of sights in his world. It's a cliché to say that it truly feels real, and that wouldn't do it justice, though that is one benefit to his writing. The most important aspect, personally, is that it feels he adores his world. Every detail, down to how a barkeep in a lower tavern will dress and talk, seems to be nailed down in his head. Throughout the novel, he manages to drop glittering details that make the world shine, and he does it without knocking you over the head with too many of them. Like spice for a dish, Lynch seems to know just how much to put in to make his world feel both vibrant but digestible.
Keeping with what is popular in similarly successful titles, such as Naomi Novik's Uprooted, Lynch doesn't introduce you to Camorr, rather, he just throws you in there and asks that you keep up the pace with him. Thankfully, his finesse and vocabulary makes it easy for the reader
With no shortage of twists and sharp turns but no haste to rush through critical, slower scenes, Lynch demonstrates that he can entertain his reader as well as seduce them. Locke, in particular, is one of the most believable heroes I have ever read. He is powerful not for some 'chosen one' characteristic, rather he knows how to rely on his friends--his truest strengths. In this way, his achievements feel truly significant as he pulls every last string he can to reach them, and his downfalls, so much more relatable than that of a protagonist with ethereal hands guiding his path. Beyond all else, the dialogue is as vibrant as the cast itself, constantly popping, flowing beautifully and marinated in humor.
Throughout it all, Lynch ties and keeps track of multiple strings that would otherwise become overwhelming. With his unique style of splicing chapters into parts and taking breaks from multiple plots to return to others, he manages to make a wonderfully complex story read simply. There is a passion beneath the words that is evident. To think of the painstaking years it took to craft something so masterful is almost intimidating. It will certainly be a book that I read once again, and it will be difficult to keep it far from my mind, the next time I reach for a book with a thief as a protagonist.
Soon I'll be finished with the sequel Red Seas Under Red Skies. For that book's analysis, expect some spoilers, as I'll be able to go a bit deeper into Lynch's style as he continues his delightful Gentleman Bastards series.