When The Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch was released in 2006 it was a massive hit. Not only did it become a bestseller, but it is also considered something of a modern classic. It won high praise and Lynch was counted among the most promising writers in the fantasy field, standing shoulder to shoulder with the likes of Brandon Sanderson, Patrick Rothfuss and Joe Abercrombie. This was an amazing achievement for a first novel, so expectations were high for the rest of the series. Did we have a new classic before us?
Yet, the follow-up books were something of a disappointment. Instead of soaring high, the rest of the series went downhill. Complaints began to pile up about the flaws in the newer books and even fans admitted some problems. Something was missing, some of the brilliance had been lost. Of course, all opinion is subjective and there are probably those who really liked the follow-ups. Yet no one would claim that they are as good as the first one.
Myself, I absolutely loved Lies and consider it one of my favourite novels, yet I was underwhelmed by Red Seas Under Red Skies and Republic of Thieves (although the names are fantastic). The original magic was gone and the plot seemed to wander directionless. A fourth book will soon appear and to be honest, I’m not sure if I’ll bother to buy it.
So, what happened? Where did it go wrong?
First, let’s start with what made Lies so brilliant. The characters are excellent and by far the strongest element of the entire series. Locke is a fantastic creation, both impressive with his skill and cleverness, but also sympathetic with his vulnerabilities and weaknesses. We can understand and relate to him, which makes us care about what he does. His friendship with Jean is a deep connection and the two have great chemistry together. Jean too, is not a mere sidekick but a strong character in his own right. They are believable characters, that feel real and we want to know more about.
Another element is the mixture of excitement and fun. That to me, is the core essence of Lies. It’s exciting to see Locke lie to and con from people and also lots of fun. We enjoy their clever schemes and are engaged to see if they will succeed or get caught. It’s completely entertaining. Fantasy can often be a dark genre, with the world frequently needing saving from evil, so a more mischievous adventure style is a welcome change.
It’s worth noting that to me, Lies isn’t really a fantasy book, it’s better described as a crime book. Sure, there is magic and mages but those are interruptions to life of the main characters. It’s essentially a book about a gang of thieves trying to rob people. That’s where it is at home and what it does best.
Lynch made a bold move about halfway through by killing Nazca and Capa Barsavi, which took me by surprise. Perhaps he felt the story would stagnate if Locke was stuck in Camorr, so he shook things up and moved him elsewhere. It certainly was effective and worked at the time, but I fear it might have given a short-term boost but did long-term damage. The thieving environment of Camorr is part of what made the book so great, by throwing it away, Lynch also threw away the important essence that made it a success in the first place.
This leads me to the problem I had with Red Seas. It opened well and I enjoyed Locke and Jean trying to scheme and scam the casino. This is what they (and the novels as a whole) are best at. But then the pace grinds to a halt when they (and the plot) are sent out to sea. Lynch obviously did his research for this part and pirates will always appeal, but it didn’t work in the context of the books. Locke and Jean are unable to scheme and come up with clever plots, so they are unable to be Locke and Jean. The core of the book gets cut out from it. Instead we get far too much detail of how to raise a mast and sail a ship (which crossed the line from detailed into tedious).
Each author has their own voice, their own style, that something that makes their books stand out from others. Brandon Sanderson couldn’t write a GRRM or Joe Abercrombie (and vice versa) novel not because one is better than the other, but because they have different voices and different ways of telling the story. When the plot goes to sea in Red Seas, the Gentlemen Bastards lose their voice, the unique feel of the series that makes it so good. There is a large shift in tone and the book basically jumps into another genre.
It didn’t help that the plot began to get tangled up with the characters trying to juggle about 5 different subplots simultaneously. Locke and Jean must deal with Requin (the casino owner), Stragos (the military lord), the bondmagi, their crew, then the pirates, then other pirates, plus Merrain who kills some people for unknown reasons. The shift in tone and focus is so jarring that it almost feels like several separate books combined together. The worst part was that most of the sea scene (which is basically half the book) turned out to be essentially pointless and they arrive back onshore in pretty much the same position that they left in.
This could have just been a bump on the road, if Republic of Thieves hadn’t repeated the same mistakes. I had high hopes for this as I have a huge interest in politics and was excited to finally see Sabetha. Again the book opened well and the task of deceiving voters and disrupting political rivals seemed like one with plenty of entertainment potential. Surely politics is the perfect location for some con artists? But the same problems re-appeared.
Again, the main plot turned out to be pretty pointless. Locke and Jean play one or two pranks and that’s it. They don’t actually do any electioneering or make any real impact on the result. In fact, despite being constantly out-witted, they end up inexplicably tying the contest. Then the mages reveal that they were always planning on leaving after the contest, making the election a complete waste of time. All in all, it was a disappointing and half-hearted effort.
In fact, the main plot is so weak that Lynch ends up telling the same story twice. The flashback is essentially the same plot of Locke chasing Sabetha as in the main narrative. To be honest, I thought the flashback was probably the best part of the book, which is not a good sign. It made me realise that the Gentlemen Bastards (both characters and books) are at their best when they are in Camorr. It had banter, scheming, chancing and while their backs were against the wall, the stakes and challenges were manageable and not all-powerful mages. This is what made me realise that killing the group off and leaving the city was a major mistake.
The romance with Sabetha turned out to be a missed opportunity too. We never learn why she left in the first place (other than a throwaway comment that Locke wanted things to stay the same and not change). Locke inexplicably completely forgives/forgets that she left him and even after she drugs him and imprisons him on a boat, he acts like nothing is wrong. Any normal person would be outraged at this but the relationship between the two is quite strange. It’s never really explained why they were in love (Locke loves her for her looks and it’s not said why Sabetha like him). Sabetha was basically a sister to Jean, yet they barely even speak to each other.
I actually enjoyed most of Republic up until the ending, where things unfortunately completely fell apart. For whatever reason, Lynch has decided that all the books must end with Locke and Jean fleeing a city in chaos, taking nothing with them. So the ending felt like a giant reset button had been pressed to put the characters back to where they were before they entered the city. As a result most of the events seem pointless and a waste of thing. Locke and Jean entered the city without Sabetha so (like Ezri) they must leave without her, even if this is completely inconsistent with Locke’s character (it makes no sense to chase her for the whole book before deciding that she must make up her own mind). Any flimsy excuse will do even if it’s not at all credible (why would Sabetha believe an unknown mage with a grudge against Locke?)
I’ll say little about the epilogue because it was too awful to think about (Birds? Really? Birds? That’s what defeated an incredibly powerful mage?). It all seemed like the origin scene of a cartoon supervillain. Again, it felt completely out of place in what should be a crime novel. Making Locke into the ghost of some ancient wizard completely ruins the character and left a sour taste in my mouth. The fantasy elements felt as out of place as if Sanderson wrote a book filled with Pratchett style absurd comedy or Abercrombie went to GRRM levels of world-building. Those things are good in their own place but they don’t suit the Gentlemen Bastards style of novel.
I have heard that Lynch intends these 3 books to be the backstory to Locke and that his real adventure starts later. This doesn’t defend the books, it just adds insult to injury. Sometimes it does feel as if Lynch is working off a checklist, just accumulating interesting background for later use. Perhaps a future Locke will make great use out of his knowledge of thievery, piracy and politics. If this is true, then it’s a terrible decision. The books should have their own arcs and stand on their own merits, not merely as setup for future plot points.
So that’s where I think the series went wrong. The later books are still enjoyable and by no means terrible, but there’s a large and noticeable drop in quality. The problem is that the series lost what made it so great in the first place. It lost the fun and exciting scheming of the first book, and instead got bogged down in muddled plots, poor pacing, wandering without going anywhere and bizarre magical mumbo-jumbo. Perhaps the newest addition will turn the series around, but I fear that it might just exacerbate the problems.