In the city of Camorr, the plague known as the Black Whisper is a disaster, killing everyone over eleven years old. However, this provides an opportunity for those who like to ‘adopt’ orphans. Slavers take most of them, but those who seem talented are apprenticed to the Thiefmaker and put to profitable work in the streets, markets and houses of the city. One particular apprentice is tiny Locke Lamora, who displays a massive talent for the noble arts of theft and conman-ship. Unfortunately, young Locke doesn’t always foresee the outcomes of his schemes and drives the Thiefmaker to pass him along to Father Chains, a blind priest who spends his days begging outside a dilapidated temple. Chains makes people feel righteous because they have been charitable whilst simultaneously making himself very happy as he gains their wealth without really trying very hard.
Chains molds Locke into the leader of a band of equally light-fingered misfits known as the Gentleman Bastards and pretty soon Locke has become infamous in the city. The Bastards are especially talented at intricate and inventive plans that help to relieve noblemen of vast sums of money, although they are noticeably reluctant to share their wealth with the deserving poor so his similarity to Robin Hood is somewhat limited. As his talents and confidence grow, Locke even succeeds in fooling the underworld's most feared ruler, but in the shadows lurks someone still more ambitious and deadly. Faced with a bloody coup that threatens to destroy everyone and everything that holds meaning in his mercenary life, Locke vows to beat the enemy at his own brutal game, or die trying.
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As a fan of Mr Lynch’s writing I was rather apprehensive about our discussion of his debut novel. I had pretty much convinced myself that everyone would hate it, but that is because I am a pessimist. I was concerned that the interweaving timelines would create a barrier to enjoyment or that the ‘earthy’ vocabulary would offend some of our more gentile members. I am pleased to report that my worries were mostly unwarranted, although not everyone fell in love with the book as much as I did.
This is Scott Lynch’s debut novel, but you would never know that from his skill with dialogue and descriptive writing. His voice is very engaging and witty, giving us memorable quotes and laugh-out-loud descriptions of events, and I find his writing as warm and comforting as a pair of old slippers. His characters are well drawn and fully realized and we come to love some of them very quickly: there are few ‘throw away’ place fillers in evidence and even minor characters are fully realized. The setting is expertly drawn and we are given enough detail to leave us wanting more: it is similar to Elizabethan Europe, but different enough to tick all the required Fantasy boxes. The plot has enough originality to keep us off balance and surprised, with bold moves that will have you shouting angrily at the author because you do not want him to do THAT to the characters.
Locke and the other Bastards are all engaging characters even though they are thieves. Their choice to rob from the rich makes their profession a little easier to accept, though they don’t seem to do much wealth distribution, so we know that they are not all that noble. However, it is very nice to have characters that are slightly less than the usual perfectly good heroes that litter Fantasy novels. Although Locke is the brains of the outfit, he is dependent upon his support crew, especially Jean Tannen. Jean is the gentle giant type who has his special hatchets, ‘The Wicked Sisters’, but who wears glasses and reads Romance novels. He and Locke are supported by the Sanza twins, when they can be kept away from gambling and wenching, and Bug, the latest apprentice to join the team. One of the appealing things about Locke is that he really needs his crew: he is hopeless at fighting for a start! The secondary cast is also well crafted. Father Chains deserves several books all to himself, because I want to read his entire life story. The nobles ensnared in the Bastards’ trap are not your usual idiot nobility, but more than capable of some plotting of their own. One particularly wonderful character is Dona Vorchenza, an incredibly elderly noble who has an entirely unexpected role in the story and who would be a perfect role for Dame Maggie Smith if there is ever an adaptation. The antagonist of the piece, The Gray King, is a suitably shadowy figure for most of the book, but his history and motivations are unusual and logical, if a little extreme.
The world that Mr Lynch creates is full of wonderful touches and hints, such as his use of alchemy in everyday life, that really places it into a true fantasy setting. Unlike many Fantasy writers, who bury you in a massive pile of details and histories, he keeps to the bare minimum. This is frustrating in some ways, but it does stop the exposition from getting in the way of the story and it is a testament to Mr Lynch that I left the book wanting more. He uses an interesting technique of interweaving the main plot with Interludes from the past, which either add color to the characters or explain or support aspects of the story or world. I found that this provided quiet moments to catch my breath in some of the most frantic action sequences and also gave more context to the world and its inhabitants whilst allowing us to miss out on a prolonged introduction to the Bastards. The rest of the group found the structure easy enough to follow once the basic outline became obvious.
The plot is like one of the great caper movies mixed with a dash of Mafia politics: think Oceans Eleven meets The Sopranos with more grime and some magic thrown in for good measure. There are bluffs within bluffs, political maneuvering and random violence at every turn, but our heroes are destined to rise above it all with their mythical hero aura, right? Nope, this is a cruel, brutal world, so nothing is certain. Our heroes get beaten, stabbed, drowned, poisoned, bitten and they bleed real blood: when they finish a fight you would have trouble finding bits that aren’t black, blue or red. There is a real sense of danger, which ratchets up the tension for most of the second half of the book as our heroes stagger from one danger to the next. The journey is certainly convoluted, but Mr Lynch manages all the unexpected moves beautifully, making sure that everyone behaves in ways that fit their characters. There is a slight lack of female characters, but the city of Camorr seems to be very politically correct, with no obvious division of professions along gender lines and the females we do meet are all strong and feisty.
There are a couple of things that I do want to mention though. Firstly, this is not necessarily a book for the weak stomached. There are some scenes of unpleasant violence that might be difficult for some people to read, though there is surprisingly little description of what is really happening. Secondly, there is quite a lot of profanity in the dialogue. If you look at Amazon or Goodreads, you will see plenty of one star reviews that are due to this. I do not want to debate the suitability of giving a low star rating to a book because of its choice of language, but I do think that the language is suited to the environment being described in this case. It is not used inappropriately and is not there for shock value: it is simply an accurate reflection of how I would expect criminals to speak. I was very relieved that the rest of the group agreed with the assessment.
The Gentleman Bastards are supposed to endure a total of seven adventures eventually. The next two books, Red Seas Under Red Skies and The Republic of Thieves, have already been published and I am eagerly awaiting The Thorn of Emberlain, which is due in September of this year. Mr Lynch is a notoriously slow writer, but his books are definitely worth the wait.