Bantam Spectra, 2006, 722 pages
An orphan's life is harsh---and often short---in the island city of Camorr, built on the ruins of a mysterious alien race. But born with a quick wit and a gift for thieving, Locke Lamora has dodged both death and slavery, only to fall into the hands of an eyeless priest known as Chains---a man who is neither blind nor a priest. A con artist of extraordinary talent, Chains passes his skills on to his carefully selected "family" of orphans---a group known as the Gentlemen Bastards.
Under his tutelage, Locke grows to lead the Bastards, delightedly pulling off one outrageous confidence game after another. Soon he is infamous as the Thorn of Camorr, and no wealthy noble is safe from his sting. Passing themselves off as petty thieves, the brilliant Locke and his tightly knit band of light-fingered brothers have fooled even the criminal underworld's most feared ruler, Capa Barsavi. But there is someone in the shadows more powerful---and more ambitious---than Locke has yet imagined. Known as the Gray King, he is slowly killing Capa Barsavi's most trusted men---and using Locke as a pawn in his plot to take control of Camorr's underworld.
With a bloody coup under way threatening to destroy everyone and everything that holds meaning in his mercenary life, Locke vows to beat the Gray King at his own brutal game---or die trying.
I am not really a fan of grimdark fantasies in crapsack worlds. I like a bit of grittiness and I like fantasy that's got an edge, but the trend of wallowing in blood and sex and treachery and torture-porn tends to turn me off -- I'd like the protagonists to have a few noble qualities and the world itself to be at least a little bit redeemable.
I read The Lies of Locke Lamora because it's one of those really popular debut novels everyone raves about, but I entered with misgivings because it looked like yet another "Hardened street urchin grows up rough on the streets of a medieval fantasy city and turns into a meaner, cleverer bastard than all the other mean, clever bastards" story.
It is, but it surpasses the standard because it's well-written, with exceptional plotting, Locke Lamora is a clever bastard, but he's not evil, and the world, while very much the sort of dirty, oppressive fantasy world I expected, isn't really any worse than the historical reality it mirrors. Camorr is vaguely reminiscent of a pre-gunpowder Italian city-state. The rich oppress the poor, the poor are mostly engaged in survival and criminality (often the same thing), but few people are truly evil.
The fantasy elements of the novel are light, and for the most part, exist only as plot devices, but they fit in quite smoothly with the worldbuilding. Camorr was apparently built by an "elder" race that predated humanity, hence the ancient, elegant glass towers and lost magic. No traces of this race remain, which may be something Lynch intends to expand on in future novels, or it may be something he's going to leave as a mysterious, never-explained background detail.
Other than that, magic is limited to alchemy and an international wizards' guild called the Bondsmagi, who can do fairly typical mage stuff (invulnerability charms, mind control spells, magical torture), but who are really dangerous because they've killed off all competition, and now make a point of erasing the families of anyone who kills a Bondsmage.
The main story concerns the "Gentleman Bastards," who are a classic thieving crew/band of brothers consisting of five characters, each defined largely by their special traits and skills. Locke Lamora is the brains of the outfit, the con artist, and master of disguises. His best friend, Jean Tannen, is a portly fellow who's also the crew's muscle, a highly-trained brawler and axe-man. Calo and Galdo Sanza are twins, described by Locke as "silver at everything, gold at none" -- they can fight a little, steal a little, pull off some cons, but they're mostly the Fred and George of the outfit. Finally, there is Bug, their young apprentice.
Locke has devised a clever and elaborate con to relieve one of Camorr's wealthiest nobles of half his fortune. He and his crew embark upon this scheme gleefully and initially with great success. But then Locke runs into complications with Capa Barsavi, the ruler of Camorr's underworld. Barsavi's men are being picked off by the "Grey King," a mysterious figure who seems to be contesting Barsavi's control of the underworld, and threatening the "Secret Peace" Barsavi has forged wth Camorr's nobles. The Secret Peace allows the criminals to prey on commoners with relatively little interference from the police, as long as they never steal from nobles or the police. (The Gentleman Bastards, of course, have been flouting the Secret Peace right from the beginning.)
Chapters alternate between the present-day story and Locke's upbringing on the streets of Camorr, with occasional detours to describe the world. Infodumps in a fantasy novel are usually distractions at best, tedious plot-killers at worst. But Lynch manages to keep the density to a reasonable level and mostly they really do flesh out the world a little, including hints about parts of it that we don't see in this book, but which will certainly be seen in future ones.
What Lynch handles most brilliantly is the many levels of double and triple-crossing, all woven together in an ever-tightening noose around the Gentleman Bastards' necks. These aren't betrayals just for the sake of screwing over the characters -- every single player in the scheme is acting with motives of his or her own, all with bits of information the others don't have (but no one with a complete picture), and best of all, everyone acts intelligently and reasonably, consistent with their knowledge and goals. This book is often compared to Ocean's Eleven, and it has that sort of a feel in the parts dealing with Locke's con job on the nobles and the camaraderie of the Gentleman Bastards, but it's also a lot like The Godfather, with a complex criminal underworld that is by turns brutal and noble. The greatest strength of The Lies of Locke Lamora is its plotting; rarely does a fantasy novel attempt to pull off such a complex multi-threaded plot and weave all the threads together satisfactorily in the end without either deux ex machinas or plot holes.
While all interesting and provided with appropriate backgrounds and motivations, the characters aren't quite as strong. You can pretty much guess who's going to die by the amount of character development they get, and of Locke's two (sorta) "love interests," one gets fridged and the other one never actually appears in the book, she just keeps getting mentioned, making it very obvious that Lynch is saving her for a future book.
The writing was strong overall, though I think it would have actually been better without the frequent "fuckers" and "cocksuckers" thrown into the dialog just to make sure everyone knows this isn't a YA novel. There were a few other bits that I thought were a little bit unnecessary and/or unconvincing; Lynch pulls a bit of Sin City with the prostitutes of Camorr, and I didn't quite buy Locke's willingness to run off and save a bunch of nobles in the rather predictable and Hollywood-style ending just because he's "not a killer." These rough spots notwithstanding, while The Lies of Locke Lamorr isn't made of literary greatness, it's a brilliant story that definitely makes me want to read the sequel.
Verdict: Smart, thrilling, funny, and very cleverly plotted, The Lies of Locke Lamora tries just a little too hard to be "edgy" and dark, but it's still a fantasy novel I would recommend to people who aren't really fantasy fans. It's more of a pseudo-medieval heist caper with light fantasy elements. Keeps you guessing until the end, and will make you want to play a thief in your next AD&D game.