Monday, February 10, 2014

Book-A-Day 2014 #41: The Republic of Thieves by Scott Lynch

Fantasy novels tend to get bigger and bigger -- in scope, in focus, in number of pages. Authors can fight back against the latter, but they tend not to mind the first two -- if a city is saved in the first book, it has to be a country in the second, and the world in the third. Stakes exist only to be increased, until the series hero or heroes have to save everything, all the time, every time. It's not a healthy progression, but it's what most fantasy genres have locked themselves into -- from epic to contemporary, audiences don't seem to want their paragons to drop back into doing odd jobs once they've battled a Big Bad.

Luckily, there is a fantasy subgenre that has resolutely resisted that tendency for decades now -- a disreputable subgenre, true, and one that's been near-dead at many times. But you can never completely kill sword and sorcery -- it always creeps back in, corrupting those pure Tolkienesque secondary worlds and pseudo-historicals with a good dose of sneakiness, roguery, and light-fingered criminality. One of the most enjoyable S&S sequences of recent times is Scott Lynch's "Gentleman Bastards" sequence -- first The Lies of Locke Lamora, then Red Seas Under Red Skies, and then a long gap until this new book last year -- about a small band of thieves and con-men and their depredations across a somewhat Renaissance landscape of semi-Mediterranean city-states. The first two books saw some pretty major events, and Lynch's heroes even found themselves "saving" their city at least once -- against their will, and their plans -- in those books.

But I'm happy to say that The Republic of Thieves, the third adventure of the Gentleman Bastards, sees absolutely no escalation. They are not suborned into saving an empire from supernatural nasties from the spaces between, they don't discover their own better natures and form a society to protect the people they love most, they aren't reformed or tamed or domesticated. (Although Lynch has some serious hints at the end that escalation may be coming in the next book, The Thorn of Emberlain.) No, this book is entirely about two different capers -- one at the beginning of the young Bastards' careers, and one in the "present day."

In fact, both of these adventures involve the Bastard least known and most talked about: Sabetha, the young woman who left the group before Lies of Locke Lamora and for whom Locke Lamora himself has been pining (often loudly) ever since. In the flashback story, she's a teenager -- as are Locke, Jean, and the appalling Sanza twins, Calo and Galdo -- when the whole group is sent to the neighboring city of Espara, to pretend to be actors for a summer, to get them away for a while from their mentor, Father Chains, and to make them work together at a time when hormones and other growing pains are pushing them all apart.

And, in the main story, she's their competition. At the end of Red Seas, Jean and Locke had both been poisoned, and Locke tricked Jean into drinking their only antidote. Republic sees the two of them in the city of Lashain, with Locke steadily dying and their resources nearly gone. A last-ditch plan fails, as all of the previous plans had failed, but one last chance presents itself: the Bondsmage Patience, one of the leaders of that shadowy group of nearly all-powerful magicians, will heal Locke if the two of them will do something for her.

The Bondsmagi lightly rule the city of Karthain, mostly behind the scenes. Once every five years, the official political parties of Karthain campaign for the nineteen seats of the Konseil -- and the two main parties of Magi jostle to elect their party of choice, each selecting a champion to run their political organization and staying out of the direct fray themselves. This time around, one group has chosen Sabetha to be their champion -- and so, to combat her, Patience's faction wants Locke and Jean.

There's some darker stuff lurking around the edges -- it wouldn't be a modern fantasy if there weren't -- but Republic of Thieves is mostly the story of plots and counterplots, of skulduggery and betrayal, of bribes taken and refused, of dirty tricks planned and disrupted and enacted and confounded, of a very, very dirty political campaign. (There are dangers and disruptions in the flashback story, but those are simpler, more concerned with the Bastards hiding their identities, maintaining their covers, and dealing with some very oversized personalities among the acting company and its patronage.) So Republic of Thieves most assuredly does not escalate from the first two books, but instead tells a couple of smaller-scale, thoroughly enjoyable exploits of Locke and his compatriots. I wish that more fantasy series would emulate this book and the Gentleman Bastards sequence in general: not only does fantasy not need to keep getting bigger, the mania for bigness is what's stifling and damaging fantasy in general.

We need more frivolous fantasy, more fantasy about scoundrels and criminals, more fantasy set in the gutters and grotty rooftops. We need more Locke Lamora. But we're happy that we got this one, and we're hopeful that Thorn of Emberlain will be coming along in due course.

Book-A-Day 2014 Introduction and Index

1 comment:

Harry Connolly said...

Everyone's crazy about this series but me. I want to love it; it's pretty well-written, the characters are great, and the genre is exactly what I want to read.

Except I felt seriously cheated by the last section of LIES... The main characters had been incredibly active, driving the plot, and then the villain's final plan comes around and Lamora turned into a boring old reactive protagonist, actually appearing to his enemies as himself and pleading with them to listen to him. Not lie, not trick, not con people. He begged for their trust. It was a massive disappointment.

Still, I'd already asked my local shop to order the next book so I tried it, only to stall out during the endless sailing lessons where the main characters were utterly bereft of any kind of agency. After powering through that section, I discovered that the drama for the next section would come from Locke forgetting the cats.

I felt honestly cheated. I wish it were different, because I'm pretty much the only person with no patience for this book.

Sidenote: When I pitched a fantasy crime series to my agent, she insisted that I make sure there were large stakes. Not just solve a murder or something, it had to link to something much larger.

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