This is unwise and out of the ordinary for my blog, but I’m actually going to post a book review here. I have a long and complicated response, and I’ve
already exhausted several friends’ patience with me yammering about this book.
The book in question is Scott Lynch’s The Republic of Thieves, the third in the purported Gentleman Bastards cycle. This is the third book after the exceptional Lies of Locke Lamora, and the problematic but fascinating Red Seas Under Red Skies. I will be discussing plot details and spoilers henceforth for all three books. SPOILER FREE: Pointless to read if you haven’t read the first two. If you have, you’re going to read it anyway, if for no other reason to see how the cliffhanger at the end of Red Seas is resolved and to finally meet the illusive Sabetha.
Now the caveats.
This is not what I’d call an objective review. I am invested in these characters, in this world, and to a small degree in the author himself. I’ve been reading his blog since his LiveJournal days and have more than a nodding familiarity with Mr. Lynch and his battle with depression and social anxiety. It’s the normal level of Internet Familiarity — I don’t know the guy, but I’ve felt concern and kinship with his struggles, mixed with a great deal of respect and normal envy for his skill as a writer. I’ve been waiting for this book for a while and I wanted it to be good, I was invested in it being good. I empathized with the artist — first book is a phenom, second book attracts a lot of haters, then his life goes down the tubes. I’m a huge believer in art as a redemptive act, that art purifies and justifies all our human frailty. I really wanted him to lay me on my ass with how astonishing Republic was.
And I’ve changed since I read the first book seven years ago. I’m older, grimmer. I’ve seen horrible things. I wanted it to feel like the first book, that sense of fever dream wonder, the necessity of that story, the action leaping off the page. So, if my review gets a little petty and upset [read:butthurt] please bear in mind that I had my expectations set somewhere in the lofty stratosphere between Lord of the Rings and Knight of the Black Rose II: Lord Soth Gets Serious.
I’m also, in a weird way, a colleague now. I wrote a book, just finished the rough draft of the sequel — and there is a very small chance I will meet Scott Lynch as a peer somewhere in the misty future. Maybe that’s why I feel the need to justify my thoughts so thoroughly and publicly, instead of squirreling them away on Goodreads or Tumblr. Think of this review as if I sat the author down for coffee and ranted at him, with the hopes that he would still give me a ride to Wal-Mart afterwards. This is how I would speak to my friend Brent, this is speaking dan-dinh. It’s going to be a little roundabout and circuitous, I’ll find my thesis through battle.
I guess, I’ll start at the beginning.
When last we left our heroes, Jean and Locke, things were pretty bad for them. At the end of Red Seas, our heroes had been thoroughly hoisted on the most vicious of petards. Their grand scheme has failed, Locke has been poisoned with a mortal unction that promises an inexorable painful death, Jean has lost the love of his life.They are penniless and friendless, and except for the bone-depth of their loyalty and friendship — at each other’s throats. A lot of people hated this book, and this ending in particular — but I really appreciated it. After the grand scheming of the first novel, it was a welcome change to watch Locke get completely out of depth [ocean joke] and be so thoroughly defeated — and more importantly to leave that unresolved at the end of the novel. That just doesn’t happen in epic fantasy, it oozed episodic glee, a promise that when we next tuned in, we’d witness the most daring of escapes, the cleverest of plans, that from Death itself. I literally said ‘DUN DUN DUNNN’ out loud when I finished the book.
That was in 2008.
So, I finally crack open the next book, eager — EAGER to see how Locke and Jean were going to thief their way out of this ridiculous predicament. Lynch had five years to mull this over, surely it will be something worthy of the stunts they had pulled in previous escapades.
Except no. We get to watch as Locke succumbs to the final throes of the Dramatically Convenient Poison, while Jean spends their dwindling resources trying to find a doctor that can help. Then, when they have completely given up hope, our new Bondsmage Antagonist arrives to magic the poison away.
So. Okay. Locke is traditional fantasy lead, smarter and luckier than he really should be — we’re all guilty of that when we create our protagonists. And I’m not opposed to breaking them down to their lowest point if it’s in the service of a larger story. I read the whole book assuming that this narrative choice would somehow inform the rest of the novel. It doesn’t. From the end of Book Two Lowest Point, Lynch pushes the needle further into desolation — and then hand waves it away. This only seems to serve a few purposes, none of which I enjoyed. It reinforces the power and might of the Bondsmages [ this book suffers from a lot of this sort of thing. Lynch seems to have decided that they are the really interesting/powerful force in his world, and a lot of the plot is in service of explicating this idea. The entire ‘heist’ of this novel is ultimately revealed to be nothing more than a Bondsmage feint in a larger plan.], and forever cements that there are some situations that Locke cannot defeat with his wits.
I mean, that is literally Locke’s main attribute. It’s like establishing for Super-Man that all of his real problems will be psychological, or for the Flash that all of his villains can only be foiled by a really carefully tended herb garden. Now, as I said, if Locke had adjusted from this — either immediately, or by book’s end — I could have accepted it. But he doesn’t. He does his same clever confidence-man ‘thing’ without a trace of irony. He also becomes strangely myopic and repetitive in all his interactions with Patience, the Bondsmage Antagonist. Locke spends a lot of energy impotently cursing at her and being as rude as humanly possible. Which, as I usually enjoy, is Locke’s second attribute — he will piss in anyone’s teeth regardless of consequence. But, it just seemed so petty and useless – I spent most of the book expecting the other shoe to drop, for his grand plan to get revenge on the Bondsmages to reveal itself. But it never happened, because he didn’t have one.
He didn’t have one. By omission or by authorial choice, the master planner made no attempt to crawfish the Bondsmages — further reinforcing their supreme power narratively and empirically. He bowed his head, and except for his dalliances with Sabetha, did exactly as he was told from beginning to end. Our Bugs Bunny, true priest of the Unnamed God of Thieves, bent knee to a bully — because the bully was just too strong. And no amount of childish namecalling or fuck-bombs can change that. And that is very fucking disappointing.
I think that’s the core of my disappointment. The main plot of the novel concerns the time that Locke Did As He Was Told.
The second draw of this novel was the opportunity to finally meet Locke’s match, his red-haired lady — spoken of only in whispers and hints for the first two novels. She was the perfect plot-device, most potent by her absence. I’m a sucker for the Lost One True Love trope anyway, but the way she was presented by the other Bastards was as his perfect foil, his match.
So as the main plot revealed that she was to be his opponent in the Five Year Game [see Convenient Predicament issues below] I was stoked. Two thieves at the top of their game, with some soap opera sprinkled on top? I am IN.
Then I met her.
And was utterly bored. Because she was perfect.
She was just as clever as Locke, but colder and more controlled. In both her younger portrayal and her present-day form, she showed herself a better actress, a better planner, a better player of the game. All of this I expected. I was looking for the unexpected, the flash , the imperfection that makes the human heart sing.
I never saw it. She was like a paint-by-numbers characters, built by recipe and architectural design. She was the ideal — and the ideal just doesn’t move me. Maybe just too much of her characterization is wound up in the romance plot of the novel, and through the lens of Locke’s adoration — but I could only muster more than a mild interest in her. What are Sabetha’s goals? What are her plans after leaving Karthain? Has anything happened to her in the past five years that was more than window dressing? The book just kind of shrugs at me. She seems to exist only in reflection with Locke, to reveal more about him and to serve the ritual of the romance plot. She is Plot and not a Person.
A series of checked boxes.
I did not find Sabetha and Locke’s relationship believable or interesting. Or particularly romantic.
Early on, we find out that Locke fell in love with her at an extremely young age, back in his Shade Hill days. There are some vague genuflections in the direction of labeling it an ‘infatuation’ or ‘crush’ — but throughout the events of the novel his emotions are validated at every turn. He grows up with her, love unabated. He woos her with unfailing respect and loutish awkwardness, until finally in their late teens she admits that she returns the feeling.
Okay, let’s do a little experiment. Turn to any woman. At your workplace, at home, you know, on the subway — and posit the following scenario:
A boy of seven falls in love with you when you are ten. Cute, right? Then, you are both adopted, and raised as siblings in the same household. The young boy continues to fawn over you. Around the time he’s fourteen, he professes his undying love for you. So, as a seventeen year old woman, do you:
a. Pursue a relationship.
b. Laugh and pat his head.
c. Move out.
d. Left hook.
See? On its face it’s more than a little unlikely. But Sabetha loves Locke — because? Because the author says so. Every beat of their relationship happens because the author says so, the quiet cogs of plot roll forward. Oh, it’s time for Sabetha to get mad. Oh, it’s time for Locke to get mad. But underneath it all, it is a foregone conclusion that they do truly love each other — which I was never remotely convinced of. A much stronger narrative choice could have been to have Locke’s love be unrequited in the past, and only won in the final climax of the present, after he saw through his childish idolation and could approach Sabetha as a person. But, none of that — their romance is a foregone conclusion in the past and present. The reader already knows it works out in the past, and is relentlessly hammered with the inevitability of their loving reunion in the present. Locke’s infatuation undergoes no transformation or growth, his love for her is completely static and as inexorable as gravity — nothing more boring than a foregone conclusion. The only true obstacles are external and oddly de-fanged. The Bondsmagi will kill them if they collude or begin a relationship, and the revelation of Locke’s Unlikely Origin. The former seems easily trounced by two Bastards, the latter given far more credence than seems reasonable.
So, this relationship is supposedly the main draw of the novel and I was completely bored by it. We know in the past that it works out, albeit temporarily — and it’s no surprise in the present when it works out, albeit temporarily.
Lynch writes their exchanges like a man trying to remember what his younger self found attractive. There is no heat, no charm, no — poetry? No fire, no blood — knotting the weave with numb fingers.
There are no true peaks or valleys in their relationship, none that last more than a chapter. I expected after Sabetha shipped Locke off that he would get angry and fired up, but instead after a short scene of blather he’s right back to his static attitude towards his lady love. No surprises, regular speed bumps as dictated by a Proper Outline.
Side note: We never actually find out why they broke it off, other than being young and stupid. Well, I’m glad I waited five years to find out the most obvious answer was the correct one.
The entire setup for the Five Year Game infuriates me. It so specifically engineered to remove all possibility of threat that it makes me scream. Patience re-iterates constantly that Locke and Jean are in no physical danger by the very tenets of the game. The only way I could potentially accept this choice was if the move and counter-move between the Black Iris and Deep Root exemplars was especially clever or engaging.
It wasn’t. Sabetha regularly outfoxes her opponents, the majority of Locke’s sallies are thinly-veiled pranks. The only exceptions are having the old lady spies [why can’t the rest of the game have this level of charm?] and arguably Locke’s gambit with the boat. It was legitamately clever, but not astoundingly so — and it’s presented at the main plot’s climax as his master stroke. When, in context, he only stumbles on the knowledge of the informer in his party, while the entire character of Lucari [sp], the greedy counsel member makes him an easy score.
Two master thieves are put in a box. They are given vast resources to work with, and made safe from direct physical harm. Brain to brain, brilliance against brilliance. A true test for Gentlemen Bastards.
I would really like to have read that book. None of the moves were really that clever or memorable, and all ultimately took a backseat to the unsatisfactory romance plot.
It’s a game rigged by uber-powerful wizards to contain no risk and no consequence — and it ultimately is shown as an institutionalized distraction for larger, more important Bondsmagi matters.
A Tale of Two
But wait! This book is a split narrative. We spend about 40% of the novel in an extended flashback to key points in Locke and Sabetha’s relationship — and at last we see the long-promised heist, the plays — the mounting of The Republic of Thieves from which the novel takes its name.
Now, on its face, this is the part of the novel I enjoyed the most. It was truly delightful to spend time with Father Chains and the twins again, and the Moncraine players were a welcome band of new characters to meet. The business of rehearsal and the actual performance are the highlights of the novel. Here Lynch seems like he’s actually – gasp – enjoying himself, and taking true delight in the crafting of the tale.
But then, the true villain of the novel, Convenient Plot Development soured it all for me. The death of their vicious patron seemed contrived, and the solution to hide the body required a bit of hand-waving. Was it really that convincing to show a masked figure on stage as the supposed patron? Similarly, the hard-nosed accountant in the bathhouse accepted their hoodwink with no undue suspicion. It worked because it had to work for the novel to continue. I was also disappointed that after chapters building up the surprising craftiness of the rapacious noble, our heroes are not given the opportunity to outwit or defeat the antagonist [you know, like the Falconer in Lies ?] but instead merely have to vanish his corpse.
BUT HERE’S MY REAL BEEF.
I’m of the belief that you should only have a parallel narrative like this if the two timelines are supposed to inform each other. Two melodies that complement, that reveal and obfuscate each other’s windings. So, the basic plot of the play within the novel is about two men, a prince and his fellow — who infiltrate a thieves’ band with the intent of assassinating their Queen of Shadows, Amadine. Blatantly obvious parallels for Locke, Jean and Sabetha. [There’s even a freaking wizard forcing the assassination plot as a perfect analogue for the Bondsmagi!] The prince falls in love with the thief, and for a time ignores his duty and enjoys a time of blissful content — until he is pushed to the deed by his father, the wizard, and even his best friend. The prince kills his friend rather than harm his lady love, but is pushed on by duty and circumstances. In the final act, Amadine kills herself to spare her love and in defense of her own power and agency. The prince weeps, but continues on to take his place as king.
Does that sound like a great way to have the plot resolve in the present day?
Yeah, it does. I’m completely flabbergasted — why build this mirror to your leads, then do nothing with it? Maybe — just maybe, Lynch’s plan is to have this situation be echoed in later novels, but at 5 years between installments, I cry ‘dirty pool’. I’m not even saying that the climax of the Five Year Game should have exactly aped the events of the play — but I was really expecting some sort of narrative harmony, some connection between the timelines, especially since the name of the book is The Republic of Thieves. It stings like a wasted opportunity.
Locke’s Unlikely Backstory
My exact quote on this, from my Goodreads stream is, “What the hopping fuck.”
So, since Bondsmagi are the only interesting thing in the world, the only truly powerful force, the thing that reduce your leads to hired thugs and impotent children — you decided that the only way to make Locke interesting was to decide he was one? Some crazy convoluted, Darth Plagueis bullshit?
So, our self-made man, our Archon of Smarty Britches — is ultimately just a cast off from a failed spell, by a Bondsmage that actually matters? So now, all his future character development will be about unraveling the secrets of the super interesting Bondsmagi — perhaps even, SHUDDER, learning magic?
Boo. Boo-urns. Poorly foreshadowed if at all, believed WAY too easily by Locke and Sabetha, and not remotely inspiring for the further adventures of the Gentlemen Bastards. Locke is a character fixated on his past — the loss of Bug and the twins, his upbringing in Shade Hill, his entire relationship with Sabetha — now we add another Past Obsession. Great.
A Bulleted List of Other Things I Didn’t Like
- Jean – One note, devotion and loyalty – even when Locke is clearly jeopardizing the Five Year Game. Boring choice.
- Mimicking Shakespeare is best done very carefully, and very sparingly — the more you do it, the more you come up short.
- Oh, you brought the Falconer back as your future villain — LAME.
- Can we please stop going back over the events of the first book? I liked it too, but damn.
- Jean likes coffee. Got it.
- Calo and Galdo are dead. You killed them. You can’t ask me to be invested in their squabbles or growth.
I Think I Hated Myself Out
I’ve been working on this review for a couple of days — and I’ll be honest, the fire in my gut is fading. I was worked UP about this, but now I just feel kind of sad.
Mr. Lynch, I don’t think you wanted to write this book. You were very open in the past about this being the Gentlemen Bastards Cycle — not the Adventures of Locke Lamora. I think somewhere along the way you, or your publishers, or just the necessity of your process pushed you to write this next installment. Despite all my many words of derision, you wrote it well. I can find no true fault with your craft, you are a superb writer. But what you chose to build with it makes me sad. I believe that you cannot command the lightning, you cannot force your muse — and if you do, this is the type of story that results. It’s well built but it doesn’t sing. It’s correct, but it isn’t true. You have to stay open and honest and dance to the music that the spirits provide. This book is your Saruman, a creature of metal and wheels, bending your power to the line. I don’t think this is the story you wanted to tell. I think you had some other, totally different tale rattling around your brain-pan. And I am eager to read it, I would have read it with delight, to see the words fly off the page again– but it feels like you felt duty-bound to tell this tale. And art cannot be a duty. Calamaxes wanted you to kill the Queen of Shadows, and you did. [See what I motherfucking did there?] When we wrench open the third eye, our vision is sandy and skewed.
Okay, I’m done. I have vented my spleen and extended my temerity to the breaking point. Please understand, if it had simply been a bad book I would have dismissed it — but it was not a bad book, it was a failed book. It’s caught in my craw, and I couldn’t rest until I’d explicated my distaste. You can do better, you will do better, I believe in your ass.
Now, how about that ride?