What’s cracking peepsters? You might as well know straight off the bat that I have no gigs scheduled this week. I’m bedding down for five days o’ writing before heading off to my good mate’s stag do this weekend. This will be my first stag as a teetotaller. Not that it makes much difference – I’m just desperately trying to wring narrative out of my not drinking.
I’m on a bit of a reading kick right now, powered along by the big chunk o’ books sitting on top of my printer waiting to be consumed. I just finished The Republic Of Thieves, the third in Scott Lynch’s Gentleman Bastard sequence. If you haven’t come across the books, they’re swashbuckling Fantasy set in a quasi-European secondary world, following the exploits of a trained thief, Locke Lamora. I really like Lynch – he seems to be a nice guy, and he’s always articulate and interesting in interviews. I enjoyed The Lies Of Locke Lamora, with some reservations – it certainly has a solid plot, with some nice twists and fun action sequences. Red Seas Under Red Skies was, for me, less successful – it felt like there was a lot of filler where the novel unloads (mainly nautical) research onto the reader, without advancing character or plot. The culmination of Locke and Jean’s heist was fun, although I was left a bit unconvinced by the apparent inaction of the Bondsmagi.
So I came to The Republic Of Thieves not sure what to expect – hopeful, but aware that, as a Fantasy series, the Gentleman Bastard books don’t quite do it for me. I’ve written out my thoughts below, but they probably won’t make much sense unless you’ve read the books, although they also manage to be spoilerific, so avoid if you’re planning to read the books in future.
I think I wanted to like TROT much more than I actually did. It introduces Sabetha, Locke’s love interest mentioned in the first two novels that we haven’t yet met. Unfortunately, she doesn’t come across as very sympathetic, well-rounded, interesting or likeable. She’s just competent at her chosen career (thievery). It feels like Lynch is so at pains to not fall into sexist tropes or allow the narrative to get too male-gazey (both laudable aims) that he forgets to make Sabetha human. Frankly, she feels like a poor substitute for Locke’s lifelong buddy Jean, a tough-but-vulnerable guy we see making genuine sacrifices for his friend. Despite constantly being told that Locke feels dizzy and dry-mouthed in Sabetha’s presence, there’s zero chemistry on the page. It’s unclear what Sabetha sees in Locke – he’s needy and reveres her to the point of dehumanising her completely – and we have to take Locke’s total adoration of her on faith, because it feels utterly arbitrary.
Structurally, problems incipient in the first two novels come to a head. Although the main part of the novel sees Locke and Jean recruited by the Bondsmagi to rig an election, 50% of the novel is flashbacks to Locke’s youth, where he and the rest of the Gentlemen Bastards spend a summer posing as a theatrical troupe on the say-so of their mentor, Father Chains. (for, at best, extremely tenuous reasons) We know all the characters make it through alive, so there’s no tension on that front. Although the flashbacks show Locke and Sabetha getting together (eventually), the process by which this happens is neither interesting nor revelatory, and in no way changes our understanding of the alpha plot.
Writers: please remember. If you’re going to do a flashback to an event we already know the outcome to, you need to ensure that experiencing this event first-hand somehow transforms or, ideally, contradicts our opinion (or the protagonist’s opinion) of what happened and what its significance was. Otherwise it’s just texture bloat.
The alpha plot features Locke and Jean working to rig an election, pitted against Sabetha. They have absolutely no investment in the outcome either politically or personally, having no allegiance to either party, and suspecting that their employers, the Bondsmagi, mean to kill them or in some way dishonour the contract once the election is over. So, although their various feints and ruses are mildly diverting, we’re not particularly invested in them because the stakes are unclear. Even Locke and Jean themselves are so unengaged at times that their employers have to appear and warn them to take it seriously.
I think my final problem with the novel is something that has bugged me throughout the series, although it’s only now that I have been able to articulate it: Lynch is bad at dialogue. Every character sounds identical. They all quip and exchange repartee but the repartee isn’t very witty. Look, you know me, I love swearing and bawdiness, but neither is intrinsically funny or clever. Neither is the cursing particularly offensive after the first few pages of it. It’s just, well, rather one-note and unconvincing, and it undermines our belief in the reality of these characters.
There are also some plot twists that feel, to me at least, like cheats. At best, they’re poorly foreshadowed.
It’s a shame, because – as I said above – I really want to like the Gentleman Bastard books. I love the idea, I love the world (although I’m not convinced Lynch has worked out the economics of these huge urban communities supporting the ultra-rich), and I want to read a fun, pacey adventure series undergirded with real humanity. Despite myself, I’ll probably read the next installment!
Anyway, this weekend I started reading The Ladies Of Grace Adieu, a short story collection by Suzanna Clarke, author of Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell. It is straight pimpin’. I love it. So there’s that.