On 5 April last year I reported that Simon Spanton, an editor at UK Orion/Gollancz, had read the early pages of a novel on the blog of one Scott Lynch, and had promptly signed him to a multi-book contract (Blogger hits big-time).
Then, on 10 November, we heard that the Lynch book, entitled The Lies of Locke Lamora, had not only sold to Orion, but that Orion had sold the rights in America, France, Germany, Russia and Holland.
And, finally, on 21 February this year, there came the news that the film rights in the novel had been sold to two serious Hollywood producers.
First publication of The Lies of Locke Lamora, hereinafter known as LLL, will occur via the UK edition from the Orion imprint Gollancz, on 15 June 2006. The book is intended as the first in a seven-volume series.
I should declare at this stage that, while I have some interest in fantasy/science fiction, I am by no means a diehard fan, and there must be many a 14-year-old who is better read in the genre than I am. So I did not rush to read LLL. However, in view of the book's modest origins, unusual route to contract, and subsequent sales success, I thought I had better have a look at an advance reading copy of same, to see what all the fuss is about.
Well, the first thing you notice is that this is a big fat book, running to 645 pages. The lines however, are nicely spaced, with the text left-justified only; in terms of layout on the page, it is easy to read.
LLL is subtitled Book One of the Gentleman Bastard Sequence, which I thought was a good start. And that subtitle gives us a clue to the character of Mr Lamora himself. He is to be, it seems, a well-mannered crook. One of nature's gentlemen, perhaps, but thoroughly bent (in the strictly non-sexual sense). Here's part of the blurb from the back of the book:
Locke Lamora... steals from the rich -- they're the only ones worth stealing from -- but the poor can go steal for themselves. What Locke cons, wheedles and tricks into his posesssion is strictly for him and his band of fellow con-artists and thieves: the Gentleman Bastards.Now this is a difficult trick to pull off. Yes, in the past we have had E.W. Hornung's Raffles, and Donald Westlake's Parker. And doubtless many another likeable rogue. But I find myself resistant to the genre. Crooks are crooks, in the end. They are not nice people. And however much you make them steal from the villainous in order to protect and reward the innocent, they remain, at heart, nasty pieces of work. No matter how hard you labour to explain their background, to give them charm and wit, there must remain, in the heart of any thinking reader, at least a few reservations.
Locke Lamora, as the back of the book makes clear, is a confidence trickster. He pretends, in elaborate detail, to be someone he is not, in order to part a rich man from a substantial proportion of his wealth. And we are not, at first, given any particularly strong indications as to why this rich man should be cheated, beyond the fact that it will make Locke Lamora and his associates better off than they currently are.
Well, perhaps modern, and young, readers will be quite untroubled by all this. But I was never able to watch the film The Sting, for example, with total enthusiasm. I really didn't take to some of the people involved, never mind the overall concept, clever though it was. And the same is true of BBC TV's current Hustle. However much the writers strive to turn the con artists into a new version of Robin Hood and his merry men, it leaves a bad taste in my mouth.
So, in other words, Scott Lynch has set himself a steep hill to climb.
All of the action, by the way, takes place in another world and another time. The locale is the 'magical city of Camorr', which is built of Elderglass by a race no one remembers. 'It's a city of shifting revels, filthy canals, baroque palaces and crowded cemeteries.'
Here again, I suspect that the choice of such a locale may be at least as much a burden to a writer as an advantage. True, you can invent your own climate, legends, laws, geography, technology, and so forth. Which may not be a problem for someone with an efficient imagination, which Scott Lynch certainly seems to have. But you also have to explain it all to the reader -- either directly, or (preferably) indirectly -- and that takes time and effort. It also requires a good deal of laborious record-keeping, unless you want to get caught out by one of those 14-year-old fans. Don't underestimate the amount of sheer drudgery which is involved in writing a book of this kind. It's not just two hours a day of dazzling inspiration, followed by an afternoon on the golf course.
One way and another then, Scott Lynch has not made things easy for himself. Fantasy, long book, dodgy characters. And the question is, does he have the technique, in his first book, to pull it off?
Well, by page 24 my notes say 'this guy can write'. And I don't say that about everyone. He has fluency, speed, humour. Above all, he is entertaining. You can see why Simon Spanton was impressed.
The author begins with Locke's childhood. Which is a smart move. Because if we are going to sympathise with this potentially unattractive character, we are going to need some clear guidance as to how he came to be what he is. And we are going to need some convincing that his conditioning, if you will, left him with little alternative than to be what he is.
The childhood section, to my mind, ended too soon. But this turns out to be a bit of a tease. Because after jumping into the 'present' -- the timescale in which most of the real action takes place -- we return several times to a continuation of the childhood story.
As techniques go, this is very smart and sophisticated stuff indeed. Lynch seems to have a good feel for how much a reader will take without getting bored. Not an infallible feel, but a good one. And instead of giving us the childhood in one big dose, which might lead to us skipping, he gets into the main story and then goes back from time to time.
This is just as well, because, in addition to hearing all about Locke's biggest sting to date, we also have to absorb quite a lot of information about the city of glass, its customs, population, and so forth. I found myself thinking, round about page 68, that we were being asked to take in too much in one go, despite the flashbacks and variations.
And so the plot develops. In more ways than one.
Will it sell? Well, initial signs are promising: hard-core fans seem to like it. To me, an occasional fantasy reader, LLL is not an absolutely stunning book of the calibre of Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell. Not remotely. And I suspect that some of the overseas rights sales in particular have resulted from a bandwagon effect. (If the Russians have bought it, it must be pretty good, right?) But it's a solid, highly talented start, and it seems to be hitting the target with its intended readership.