Thursday, March 09, 2006

Scott Lynch: The Lies of Locke Lamora

The story so far:

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.


Andrew O'Hara said...

Clearly he had New Orleans in mind when he wrote about downtown Camorr ('It's a city of shifting revels, filthy canals, baroque palaces and crowded cemeteries.')

It's nice to see an author stray from the formulas and come out of it well--good for him for tackling a tough one and succeeding.

Dalcassius said...

I am a street courier. I spend my time running to and from. One day in my travels I was making my way down a stairwell and happened upon a book. I picked it up and gave it the once over. "The Lies of Locke Lamora" by Scott Lynch. The back impressed me so I tossed it in my bag.
Later as I sat back in my office I studied the book a little more closely and one line on the front cover leapt to my eyes. "Uncorrected Book Proof". I balked. I leapt for the keyboard and started googling. I couldn't believe it. There was still six months before the item sitting just to my left was going to hit the shelves.
When I got home that evening I gave the book a chance and started to read. What was supposed to be a short 5 minute inspection of Scott Lynch's skills turned into 100 pages of ravenous reading.
I couldn't stop. I read all 645 pages four sittings. A little searching on the net and the official edition is only 512. Long but more than well worth it.
I found the everything about the book enticing. However, I am quite taken with stories such a this. The Sting and Ocean's 11 are both favorites of mine.
Everything Scott Lynch gives to you he explains so as not to loose you on this face paced and highly entertaining trip through the canals and streets of Camorr. Few books have had me crave for the second in a series and with this the craving it worse as I still have to wait for the first book to be released. Scott Lynch has won himself a die hard fan here and I look forward to seeing what is produced from the hands of Warner Brothers.

pirsigfanareu said...

I picked up the book yesterday and gave it the "once over at a glance" thing. I sat down to read a few pages and lost myself for a solid hour! Alas! I was so conflicted ( I had an appointment), so I left the Public Library and ran to Borders, bought myself a personal copy and ended up turning pages well into the night! Awesome stuff here! Thanks Mr. Lynch! (and little Jen, too)!

Anne said...

Well, this is seriously after the fact of Michael Allen's comments on the Lies of Locke Lamora but I feel the need to say something about the book and Mr. Allen's assertion that it is not the 'absolutely stunning book of the calibre of Johnathan Strange & Mr. Norrell.' I've been reading sci-fi and fantasy for over forty years and if I had to choose between Scott Lynch's wonderful, quirky, engaging story and the ponderous, overlong JS & Mr. N, well, let's just say that I don't agree with the comparison. The Lies of Locke Lamora is one of those rare books that I am trying to stretch out over as long a period as I can - leaving it at home instead of bringing it to work for lunchtime reading. I don't want it to end too soon I'm enjoying it so very much. Can't wait for the next one and I too find the comparisons to Harry Potter kind of amusing. Good for you young Scott Lynch - folk like me, diehard fans, are always hungry for an engaging story with characters that we have some empathy for. You've done it in spades. Thanks for that.

Anonymous said...

I recommend this book.
I have been reading fantasy on the Compton Crook Award Committee ( for several years.
This is the most interesting book I have read this year so far. ( I can not speak for the committee)

cat said...

The Lies of Locke Lamora have come to Holland at last. I just picked them up on the shelves of our local Public Library last week. Put them on my nightstand and... lost many precious hours of sleep on them, turning up groggy-eyed at work, full of lies - not my own I mention!

Being an avid reader of fantasy, I got immersed in this book from page 1. I do agree with other critics that as soon as attention starts to waver an intermezzo is inserted. Those intermezzo's make me want to read on and on. They lead to understand this elusive mr Lamore better and better. Still after conclusion of this first book I get the perception of not knowing him at all. I need more of LL just to understand what is driving him and who for heavens sake is he really? What is his real name, where does he come from?

I am looking forward to mr Lynch's next novels about his hero... I'll be prompting my local Library to purchase them.


Anonymous said...

I agree entirely with Anne's comments. I found JS&mrN turgid hard work. LLL is a delight in comparison. The humour and pace remind me very much of Fritz Leiber's tales of Lankhmar. I too have been reading Science Fiction and fantasy for 40+ years, and LLL holds its own - probably a future classic (certainly better than the so-called classic 'Magician').

My only reservation is that I detest the idea of trilogies (or heptalogies if this is going to be 7 volumes!). Only an excellent writer such as Gene Wolfe can hope to develop a story arc that spans even 3 volumes, so Mr Lynch has a lot to live up to! (unless he means that he simply intends to recycle the characters and milieu in future volumes, rather than continue with an overall plot).

Anonymous said...

A cut well above the seeming repetitiveness of the genre. But do they really speak English in Camorr? The pun on page 388 of the UK paperback edition seems to suggest so.

Anonymous said...

I really liked this book, I've read it in two days while working for my exams (I'm 20 if you want to know).

I'm really surprised that someone can prefer the story of mr Strange and mr Norrel : personnally, I didn't managed to finish it (it only happened once to me not to finish a book, and I read a lot. The other one was "le neveu de Rameau" from Diderot). Clarke's book looks like if it had been written by a girl of 7 years old. And Lynch's book is just wonderful. The story, the place, the characters, everything is.
I've finished it this afternoon, and I think I'll start it again tomorrow...

sorry for my poor english, I'm french...

But I read mosty in english ;)

Anonymous said...

I just finished LLL a few hours ago, and I must say it was impressive. Certainly different from most of the fantasy novels on my shelf, and very refreshing. I think the best part of it isn't so much the story as it is the storytelling. I just love Lynch's style, and how his characters interact. I think I had a grin fixed in place every moment I was reading, save maybe for the more brutal parts. The book is very smart, and extremely entertaining.

On a side note, what's with all the lackluster reviews of Strange & Norrell? Where LLL gets maybe 4 out of 5 stars, JS&N certainly deserves 6. I may only be 19, but I've read a LOT of books, and JS&N is definitly in my top 5. LLL is great, but let's not go crazy. The two aren't really even comperable anyway.

Well, enough of my blather, off to start Red Seas Over Red Skies.

The Drunken Monkey said...

I read LLL when it first came out & have re-read it 3 times in the wait for Red Seas over Red Skys.
It's just such an enjoyable book from beginning to end.
In fact, it's made it into my hallowed Top 5 of all time.
Scott Lynch has a fantastic skill & mind & I'm looking forward to the rest of the adventures of the gentleman bastards.
Oh yes.

Tackle That Tale said...

I found this book at the library sell, and as I read the summary, I was spellbound and brought the book right away.

I was not disappointed.

It took me hours to read it and by that time, I wanted to read it over again. Although the background information was at first difficult to understand, but if you read it more than 5 times, I think you'll get the picture.

I didn't know it was a series, but now that I know, it's going to be another night reading under the flashlight.

Anonymous said...

I have to say that if I hadn't been forced to finish reading this book because I gave my word to my book club, I would never have bothered to slog through it. This type of book reminds me of one long video game: eye candy, lots of action, but essentially without "soul". Practically nothing in this roller-coaster ride redeems it from a state of intrinsic nihilism. It is as if the author reached into the deepest recesses of his heart and retrieved nothing but super-mario in breeches.

Anonymous said...

The book got me in from the start it is a ripping tale and moves along at a nice pace. The reader quickly gets to know the characters in the Gentleman's Bastards and how they operate to releive their victims. I have just started Red Seas under Red Skies and look foward to the rest of the series.

Tavrin Callas said...

I love Locke Lamora. He is witty, charming(when he needs to be), intelligent and can talk his way out of almost anything.
I have long been waiting for a book like this and I'm very happy that i've finally found it.
I find myself taking out Lies of Locke Lamora from my bookshelf at night when I'm border just to read my favorite pieces, over and over again.