This is a charming fantasy novel set in an exciting, interesting, and dynamic version of late medieval Italy. The protagonist is likeable and vaguely plausible, as is the supporting cast. It’s also a novel that’s not afraid to put its characters through the wringer, based on the implications it makes about how the world works and the situations they’re in. It thus manages to make its tale genuinely thrilling. All in all, a “good read”, and a summary of merits that left me a bit perturbed as to why I didn’t enjoy it as much as I thought I aught to, and why I remain distinctly reluctant to read the sequel.At first, I thought my initial disinterest came from a handful of times when there was a disjunction between different available reading strategies. Specifically, there were times when I sensed that the protagonist had “script immunity”. The author did not convince me that the protagonist had survived because of things established in the fiction: they had survived because the hero always survives. This is not necessarily always a problem; for example, we expect Macguyver to devise some clever strategem for getting out of any particular jam – the whole fiction is predicated on the concept of his all-triumphing ingenuity.
This sensation, of conflict between different interpretations, should have been avoidable. There are two main times when Locke Lamora seems certain to die – in the first, he is encased in a barrell of horse urine and thrown into an underground sewer. He escapes this because an accomplice thought dead by his adversaries turns out to be alive, and because his constitution is stronger than supposed by his enemies. This didn’t quite work for me, because of the lengths of time involved and described. The second time, he is being magically tortured by someone – but their power over him turns out to be limited because “Locke Lamora” is not in any way his real name. This seemed perfectly fine to me, because the fiction had clearly established his bona fides for this revelation. It seems like a few more lines of dialogue, some additional attention to detail, could have fixed these sundry anomalies – but I was not too convinced by that concept.
The entire fiction seemed extremely well detailed. Lots of detailed thought had been applied to the situation and characters, with a vividly described world, and an elaborate chain of events leading up to and including the story. More detail, while possibly addressing my specific problems, has the wrong feel about it. Instead of making a list of instances and thinking about fixing them, as I am wont to do for films, I pulled back and started to think about the story in broad terms, and the approach to narrative in broad terms.
The Lies of Locke Lamora is, broadly, about a group of con-men. Scott Lynch allows them, as most authors in that broad genre do, his protagonists to be a little camp and a little comical. Lamora’s modus operandi for most of the book is based around pithy inventions, about sketchy plans executed with flourish. There is a light-hearted aspect in play here in the very structure of the basic plot: the “noble” thieves taking marks that can afford it for what they’ve got.
Lynch goes to a huge effort to dress this world and this plot up, to make it appear realistic and plausible and all those other “good” things. He has to, because if he represented the basic caper narrative as it really is, the novel could end up being in a nakedly formulaic pulp mode that nobody would respect. It would be about as interesting as The Muppet Caper, and far less funny. The world then, is created to support the formula, but in doing so, creates the very aesthetic that militates against what the narrative is trying to achieve.
I realized then, that I had seen this exact problem before, and recently, and in far balder and more aggravating terms, in the works of Peter F Hamilton. A pulpy, actiony, fundamentally improbable and silly story, dressed and re-dressed and plotted and detailed to appear to be anything but silly. At first I thought that authors wishing to write in this realistic mode probably need to accept that they can’t cling quite so tenaciously to the pulpy underlay, but reading The Lies of Locke Lamora has helped me to realize that the opposite is true – they possibly need to be more open about their pulp storyline, and rely more explicitly on an emotional rather than rational reality inside their fictions.
Don’t get me wrong, however, The Lies of Locke Lamora is a great, fast-paced, fun read. It just wasn’t perfect.