Subtle and Sublime
Scott Lynch is the man. The Lies of Locke Lamora was one of my favorite reads last year, and the subsequent Red Seas Under Red Skies was a brilliant nautical jaunt combined with heist elements. One of the main aspects of the stories that I enjoyed was that they were technically fantasy, but with very little fantasizing. Now, I also love full on fantasy and have read millions of words worth of it with a wide grin on my face, worlds away from my physical body. But, the subdued mystery of Lynch’s The Gentlemen Bastards series is a real treat.
First, the magic is minimal, and while it plays a crucial role in the plots, the heavy-lifting is done by Jean and Locke’s combination of brawn and brains, and their endearing friendship. No elves, no dragons under the mountain, not Citadel or University of witchcraft. With The Republic of Thieves being set in an entire city of magic-wielding intriguers, I thought this one might break from that tradition…but nope. It stuck to what made the series amazing so far: battles of wits, with a bit of nasty luck here and there.
Show, but Don’t Show Too Much
Magic and fantasy are still there, but they are an ominous presence in the background, somewhat akin to the eponymous xenomorph in Ridley Scott’s Alien film. Rather than spells being flung at the drop of the hat, it is replaced with an anxiety, knowing that the protagonists are vulnerable in a world where they could at any moment be turned into a pile of writhing limbs, or worse. This provides a sea of eggshells across which Jean and Locke must cross, constantly disadvantaged, but damn resourceful.
A good portion of the story are the flashbacks to give some sense of Locke and Sabetha’s relationship. And while I usually dislike being jolted into the past when so much of interest is bustling about in the present, here I didn’t mind. Because the characters are worth learning more about. Prequels and flashbacks can fail not because the technique is an excuse for good writing, as many are ready to assert, but because if coupled with poor characters it is just so much dull history, and few people come to read adventure stories so they can take breaks to research a character’s biography.
Restraint in Revelation
Also, Lynch keeps these revelations tight, and doesn’t overindulge in what he discloses about Locke’s past, which allows the character to maintain an aura of mystery. We’d hardly find him so enigmatic if we knew his name and birthdate after all. His obscure origins are part of what make him a memorable character. Much like how Darth Vader was awe-inspiring until the mask was removed, and the prequels showed him to have been a whiny teen who hated sand. Lynch pokes some holes in the veil between us an Locke (and the world in which the stories are set, for that matter), but keeps the veil there nonetheless, refusing to drop it all the way.
Now to wait for the next installment in The Thorn of Emberlain. Godspeed, dear Lynch.