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Book Review: The Lies of Locke Lamora

Guest post by B.J. Keeton

A few months ago, I hit a bit of a reading speed bump: I was reading only “big name” authors and not branching out. I decided that needed to change, so I polled my blog’s readers and had them recommend new authors for me to check out. Scott Lynch and his debut novel The Lies of Locke Lamora was one of the most adamantly recommended.

Despite my typical reservation in reading traditional fantasy, I downloaded the ebook for my Kindle and went to town.

Wait, What? Who? Huh?

The first thing I noticed was that Lynch had built an incredibly intricate world for his characters, and I knew nothing about it. From the very first page, I was thrown immediately into the comings and goings of people I knew nothing about, referring to things I had never heard of. In all honesty, it was a little off-putting.

But, because of the recommendations, I kept going. And by the time I was a quarter through the book, I realized what was so odd about Locke Lamora’s structure: there was little to no exposition. The novel functions as a window to the world of Camorr, and the reader is meant to determine the importance of information on his or her own based on the context of the story being told.

There are “Interludes” in the narrative, which sometimes function as exposition when a particular plot point needs more explanation than narrative context can give (Bondsmagi, for instance—I know, right? What are those?). Sometimes the Interludes can get a little tedious, but overall, their inclusion really fleshes out the world and fills in a few gaps along the way.

Droppin’ the F-Bomb

For a novel whose world seems to be based on some medieval Italy, the characters sure do swear a lot. And not in the typical “I made up some curses for my world” way fantasy authors sometimes do; these characters say everything most of us teach our children not to say. The main characters curse like a premium HBO series. And at first, I thought it was out of place. I’m reading a novel for escapism, and I didn’t want to read something that sounded like a script of The Sopranos.

And then I started thinking about how obnoxious it can be when an author takes the liberty of creating new and creative curses for their world. In Jim Butcher’s Codex Alera, the characters spit the word “crows” anytime there is a need for an interjection. It’s a catchall curse for that universe, and every time they do it, I roll my eyes a little bit. It just seems so forced. Battlestar Galactica did this, too, with the introduction of “frak” and “frakking” into geek vocabularies everywhere. I got used to it, but initially, I thought it was silly; it felt as though the creative team had wanted to get on a premium network, didn’t, and then refused to rewrite the profanity-ridden dialogue.

Lynch avoids such pitfalls by just having his characters swear. The book follows thieves and other characters of ill repute, so it does not seem out of place for them to be using such language. While I can see some readers having a problem with such modern terms making their way into a fantasy novel, I feel that their inclusion is far better than the alternative.

Just Say the Word!

I am currently in the process of writing my first novel. A science-fiction/fantasy hybrid, actually. And I wanted to give it a little flair by spelling “magic” like “majick.” And then my wife read the first quarter of my manuscript and told me that it was stupid, to just say the word I meant. I did a little re-reading and found that I agreed with her.

So maybe it’s that conversation that made Scott Lynch’s employment of the same tactic for worldbuilding so distracting. Instead of “doctors,” the world of Locke Lamora is inhabited by “physikers.” There are no sciences and derivative subfields; there is only “alchemy,” a suitable catchall for any situations or plot devices that Lynch needs. Lamps? Pfft. “Alchemical globes.” Pharmacist? “Black alchemist.” Botanist/chemist? “Alchemist.” Genetic engineering? “Alchemy.” See how much simpler that is?

Dense, but Worth the Time

It took me quite a while to get through the book. It was pretty dense, and because of the intricate worldbuilding Lynch did, it was not a light, thinking-free novel. And that works in its favor very well. The characters are wonderfully three-dimensional, and by the end of the novel, I was completely invested in what happened to Locke and his Gentleman Bastards (the title of his gang). The action is pure, swashbuckling goodness, and the plot is full of just enough intrigue and drama to keep me clicking “Next Page” well into when I should have already been asleep.

From what I’ve read, The Lies of Locke Lamora is the first in a proposed series of seven books. The second novel, Red Sails Under Red Skies, is out already. I think that I will eventually get to read it. But not right off. Locke Lamora is standalone enough that I don’t feel compelled to dive right into the second one, but if I had it in front of me right now, I would have a hard time resisting it.

So if you’re looking for a fantasy novel that avoids the typical tropes found in Lord of the Rings clones, give The Lies of Locke Lamora a shot. As an admitted skeptic of epic fantasy, I am certainly glad I listened to my blog readers and gave this one a try. It’s certainly a far cry from the LOTR-inspired fiction that turned me off of the genre for the better part of a decade. What Lynch has made is something special. It’s not something without flaws, but it’s something that does enough things right and in its own way that I have no reservations recommending The Lies of Locke Lamora to anyone.

About The Author:

B.J. Keeton is a college English instructor, blogger, and aspiring novelist.  He blogs at Professor Beej, where he examines a wide range of pop culture topics from books and gaming to TV and movies, as well as discussing the experience of writing his first novel.  He lives in a small town in Tennessee with his wife and three stray cats.”

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Jason May 20, 2010, 5:03 pm

    Good observations. I liked two things about the novel. One, Lynch manages to avoid some of the overused fantasy tropes–no white wizards or stout halflings; Lies is a fantasy novel that works without relying on aTokein framework. Second, I liked the hybrid quality of the novel: the book felt like fantasy meets Oceans 11.

    I’ll get around to the sequel eventually. Two fantasy novels I highly recommend are The Book of Lost Things by John Connolly and The Stolen Child by Keith Donohue.

    • Professor Beej May 20, 2010, 8:58 pm


      I, too, thought the fantasy was actually worth reading on its own. I don’t do very well with high/epic fantasy these days, but there was just enough of Lynch’s otherworldliness to be interesting.

      I never would have thought about it as a fantastic Oceans 11, but you’re right; they’re heist was equally, if not more complex and intricate, than anything in the movies. 🙂

  • Mike T Nelson May 20, 2010, 5:42 pm

    Thanks BJ. I may have to add this one to my Amazon wish list since I don’t read much fiction.

    I do have this other strange book called “The Knot” by some tall dude that I will have to read first though.

    Rock on
    Mike T Nelson PhD(c)

    • Professor Beej May 20, 2010, 8:59 pm

      You really should. That’s how I got around to reading it, too, actually. I had a few people recommend it, and I was searching through my Amazon Wish List one day for something to download, and it caught my eye. It’s well worth the time.

      Yeah, I’ve got that book on my Kindle, too, just waiting to be read. What’s up with that guy, anyway? 😉