Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Book Review: Lies of Locke Lamora & Red Seas Under Red Skies

"Has it got any sports in it?"

"Fencing. Fighting. Torture. Poison. True love. Hate. Revenge. Giants. Hunters. Bad men. Good men. Beautifulest ladies. Snakes. Spiders. Beasts of all natures and descriptions. Pain. Death. Brave men. Coward men. Strongest men. Chases. Escapes. Lies. Truths. Passion. Miracles."
I've been talking up these books for a while now, but I wanted to write a double review and that had to wait for my completion of the second volume. So:

Here we have two installments of Scott Lynch's Gentleman Bastards sequence. You really must read The Lies of Locke Lamora first. It contains essential backstory, although even with plentiful use of flashback the reader is still left with tantalizing gaps in the characters' history. Without some grounding in Lynch's world, you will be lost, because the cast is large and the plots entwined.

Imagine if George R.R. Martin had written an entire series based on the criminal underworld of King's Landing. Picture as a protagonist a cross between MacGyver, Captain Jack Sparrow, and Parker. Imagine that every time Baldrick had a cunning plan it actually could work. These are books about scheming, lying, cheating thieves, and their schemes incidentally produce a certain amount of high adventure.

Settings range from convincingly filthy slums to soaring towers that may be the relic of a culture from the deep past or the far future (is this more Star Wars than Book of the New Sun? uncertain.). Characterizations are broad when appropriate but generally reflect a more nuanced psychology. In Locke Lamora we could have a generic Prince of Thieves, but Lynch imbues him with personality, history, and flair. He also avoids the general trap of permitting readers to grow too comfortable. Death, mayhem, unexpected reverses, and hollow victories abound.

The first book could exist as a stand-alone feature; most of the main plot threads are resolved by the novel's end, and we get some significant closure while preserving some uncertainty for the future. Red Seas Under Red Skies, by contrast, ends on something of a cliffhanger, and my emotional attachment to the characters is at war with my admiration for Lynch's nerve with respect to how I hope things shake out.

The only quibbles: sometimes the dialogue is pedestrian, although it's occasionally hilarious (who can argue, through a mouthful of broken teeth, with lines like "one plus one equals don't fuck with me"?) and there is NO MORE of this for a long time, since Red Seas was just released. Also, while one can entertain one's self with casting games* and imagining how some of the more dramatic scenes would play on screen, these books, I fear, are basically unfilmable; too much depends on intricate plots that would require substantial narration to explain or, as is perhaps more likely, a more intelligent audience than the average pack of adolescent boys which makes up the target audience for action-adventure movies.

Highly recommended for fantasy and adventure fans and for others who enjoy a good yarn.

* Locke really requires a young Clive Owen type, and perhaps Vincent Cassel might do as as the villain in Lies and Terrence Stamp would for Red Seas. Or maybe not. Thoughts?
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