Telling Lies

Writing a good fantasy novel is much harder than it looks. Creating something that is sufficiently original, entertaining and memorable is no mean feat. Fifty years later, people are still ripping off Tolkien. More amazing is that fantasy readers are still eating up the Tolkien rip-offs like there's no tomorrow. Those authors who aren't ripping off Tolkien are instead lifting from George R.R. Martin these days. Rare indeed is the new fantasy novel that really feels like something unique. About once a year I get the opportunity to read one of these, and it's always a treat. Two years ago, I discovered Garth Nix's brilliant Y.A. fantasy Sabriel and its sequels. Last year it was Naomi Novik's absolutely terrific Napoleonic-Wars-with-Dragons Temeraire series.

Back in July, we were poking around a nice little bookshop during our trip to Louisville, and a cover in the sci-fi/fantasy section caught my eye. I didn't buy the book then, but I devoted the evocative title - The Lies of Locke Lamora - to my memory, and resolved to pick it up at some later date. Pick it up I did, some weeks later, and am I ever glad I did. It is every bit as good as I'd hoped. I'm going to have a hard time waiting for the sequel - Red Seas Under Red Skies - to come out in paperback.

Author Soctt Lynch has created a Reese's Peanut Butter Cup of a novel - two great tastes that taste great together, that is. He has combined fantasy with the caper picture, in the vein of The Sting, Ocean's 11 or The Italian Job.

World-building doesn't appear to be Lynch's greatest interest, though admittedly he shows us only a single location in his fantasy world. That location is the city-state of Camorr, a thinly-veiled copy of Venice in a thinly-veiled copy of Italy. There are deeper mysteries hidden in the setting, to be sure, but the important details are a city-state which has canals instead of streets and which is populated by powerful nobles, wealthy merchants and a thriving underworld.

In the midst of this milieu are the Gentlemen Bastards, led by the titular Locke Lamora (by the way, if you're a Firefly fan and you can get through the entire novel without imagining Nathan Fillion as Locke, I'll be amazed). By the time the main action of the novel occurs, they are already fabulously wealthy, but continue to pull elaborate cons on the wealthy nobility because, to borrow a line from Michael Mann's Heat, they don't know how to do anything else, and don't much want to, either. They pay their monthly tribute to the local equivalent of the Godfather, putting forth the appearance of being moderately successful burglars, and everyone's happy.

Happy, that is, until the arrival on the scene of the Gray King. The Gray King and his associate, the Falconer, are the villains of the piece. Villains in caper stories are tricky, as the heroes are, by definition, criminals and outlaws themselves. So the villains in such stories are the ones who don't want to play by the well-established rules and courtesies of the underworld setting. The ones who throw a monkey wrench into the works. The Gray King does just that, disrupting not only the Gentlemen Bastards' carefully planned con game, but the whole of Camorr's criminal society to boot. And he does it in such a spectacularly evil and theatrical way that you just can't help but hate him.

This is where the story really gets going, and it just cracks right along. Nearly every chapter gives you a great "How are they going to get out of this one?" cliffhanger. There are a few genuinely exciting action scenes, which is hard to do with prose. There is a lot of humor, and a fair bit of pathos, too. We even get a gripping climax and, one of the hardest things to do, a satisfying ending.

All in all, it is a spectacular debut for Lynch, establishing him right out of the gate as an author well worth watching. Of course, if this doesn't sound like your kind of thing, I have a long list of Tolkien, um, "homages" for you...