I’m not much for rereading books. There are just too many new books, and there will never be enough hours to read them all. I understand the arguments in favor of rereading, but I just do not wish to take the time.
So it was with some surprise that I found myself rereading The Lies of Locke Lamora, the first in Scott Lynch’s GENTLEMEN BASTARDS trilogy, as a sort of early celebration that the third book in the series will be out this autumn. After all, it’s been seven years since The Lies of Locke Lamora was first published; my memory needed to be refreshed, I figured. I had no idea that I would so thoroughly enjoy myself with this picaresque novel of a thief who has enough honor, arrogance and talent to power an empire.
We first meet Lamora when he is a child being sold by the Thiefmaker to the Eyeless Priest of Perelandro. He wound up in the loving hands of the Thiefmaker with a large number of other children when a plague killed their parents. It’s a better life than slavery, but not by much. Still, Lamora takes to it — rather too well, in fact, which is how he comes to be sold to the Eyeless Priest. That’s when his education in the art of the con game begins, and Lamora is a prize pupil. His imagination, which got him into trouble when he was a simple sneak thief, is a genuine asset in his new career. He studies hard, learning languages, accents, currencies, and politics, all the better to impersonate whomever he might need to. He has fellow students: Calo and Galdo, twin brothers; Sabetha, who is offstage for the entire book, a name only dropped every now and then, the woman the grown Lamora loves; and Jean, the muscle.
The novel alternates between telling the tale of Lamora’s childhood and training and the tale of the adult Lamora’s current con: a complicated ruse involving his impersonation of a wine merchant from a vineyard renowned far and wide. The subjects of his con are Don and Doña Salvara, some of the nobility of Camorr, the city state in which Lamora and his gang do their business. It’s a classic con, one that promises riches to the victims if they’ll only do something just slightly dishonest. In the meantime, though, Lamora must deal with Capa Barsavi, a sort of king of thieves, and the Gray King, who seems to be challenging Barsavi for mastery of Camorr’s underworld. The Gray King has the help of a bondsmage, one of a small guild that is respectfully feared by all. Nearly everyone has a role for Lamora to play, and if not, they’re trying to catch him. The plot is rich and complicated, and a joy to read.
What sets Lynch apart from many other writers, though, is his ability to describe a person, a place, a set of clothes, a drink or just about anything else in so much detail that reading the novel is almost like watching a movie, only better: it’s all there, in your mind’s eye, beautifully rendered with precise and highly visual language. Lynch describes the adult Lamora this way, practically rendering him invisible:
Locke was a medium man in every respect — medium height, medium build, medium-dark hair cropped short above a face that was neither handsome nor memorable. He looked like a proper Therin, though perhaps a bit less olive and ruddy than Jean or Bug; in another light he might have passed for a very tan Vadran. His bright gray eyes alone had any sense of distinction; he was a man the gods might have shaped deliberately to be overlooked.
It’s a good way for a con artist to look: able to blend into any crowd, hard to describe to the powers that be. Or take this appeal to another one of the senses, the sense of taste, as Lynch describes a drink not available at any bar I know of:
Conté moved adroitly to fill this request, first selecting a tall crystal wine flute, into which he poured two fingers of purest Camorri ginger oil, the color of scorched cinnamon. To this he added a sizable splash of milky pear brandy, followed by a transparent heavy liquor called ajento, which was actually a cooking wine flavored with radishes. When this cocktail was mixed, Conté wrapped a wet towel around the fingers of his left hand and reached for a covered brazier smoldering to the side of the liquor cabinet. He withdrew a slender metal rod, glowing orange-red at the tip, and plunged it into the cocktail; there was an audible hiss and a small puff of spicy steam. Once the rod was stanched, Conté stirred the drink briskly and precisely three times, then presented it to Locke on a thin silver plate.
The drink is called a ginger scald, and my tongue rather hurts just thinking about it. And Lynch is able to provide this level of detail for more than 700 pages, offering metaphors that charm (“Pinpricks of firelight were appearing across the city as though an unseen jeweler were setting his wares out on a field of black cloth”), descriptions of action that are cinematic, and pictures of a city left behind for humans by unknown aliens that gleam and glow.