Three-star book reviews may be the most useful critiques for judging a book. These reviews call out both good and bad aspects of a story and thread the needle between gushy fanboy/fangirl praise (4 and 5 stars) and spiteful hating on a book (1 and 2 stars). In that spirit, I’m giving The Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch 3 stars on a scale of 1 to 5. To me, this novel represents a good, but unremarkable effort with flashes of vivid, fluid writing interrupted by erratic pacing.
This review, while not intended to ‘damn by faint praise’, is wildly at variance with the fulsome acclaim this super popular and well-reviewed fantasy has gotten over the last decade and a half.
Lynch’s world-building is quite good. The picaresque novel takes place in a city-state, Camorr, seemingly inspired by Renaissance Venice with intriguing hints of a higher, alien civilization that preceded the current story. This setting is carefully, lovingly, at times excessively, described throughout the story (more about this below).
Complementing the physical setting, Lynch has assembled a cast of characters that seem to be pulled from Oliver Twist by way of The Sting; a lovable gang of scoundrels navigates the Byzantine intricacies of Camorr seeking big scores. In fact, Lies appears to be overtly Dickensian. Great! Dickens is wonderful with characters and setting, so the novel has a Victorian feel with regard to pacing and detail; Lynch can’t be faulted for wearing these influences on his shirtsleeve.
Ah yes, the plot. I’d almost forgotten. The plot is frequently slowed by long expository tracts, flashbacks, and sundry other digressions. Sure, some of these provide backstory and they are often vibrantly written, but too many of them clog the story’s forward momentum. Given the novel’s efforts to create suspense as Locke and his comrades attempt to outwit criminal and supernatural threats, all this shifting back and forth results in a meandering cadence to the novel. More chronological linearity in the plot would have significantly improved the story’s flow.
The main character, the eponymous Locke, is also problematic. He’s sorta charming and kinda shrewd, but if the novel’s characters have to keep reminding themselves (and the reader) of these qualities, he’s not as cleverly roguish as the author wants us to think. He leads endless banter between his gang members that is designed to display his smarts and demonstrate their mutual affection as well as lighten the mood and be endearing to the reader. However, this seems heavy-handed as often as it seems clever. Further, Locke can appear to be a collection of characteristics as much as an actual character despite all the backstory we get to show the genesis of his character and motivation.
Related to this point about motivation, there are other issues including a possible love interest for Locke whose untimely demise is probably meant to provoke him to vengeance as well as reinforce just how rotten the baddies are. However, because we never really get to know her, it’s hard to work up much angst when she meets a sticky end.
Momentum does finally begin to build in the second half of the story – the main villain needed to have been introduced earlier, but there’s a problem here too; the villain’s primary henchman (the ‘bondmage’) is so all powerful, the reader can be left wondering why he doesn’t just seize control of Camorr himself and dispense with the rest of the characters and the story.
The Lies of Locke Lamora isn’t a bad book. In fact, it’s pretty good and its faults could easily have been fixed with better editing – say, judiciously removing about 50 pages and creating a cleaner, more propulsive narrative flow by reducing the number of flashbacks. The generally ecstatic praise heaped on Lies is more a comment on the current state of fantasy reviewers, readers and writing than whatever virtues or flaws this particular book has.
Many fantasy readers (and other genre readers too) are inclined to inhale books uncritically and authors and publishers have responded by cranking out gobs of novels. I don’t know how long it took Lynch to write Lies. By rumor, it was a while, but other writers in this space produce novels – often as part of a seemingly interminable series – in as little as six weeks. For many readers, quantity trumps quality. This is really no more than a modern incarnation of the pulps where serialized fantasy and science fiction was produced rapid-fire to entertain readers. Though there is an audience for well-written, ‘upmarket’ fantasy judging by the popularity of Neil Gaiman and China Mieville’s work among others, this audience is much smaller than for books where quality is secondary to just getting words on a page (or a Kindle) as evidenced by the volume of books in this genre that hit the virtual shelves every week. It’s a happy circumstance when entertainment and writing quality meet in one book.
(image by Steffan Keller – thanks!)