Picture it: A beautiful, 18th-century city with a dark underbelly. The labyrinthine streets are faintly lit by alchemical light, and gangs of thieves and cutthroats roam the lower quarters and canal-ways. High above, Dukes and Dons attend gala society parties, far away from the plague-ridden quarters below.
And somewhere, in the shadows, a master thief prepares to strike.
Sound familiar? Perhaps a bit like the plot and setting of popular video games like Dishonored or the Thief series? Well, it's actually the setup of The Lies of Locke Lamora, a terrific novel I tore through over the past weekend. If you've had your imagination captured by the gothic steampunk shenanigans of games like those two I mentioned, you'll almost certainly find a lot to enjoy in Lies' city of Camorr.
Published in 2006, Lies was a widely celebrated debut for author Scott Lynch. The book tells a picaresque story of Mr. Locke Lamora: Thief, con man, master of disguise, and leader of a small group of outlaws dubbed "The Gentleman Bastards." It's the first entry in an ongoing series, the third and most recent of which, Republic of Thieves, made io9's list of the best sci-fi/fantasy books of 2013. (That was actually how I found Lies, and I'm very happy that I now have two more apparently even better books to read. Side note: It's been a big day for books at Kotaku!)
The Lies of Locke Lamora is one part origin story, one part fantasy world-building, and three parts epic crime caper. It's set in the city of Camorr, which, with its island districts and spiderweb of canals, resembles a fantasy-altered 18th century Venice spiced up with a sprinkle of Half Life 2's City 17. If that makes any sense at all.
Lies splits its narrative into two primary timelines: The first tells the tale of young Lamora's origins in the city of Camorr, his unlikely induction into the Gentleman Bastards, and the start of his lifelong friendship with his three companions -- his best friend and protector Jean Tannen and the mischievous twins Calo and Galdo Sanza. The second timeline concerns itself with Lamora as an adult, and follows his exploits as the now-legendary folk hero "The Thorn of Camorr."
At the book's outset, the Bastards have initiated an ambitious, long-in-the-planning con of a wealthy young Don of Camorr. Things roll along just fine for a bit, but as complications pile on double-crosses pile on rotten luck, the job becomes more complicated -- and dangerous -- than even the cocksure Lamora could've anticipated. I'd hate to spoil any of the many twists and turns that follow, but suffice to say, by the midpoint of the (lengthy) story, the narrative engine has been overloaded with coal and is surging onward with momentum enough to damn near throw it from the tracks entirely.
To give you a sense of the vibe, here's an excerpt from the opening chapter:
Jean kept them nearly against the southern bank of the Angevine, clear of the depths where the pole couldn't reach. Shafts of hot, pearl-white light flashed down on them as Elderglass bridges passed directly between their barge and the still-rising sun. The river was too hundred yards wide, sweating its wetness up into the air along with the smell of fish and silt.
To the north, rippling under the heat-haze, were the orderly slopes of the Alcegrante islands, home to the city's greater commoners and minor nobles. It was a place of walled gardens, elaborate water sculptures, and white stone villas, well off-limits to anyone dressed as Locke and Jean and Bug were. With the sun approaching its zenith, the vast shadows of the Five Towers had withdrawn into the Upper City and were currently nothing more than a rosy stained-glass glow that spilled over the northern edges of the Alcegrante.
"Gods, I love this place," Locke said, drumming his fingers against his thighs. "Sometimes I think this whole city was put here simply because the gods must adore crime. Pickpockets rob the common folk, merchants rob anyone they can dupe, Capa Barasavi robs the robbers and the common folk, the lesser nobles rob nearly everyone, and Duke Nicovante occasionally runs off with his army and robs the shit out of Tal Verrar or Jerem, not to mention what he does to his own nobles and common folk."
"So that makes us robbers of robbers," said Bug, "who pretend to be robbers working for a robber of other robbers."
"Yes, we do sort of screw the pretty picture up, don't we?" Locke thought for a few seconds, clicking his tongue against the insides of his cheeks.
The world that Lynch has imagined is filled with wonder, and like many great fantasy worlds, has been drawn with just enough detail to allow the reader to fill in the blanks with his or her imagination. For all its European flourishes, Camorr exists on a planet in a solar system other than our own, and was built and subsequently abandoned by a non-human race of precursors called the Eldren. Humans have essentially set up shop in the towering, unnatural elderglass structures the Eldren left behind. Come to think of it, it's not entirely unlike the Citadel in the Mass Effect games, albeit without the secret, dark purpose. Camorr and its mysterious origins exist, at least in the first book, primarily as the backdrop for a more straightforward crime tale.
In fact, the story's straightforwardness is perhaps what holds the book back from true greatness -- Lies is exciting, unpredictable, and entirely engaging, but never all that deep or meaningful. I found the story to be a satisfying yet somewhat shallow lad's-adventure caper, and that shallowness stood out when placed against the rich backdrop of Camorr.
All the same, I give The Lies of Locke Lamora a wholehearted recommendation; it's just the thing for spring or summer vacation reading, and will be a special treat for fans of certain steampunk stealth video games. I'm very much looking forward to reading the next two books, and am optimistic that Lynch, clearly a very talented writer, will up his game with each subsequent tale.
Say it with me:
"Liar!" "Liar!" "Liar!"