In the city of Camorr, the plague known as the Black Whisper is a disaster, killing everyone over eleven years old. However, this provides an opportunity for those who like to ‘adopt’ orphans. Slavers take most of them, but those who seem talented are apprenticed to the Thiefmaker and put to profitable work in the streets, markets and houses of the city. One particularly talented apprentice is tiny Locke Lamora, who displays a massive talent for the noble arts of theft and conman-ship. Unfortunately, young Locke doesn’t always foresee the outcomes of his schemes and drives the Thiefmaker to pass him along to Father Chains, a blind priest who spend his days begging outside his temple. I don’t want to provide any more background for the plot because it progresses in two timelines: one follows the training of Locke and the other apprentices that Chains molds into the Gentleman Bastards, while the second follows the adult Bastards as they relieve a nobleman of vast sums of money.
I can hardly express how much I loved this book: we are talking ‘Garden Spells’ good here. I will be pushing it very hard at the next book group meeting because I enjoyed it so much, so NYOBG members have been warned! I read it as part of a Read Along online, so my review has been influenced by the reactions of the twenty or so other bloggers to the questions we answered each week.
So, why do I love this book so much? Is it the characters? The plot? The setting? The dialogue? The writing style? I have to answer “YES!” to all of these. It is rare that I read a book that I do not want to change in any way, but this is one of them. OK, I realize I am gushing a bit here, but as Readhead says at the Little Red Reviewer: “Scott Lynch turns me into a blabbering fan girl.” Trying to restrain myself a little, I will try to provide a more reasoned set of arguments for why you have to read this book.
This is Scott Lynch’s debut novel, but you would never know that from his skill with dialogue and descriptive writing. His voice is very engaging and witty, giving us memorable quotes and laugh-out-loud descriptions of events. His characters are well drawn and fully realized. Indeed, we come to love some of them very quickly: there are few ‘throw away’ place fillers in evidence. The setting is expertly drawn and we are given enough detail to leave us wanting more: it is similar to Elizabethan Europe, but different enough to tick all the required Fantasy boxes. The plot has enough originality to keep us off balance and surprised, with bold moves that will have you shouting angrily at the author because you do not want him to do THAT to the characters.
Locke and the other Bastards are all engaging characters even though they are thieves. Their choice to rob from the rich makes their profession a little easier to accept, though they don’t seem to do much wealth distribution, so we know that they are not all that noble. As Kristen at Fantasy Cafe notes: it is very nice to have characters that are slightly less than the usual perfectly good heroes that litter Fantasy novels. Although Locke is the brains of the outfit, he is dependent upon his support crew, especially Jean Tannen. Jean is the gentle giant type who has his special hatchets, ‘The Wicked Sisters’, but who wears glasses and reads Romance novels. He and Locke are supported by the Sanza twins, when they can be kept away from gambling and wenching, and Bug, the latest apprentice to join the team. As Grace says at Books Without Any Pictures, one of the appealing things about Locke is that he really needs his crew: he is hopeless at fighting for a start! The secondary cast is also well crafted. Father Chains deserves several books all to himself, because I want to read his entire life story. The nobles ensnared in the Bastards’ trap are not your usual idiot nobility, but more than capable of some plotting of their own. One particularly wonderful character is Dona Vorchenza, an incredibly elderly noble who has an entirely unexpected role in the story: the consensus of opinion was that Dame Maggie Smith was born to play her, if that helps to convince you. The antagonist of the piece, The Gray King, is a suitably shadowy figure for most of the book, but his history and motivations are unusual and logical, if a little extreme.
The world that Mr Lynch creates is full of wonderful touches and hints. Shara at Calico Reaction picks out his use of alchemy in everyday life as the detail that really placed this into a true fantasy setting. Unlike many Fantasy writers, who bury you in a massive pile of details and histories, he keeps to the bare minimum. As Logan says at Rememorandom, this is frustrating in some ways, but it does stop the exposition from getting in the way of the story and it is a testament to Mr Lynch that I left the book wanting more. He uses an interesting technique of interweaving the main plot with Interludes from the past, which either add color to the characters or explain or support aspects of the story or world. Some people found this irritating during certain sections of the book, but I found that it provided quiet moments to breathe in some of the most frantic action sequences and also gave more context to the world and its inhabitants. Sarah at Bookworm Blues notes that it also allows us to miss out on a prolonged introduction to the Bastards. I could go on at length describing the many unusual aspects of this world, but I would rather leave them for you to discover on your own.
The plot is like one of the great caper movies mixed with a dash of Mafia politics: think Oceans Eleven meets The Sopranos with more grime and some magic thrown in for good measure. There are bluffs within bluffs, political maneuvering and random violence at every turn, but our heroes are destined to rise above it all with their mythical hero aura, right? Nope, this is a cruel, brutal world, so nothing is certain. Our heroes get beaten, stabbed, drowned, poisoned, bitten and they bleed real blood: when they finish a fight you would have trouble finding bits that aren’t black, blue or red. There is a real sense of danger, which ratchets up the tension for most of the second half of the book as our heroes stagger from one danger to the next. Rose at Rosesthingamajig describes it as a ‘twisty and turny novel’, but I agree with her that Mr Lynch manages all these unexpected moves beautifully, making sure that everyone behaves in ways that fit their characters. There was some criticism about a lack of female characters, but the city of Camorr seems to be very politically correct, with no obvious division of professions along gender lines and the females we do meet are all strong and feisty.
There are a couple of things that I do want to mention though. Firstly, this is not necessarily a book for the weak stomached. There are some scenes of unpleasant violence that might be difficult for some people to read, though there is surprisingly little description of what is really happening. Secondly, there is quite a lot of profanity in the dialogue. If you look at Amazon or Goodreads, you will see plenty of one star reviews that are due to this. I do not want to debate the suitability of giving a low star rating to a book because of its choice of language, but I do think that the language is suited to the environment being described in this case. It is not used inappropriately and is not there for shock value: it is simply an accurate reflection of how I would expect criminals to speak.
One thing that impressed me during the Read Along was the number of people who had already read the book several times, but were still happy to read it again. Elfy at Travels Through Iest claims that she reread it straight after reading it the first time. As you can see from the number of reviews I have mentioned, this is a well-loved book, and I will always be grateful that someone reTweeted Readhead's invitation to join the group.
I have counted this book as my Fantasy choice for the Once Upon A Time VI Challenge. You can see other people's choices here.