Thursday, May 30, 2013


The Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch, 2006

Oh, man. How long has it been since I've read a novel that was this well-written, this sharp, this thrilling, and this much fun? A really long time. The Lies of Locke Lamora is fantastic, y'all. It's the kind of book where just about everything works just as it's supposed to, where you can find yourself excited, horrified, amused and shocked all in a row. The fact that this is author Scott Lynch's first novel is kind of staggering, because Lies is a crisp, vivid, perfectly calibrated read from start to finish.
The novel is set in a sprawling, fantastical city called Camorr that's a mix between Venice and London. Our (anti)hero is Locke Lamora, a silver-tongued conman who leads a group of thieves called the Gentlemen Bastards. The Bastards gleefully plunder from the nobles of Camorr, right under the nose of the city's most formidable crime boss. Locke's life of merry derring-do is plunged into chaos with the arrival of the Gray King, a mysterious figure who starts a deadly war in the city's underworld – and he wants Locke's help.
Where do you even start with a book like this? Every just worked, start to finish. The novel is fat, over seven hundred pages long, but the pacing is so good that it just zips by. The plotting – my God, the plotting is fabulous. It's somehow completely straightforward and deftly complex, a mixture of fantasy thriller and crime caper that's so logical you wonder why you don't see it more often. Lynch is as good a conman as his protagonists; he's got a real knack for smooth plot twists and tricky authorial maneuvers that always took me by surprise (seriously, be ready to yell “No!” out loud at least twice). And I know I already mentioned the pacing, but seriously: absolutely top-notch. It's a common gripe, especially when dealing with a long fantasy novel, that the pacing is “off” or “slow.” Not here. This novel is perfectly calibrated. Even the constant flashbacks interspersed throughout the narrative fit without bogging things down. There's the odd tangent that strays from the main plot, but nothing like the myriad of subplots that clog the novels of Jordan or Martin. Lynch's plot is clean and crisp.
Lynch's worldbuilding is terrific, too. His fictional universe is a complicated and fascinating hybrid of medieval fantasy, steampunk and even an intriguing dash of sci-fi. The mythology and politics of Camorr are integrated into the story perfectly (no artificial info-dumps for Lynch). Instead, he builds his world in a natural way, while still keeping the story front and center. His lavish and tactile descriptions of the city are superbly handled, for the most part; there's plenty of description, but the pace of the story never lags because Lynch is busy describing a church spire or something.

His writing is self-assured, smooth and excellent. Great facility with language, and a Diana Gabaldon-like talent for immersion through careful description. You can see, hear and smell his world – which, thanks to his Quentin Tarantino streak, is not always pleasant. His dialogue is a huge highlight, too. It's incredibly colorful, nimble, often laugh-out-loud funny and features some of the most creative and lyrical vulgarity I've ever read. There's the occasional stylistic hiccup, but nothing that would rise above the level of a personal preference.
Most novels, in my opinion, live or die based on the characters, and thankfully, Lies has a cast jam-packed with great ones. At first, I thought Locke and his fellow thieves might end up a bit too cookie-cutter to be compelling protagonists. Nope. I was very, very wrong. Locke is one of my new favorite characters. He's devious, short, quick on his feet, incredibly proficient at all forms of deception, fiercely loyal, and completely useless in a fight. I ended up totally adoring him. And I loved Jean, the badass bruiser with a gentle heart. Even the supporting players get fully developed characteristics. The main villain is perhaps a bit mustache-twirl-y, but he's appropriately formidable, and he gets a nice dash of development towards the end of the novel.
If I have a nitpick about the novel as a whole, it would be the lack of introspection on the part of the main characters. The novel has so much forward momentum that it seems like we don't often slow down to get inside Locke's head. Of course, Lynch makes up for this with flashbacks that illuminate the characters' pasts, but I still would have liked a bit more internal narrative. Also, there are a few super minor plot shortcuts taken throughout the book, which are acceptable, but sometimes a tad noticeable. But yeah, those are both very, very minor issues in an otherwise stellar novel.
In summary, Lies is wickedly clever, often hilarious, and cruel enough to make George R. R. Martin proud. It's one of the most purely entertaining books I've read in a long time, and it's crafted with incredible skill. Most exciting of all, there are more adventures to come; although Lies could stand on its own well, it's just the first in a projected seven-book series, thank God. I'm not sure I could have let this world and these people go after just one novel. Bring on book two.

I'd Know You Anywhere by Laura Lippman, 2010

I'd Know You Anywhere begins with Eliza Benedict, a seemingly ordinary suburban mother in her late thirties, receiving a letter. It's from Walter Bowman, the man who kidnapped her and held her hostage when she was fifteen. Now on death row for the rape and murder of another girl, Walter is about to executed. And he wants a favor.
From this simple, chilling premise, Laura Lippman weaves a novel of incredible psychological tension and astounding depth. The book isn't quite a thriller (there's no action or pyrotechnics, no real mystery to be solved), but it reads like one, a white-knuckle journey full of subtle horror. This book gave me a genuinely sleepless night, I was so involved in the story. It's horrifying because the characters are so well drawn and the emotions so expertly evoked - not because Lippman splatters blood and gore all over the place.

A novel like this can only work if the author is exceptionally talented at sketching complicated and interesting characters. Lippman is. In Eliza, we have a very unusual and very complex protagonist, and in Walter, we have a chillingly realistic and strangely sympathetic villain. The interplay between these two characters provide the bulk of the novel's tension, but the pages are also crammed with colorful supporting characters, all realized with enormous sympathy, balance and intelligence. Even walk-on players like Eliza's liberal parents or a put-upon attorney have multiple dimensions.

Lippman is an extremely well-regarded crime writer, and it's easy to see why: she manages the very difficult trick of creating prose that is resoundingly literary (you would not mistake this novel for an airport mystery) while still being completely readable. She rarely uses flourishes or fancy devices to show you that she is writing, dammit. She just draws you in with the force of her storytelling; this novel is definitely a page-turner. If I have a critique - and it's extremely nitpick-y - it's that Lippman's dialogue sometimes has a touch of sameness to it.

The central question of the novel is the true nature of Eliza and Walter's somewhat twisted relationship. It's a complicated question with a complicated answer, and Lippman deals with it beautifully. It's an incredibly suspenseful device, and it's absolutely to Lippman's credit that she doesn't make it into a big twist at the end. The solution to the mystery - if you can even call it a mystery - is that Eliza and Walter understand each other in ways that no else does. To paraphrase Lippman's gorgeous title, they'd know each other anywhere.

Honestly, I wish there were more thrillers like this - novels that used emotion and character development to shock and thrill us, rather than cheap plot twists and gunfights. Ultimately, this is a novel about people who have a limited ability to understand their own emotions. What makes it amazing, in my opinion, is not only Lippman's deep understanding of grief and pain, but her equally great knowledge of strength and grace. For a novel as deep and dark as this one, it ends on a surprising moment of melancholy, deeply earned triumph.