Book Review: The Republic of Thieves, by Scott Lynch (wherein I come up with a new sub-genre name)
Next up on the review block is Scott Lynch’s The Republic of Thieves. This is the third book in the Gentleman Bastard series, the first two being The Lies of Locke Lamora and Red Seas Under Red Skies. To give the series a high concept pitch, they’re best described as “Ocean’s Eleven in Fantasyland.”
This actually has some precedent.
Crime is one of the foundations of the modern fantasy genre. The thief is one of the archetypical D&D classes, owing much to Fritz Lieber’s Grey Mouser character. Likewise, many of Conan’s early adventures revolve around him stealing shiny things. Heck, even Bilbo Baggins can put ‘burglar’ on his resume. What makes Lynch’s Gentleman Bastard novels different is how they focus on ‘actually’ being a criminal (in at least a cinematic sense), instead of just using ‘I’m a thief!’ as an excuse to have the characters rifle through haunted tombs or whatnot. Also, as proper criminals, the characters say “fuck,” a lot. Now that I think of it, I’d like to name a little sub-genre called “Motherfucker Fantasy,” drawing from the work of George R.R. Martin, Joe Ambercrombie, et al. More evocative and less generic than the term “Dark Fantasy” or whatever.
I like heist movies, and I like swords and sorcery novels, so these books are pretty much right up my alley. And as a bonus point, Locke Lamora is named after Locke Cole, the
thief treasure hunter from Final Fantasy 3. (Well, Final Fantasy 6, but I digress). So naturally, I gobbled the first two up like so much sweet candy. Stolen candy.
Unfortunately, there was a six year gap between the second and third books- The Republic of Thieves just came out in 2013, and I’m only now getting around to reading it. I guess that means while I enjoyed the previous books, they didn’t push me to the point of drooling anticipation for the next installment, despite Red Seas under Red Skies’ cliffhanger ending.
Which brings us to The Republic of Thieves. The novel follows the titular Locke Lamora and his brother-in-arms Jean Tannen: a pair of extremely talented thieves. Together, hey lie, cheat, and steal their way through a vaguely Italianate fantasy setting.
The book has two storylines. One is told in flashback, based on the Gentleman Bastards going on their first adventure as a proper gang. At the command of their thief-master, the the Gentleman Bastards are ’employed’ to put on a play, the titular Republic of Thieves. Given the seedy, disreputable nature of theater companies, they fit right in. Hijinks ensue.
A few reviews I’ve read online complain about the flashback storyline, but I rather liked it. For one, I was a theater nerd in high school and college, so it’s fun to see Lynch play with a mismash of historical theater tropes like rowdy groundlings, wealthy patrons, lines of business in actors, and so on. On top of that, the flashback chapters are an important introduction to Sabetha as a character (even if a lot of time is spent over Locke’s teenaged mooning over her). Sabetha’s mentioned in the prior two novels, in passing, but it took until the third book until she showed up ‘on camera,’ so to speak.
This alternates with the second, ‘main’ plot, in which Locke & Jean are hired (well, blackmailed, really) by a secret society of wizards into stealing an election. Complicating matters further is Locke & Jean’s competition- the other side of the election has hired Sabetha, a former member of the Gentleman Bastards (and Locke’s one twu lurve) to rig the election in their favor. Again, hijinks ensue.
Locke Lamora is an odd sort of character- I’d almost label him as bipolar, really. Half of the time, he’s a blast, as he gets in and out of trouble, relying on quick wit, mad schemes, and so on. The other half of the time, however, Locke is pretty insufferable. He aaaaaaangsts, wallowing in misery like a teenager who saw The Crow one too many times. Well, maybe he’s not that bad, given he never puts on mime makeup or a black trenchcoat, but still. Oh, and don’t forget his dark and tragic backstory, either. One redeeming factor, however, is the fact that both Jean and Sabetha call Locke on his bullshit, which makes it slightly less annoying.
Lynch’s style is much like Locke’s moods, switching noticeably throughout the novel. The Lies of Locke Lamora starts off as a fun caper, and then takes a gut-punch of a turn into something far more grim. The Republic of Thieves is the opposite- the book starts in a dark place, but then gets a bit whacky as Locke and Sabetha compete. It’s not a political novel, instead focusing on the various scams, cons, and dirty tricks Locke and Sabetha pull on each other (while making time for an occasional romantic rendezvous in between pranks).
As the third book in a series, The Republic of Thieves stands pretty well as a stand-alone novel. A lot of this is due to the parallel flashback plot. Lots of mid-series books have the tendency to just chug ahead, leaving new readers lost amidst a swirl of unfamiliar names and plotlines. This said, I would still recommend reading The Lies of Locke Lamora first if you’re new to the series. Not only will it fill you in on a lot of important background, but it’s also a rather good novel in its own right.
The Republic of Thieves ends on an ambiguous note, setting up a bunch of dangling plot threads for the next book. While not perfect, the Gentleman Bastard books are engaging reads, and I’m looking forward to reading the next one. Here’s to hoping the fourth one won’t take six years to be released.