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What Does He Care About? Or: Why I Didn’t Finish The Lies of Locke Lamora

When I was younger, I very rarely left books unfinished, but graduate school cured me of that inclination. These days, I always have too long a reading list — books for character research, books for syllabus development, books meant to familiarize me with the bones of my genre — so when something I’ve declared to be a “fun read” doesn’t strike my fancy, I set it aside. Such was the fate of Scott Lynch’s The Lies of Locke Lamora, described in its Publisher’s Weekly review as “a picaresque fantasy that chronicles the career of Locke Lamora—orphan, thief and leader of the Gentlemen Bastards—from the time the Thiefmaker sells Locke to the faking Eyeless Priest up to Locke’s latest con of the nobility of the land of Camorr.”

I don’t usually write reviews of half-finished books, but I thought this one deserved a moment’s analysis — superficially, it does a lot of things that I like very much, but when the pieces come together, they just don’t work.

I requested The Lies of Locke Lamora from the library after reading Scott Lynch’s short story in Martin & Dozois’s Rogues anthology. Lynch’s story was my favorite in the collection (you can find a review, and more in-depth discussion of why, here); I thought he did a good job of painting a relationship between old friends in a relatively small space, I thought the caper he gave his heroes was unique, and that the setting he built was fascinating. So I was excited to pick this book up and get to reading. But now, three weeks later, it’s going back to the library only a little more than half read. I can usually finish a 700-page book in a few days. What was different about this one?

I think its biggest problem (and one I’ve seen echoed in other reviews) was the title character, Locke Lamora. He has all the traits I generally like in a protagonist; he’s a sneaky roguish type; he snickers at those in power but takes care of his friends (the trope, if you’re interested, is Jerk with a Heart of Gold); and he’s clever enough to put together a good scheme but not so clever that it always runs smoothly. His motives are (almost) purely selfish: unlike the rogues of Sanderson’s Mistborn, he’s not trying to free the peasants of his city from their corrupt overlord. He’s not Robin Hood, stealing from the rich to give to the poor. He’s not even Han Solo. Locke and his band of merry men, the Gentlemen Bastards, are interested in scamming the nobles of their city, and in piling up as much cash as they can fit into their hideout. Their toast before dinner is “To us. Richer and cleverer than everyone else!”

A character like this — with things other than the fate of the world as his priorities — subverts some of fantasy literature’s deepest bones. The Big Fantasy Cliche (and the reason Star Wars is a fantasy movie), is the Hero’s Journey story arc. The world is hovering on the brink of destruction; a protagonist rises up from humble and obscure beginnings; they prove to be the Chosen One uniquely qualified to save the day. This story is still a lot of fun when it’s done well, but I like seeing fantasy authors starting to branch out. For instance, one of the things I like about Kvothe, Pat Rothfuss’s Kingkiller Chronicles hero, is that for all his big talk about the fantastic things he’s going to do in Book 3, his basic motivation is selfish. Big baddies destroyed my family; I want revenge. It’s a good story goal — it’s big, complicated, hard to get — but it’s hardly on the level of The Survival of the World.

Locke’s goals, on the other hand, are simple. He wants to become rich(er); he wants to win back the love of his life, who’s departed for points vaguely-defined for reasons even-more-vaguely-hinted-at; he wants his friends to survive. That’s about it. Sure, there’s an antagonist who shows up to throw obstacles in his path and make these goals more difficult, but that doesn’t happen until about halfway through the book. Sure, he’s been unlucky in love, but the details of that seem to be about the only part of Locke’s backstory that Lynch doesn’t want to share with readers early on.

The book’s presented more or less as 2 parallel storylines, with one showing the Gentlemen Bastards as successful grown-up thieves and the other filling in the tale of how they met under the tutelage of a sneaky master back when they were kids; although many reviewers seemed to find the “flashback” sections tiresome, I actually preferred them to the “present” storyline. Young Locke makes lots of mistakes; he’s got a few major complications in his life (like the fact that because of a scheme that went poorly before Locke became a young Gentleman Bastard, his master can kill him without consequence, at any time, until the boy brings in a huge amount of money to buy his freedom from the “death mark”). Adult Locke is too talented, too sure of himself, and I didn’t find myself rooting for him. It seemed like he started the book with all his goals achieved, and by the time the antagonist showed up to start complicating that picture, I’d already written the protagonist off as a selfish, cocky jerk.

That’s really the execution problem here, I think. The craft problem may be that Locke’s goals are too petty; the outcome is that I don’t care what happens to him or his friends. At the point where I stopped reading, Locke’s been off-stage for at least a few chapters; when last we saw him he was in a seriously life-threatening situation with no obvious escape route. And I couldn’t even motivate myself to see how he was going to get out of it.

Characters certainly aren’t the only reason that people read Big Fat Fantasy books, and this book still has things in its favor. The worldbuilding includes some interesting details; the action sequences aren’t bad. And I liked that short story enough that when Lynch puts out something else new, I’ll probably look it up if only to see which work was the fluke. But for me, this book demonstrates the problem with bending fantasy too far from the Hero’s Journey tale. If your protagonist is a selfish jerk with no evidence of caring for anyone but his own nearest and dearest, readers may not care when he gets sealed in a barrel and dropped into the bay. And as writers, I suspect that’s the sort of thing we usually want to avoid.

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