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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.

Worldbuilding in a Nutshell: Martin & Dozois’s Rogues Anthology

Sipani, and most especially its moist and fragrant Old Quarter, was full of thieves. They were a constant annoyance, like midges in summer. Also muggers, robbers, burglars, cutpurses, cutthroats, thugs, murderers, strong-arm men, spivs, swindlers, gamblers, bookies, moneylenders, rakes, beggars, tricksters, pimps, pawnshop owners, crooked merchants, not to mention accountants and lawyers. Lawyers were the worst of the crowd, as far as Friendly was concerned. Sometimes it seemed that no one in Sipani made anything, exactly. They all seemed to be working their hardest to rip it from someone else. — From “Tough Times All Over,” by Joe Abercrombie, appearing in Rogues

Like many Internet-dwelling Song of Ice and Fire fans, I have at least a passing familiarity with George RR Martin’s blog, so I saw the many announcements about the release of his and Gardner Dozois’s new 2014 anthology Rogues. Although big multivolume epic novels are usually my format of choice, I sought out a copy of this anthology both because of the number of my favorite authors whose worlds made cameo appearances (most notably Patrick Rothfuss, Neil Gaiman and Martin himself), and because I’ve had a soft spot for rogues ever since building my first D&D character (3rd edition, 2001, a half-elven woman who stole 50 gold pieces from another PC in her first session. My geek roots run past sociology and novel-writing).

I’ll confess up front, I didn’t read every story in this anthology: if a story didn’t grab me in the first five pages, I was apt to skim it or skip it altogether. But even using that cherry-picking method (I probably read about half of the 21 tales), I found several stories here that impressed me, and not just those from authors whose names I recognized. I’ll be looking to read more from Joe Abercrombie, Gillian Flynn, Scott Lynch and Daniel Abraham based on the stories they contributed to this anthology. And by the time I got to the end of the book and GRRM’s 35-page historical account of Targaryen history (which I, as a history geek and amateur genealogist, thoroughly enjoyed), I’d noticed a common element to the secondary-world offerings that I liked: they all did a very good job of presenting a complete setting in a comparatively small space.

For me, Gaiman’s story was an example of how not to do this. He wrote in an existing universe (the underground world of London Below from Neverwhere) and although I’ve read the novel, it was too distant in my memory to allow me to link the faint bells the story was ringing with the larger context of the world. Rothfuss’s story, on the other hand, largely avoided attempted tie-ins to the larger world it was drawn from and kept its focus on a few characters and a self-contained plot.

The stories that particularly impressed me in this regard, though (even more than Abercrombie’s, despite the quote that starts this post) were Lynch’s “A Year and a Day in Old Theradane” and Abraham’s “The Meaning of Love.” I felt that each author did a very good job of establishing a unique and interesting setting, and that Lynch was particularly skilled at doing this while also introducing us to some compelling characters. After rereading both stories with an eye to how they did it, I’ve come to the following conclusions for those who want to world-build on a limited scale:

  1. Keep it small. Both Lynch and Abraham tell stories set in a single metropolitan location, and for the most part in one or two spots within that location. There are allusions to the larger world in which the city sits, hints enough to make us believe that the authors could tell us more if we asked. I was particularly fond of this quote from Lynch’s story, where the roguish protagonist is laying out her credentials: “I stole the sound of the sunrise and the tears of a shark. I borrowed a book from the library of Hazar and didn’t return it. I crossed the Labyrinth of the Death Spiders in Moraska TWICE!” (p.248). I suspect Lynch could probably tell us more about these deeds, just like he could about the backstories of the rest of his crew of ex-thieves, but he chooses not to. In this anthology, he tells a story about a thieving crew in retirement, and about Theradane. Which brings me to my second point.
  2. Make your setting a protagonist. Both stories do this in spades. Abraham’s setting, the unincorporated Sovereign North Bank (with a relationship to the larger city around it a bit like Vatican City’s relationship to Rome, if Vatican City were a wretched hive of scum and villainy), gets the first two pages of a 30-page story all to itself; we don’t meet the human protagonist, Asa, until the top of Page 3, and further city description takes the first paragraph of almost every new scene. Even more important, both Abraham and Lynch tie the characters’ goals in with the aspects of the setting that they want readers to remember. In Abraham’s story, Asa’s goal is to free a young woman from being sold into a life of slavery; both her status as chattel and his freedom to use any methods available to hand come from the fact that the Sovereign North Bank is “an autonomous zone where the law protected and enforced lawlessness” (370). Lynch’s city, Theradane, is ruled by a loosely aligned wizard parliament and offers a unique sanctuary/citizen program for lawbreakers: “Pay a vast sum to the Parliament of Strife, retire to Theradane, and don’t practice any of the habits that got you in trouble outside the city. Ever.” (253) Unsurprisingly, the first thing we learn about Lynch’s heroes is that they’re retired criminals; the first thing to happen to them in the story forces them out of retirement. Thus, my third point.
  3. Hook us quickly. This almost goes without saying, but I’m going to say it anyway. In a novel, especially a fat novel like the ones I typically read, I’m often willing to read for 50 pages before putting the book down. I usually give a short story 2 pages, maybe 3. In Theradane, the first thing we see is the main character pausing before the soul-bound statues of those who crossed the wizards’ parliament and weren’t able to gain sanctuary, paying her respects to an old comrade and possible love interest. In Sovereign North Bank, the first thing we learn about Asa is that he’s secretly in love with the fugitive prince who’s sharing his tiny room. These are characters with things to gain and things to lose, and I was eager to read on in both cases.

So, that’s what I learned from my sampling of the Rogues anthology. I’ll definitely keep these thoughts in mind as I return to the age-old question of Whether I Should Attempt to Write Short Stories In My Setting. I’d recommend the book, too, and particularly the stories above. With 21 stories, there’s bound to be something that catches your fancy.