Sunday, November 3, 2013

The Republic of Thieves

The Republic of thieves is the third entry in author Scott Lynch’s gentlemen bastards series. Following in the footsteps of The Lies of Locke Lamora and Red Seas under Red Skies, this volume finds Jean caring for a rapidly deteriorating Locke. The bondsmagi of Karthain offer the two friends a devil’s bargain—keep to their pride and die free or be cured in return for helping them rig an election. If that weren’t enough, the opposing bondsmagi faction has selected Locke’s long lost love as their champion in the upcoming contest Faced with choosing between a horrible death with pride intact or collusion with his sworn enemy, Locke chooses to live, though with grave reservations. Within a few chapters Lamora is cured and the stage is set for a battle of wits the like of which hasn’t been seen since the gentlemen bastards faced down the gray king and the falconer. Lynch weaves a complex story of romance, vengeance, and betrayal. The republic of thieves is really two stories told concurrently. The first recalls teenage Locke and Sabetha as they find romance against the backdrop of a theatrical production. Jean and the Sanza twins play compelling support roles as the bastards’ skills are tested, love flowers in the face of teenage angst, and a cast of colorful characters builds a story worthy of Shakespeare. Of particular note is Lynch’s inspired flowery prose. His grasp of theatre, poetry, and drama is on full display. The use of the theatrical production as a frame device and grace note is masterfully executed. Sabetha is a three dimensional character—sometimes fighting Locke’s gravity and sometimes giving in to attraction. Lynch does a great job of keeping the witty banter, sharp characterizations, and ingenuity which previously marked the gentlemen bastards while clearly distinguishing them as younger less experienced versions of their future selves The second story follows Locke’s efforts to rekindle his relationship with Sabetha while fighting her attempts to secure victory in the upcoming Karthiny election. The juxtaposition of the two plots gives the reader a unique perspective which adds spice to both narratives, ultimately climaxing with a day of politics, ambition, and intrigue. Here the pacing is forced. Critical events are summarized while minor details are drawn out over multiple scenes. Witty dialog and sharp characterization carry the story at the cost of dramatic momentum. Locke and Jean spend a significant amount of time reacting to Sabetha’s gambits rather than seizing the moment. By the end of the book I began to view the present story as the price I had to pay to get to the good bits from the flashbacks. The book ends on a surprisingly indecisive note. Locke and Jean have little to show for their efforts personally or professionally. The book ends on a clear foreshadowed tone that is slightly tarnished by Lynch’s inability to deliver on the promise of his previous offerings. ***Spoilers Ahead*** I love Scott Lynch’s work. I read the first two books in this series back-to-back. When the audio books came out I bought them and re-read them multiple times. Lynch’s dialog has a way of amusing and enthralling by turns without sacrificing drama for comedy. Locke’s schemes were convoluted but ingenious. Each character had moments of greatness and failure. The setting came alive. I could taste the food, feel the alchemical liquor having its way with me, see the monsters in the depths, touch the clockwork devices, smell the scents of life at sea, and immerse myself in the story without reservation. If you haven’t read the first two books in this series, do it, do it right now. My wife and I jumped on this offering intent on devouring it in its entirety. Lynch had set the bar high and I fully expected him to deliver. My interest spiked as Jean and Locke were drawn into what I thought must surely be a contest of titans, for who but a master could convincingly oppose Locke and be worthy of his love? My experience has been that when romance gets added to a perfectly good series, the characters suffer. I was desperately afraid that Locke would fall to pieces under Sabetha’s attentions. Fortunately that didn’t happen. Locke and Sabetha are strong people with their own demons, their own pasts, and their own passions. They strike sparks off each other—fighting the inevitable, their feelings, and change, but always for good and understandable reasons. I was a little worried when the first third of the book wandered through past and present without a goal. The dialog was great. I loved the insights into Locke’s past. Seeing the Sanza twins in rare form was a treat. But it took a damned long time for the plot to get moving. The writing pulled me in but didn’t push me in any particular direction. Once the plot was well and truly under way I kept finding myself yelling at Locke to “Do something!” In the previous books, Locke either has a plan or is on his way toward a moment of brilliance. Even in failure the gentlemen bastards were inspired schemers—always exceeding my expectations. In the Republic of Thieves, they seem merely competent—often overmatched and prone to predictability. Locke rarely takes the lead and never ascends to his previous heights of genius. By the end of the book I came to morn the loss of the scourge of the wealthy, the tamer of pirates, and the slayer of empires. His substitute is just as witty but half as irresistible. The book ended with me scratching my head saying Huh? That was…weird. Three quarters of the way through I was sure that the election was the appetizer before an epic confrontation between bondsmagi factions with an added helping of gentlemen bastard style chaos. I figured that Locke’s lackluster performance was just a lead up to his awakening in the coming crisis. The book ended with Locke and Jean penniless, Sabetha gone without explanation, and the Bondsmagi resolving their issues without any external input. The ending certainly lays a decent foundation for upcoming books, but begs the question what was the point? Besides curing Locke, why did they have to go through all that? Why was Sabetha presented to us and then snatched from under our noses? I loved the flashback plot. It is everything that I have come to expect from Scott Lynch. You can see the beginnings of future heroes. The story is completely self-contained. If the Republic of thieves had been limited to the flashback segments I would be completely satisfied save for the desire to get my hands on the next volume. Unfortunately the imperfect blending of a peerless reminiscence with a mediocre narrative leaves me with mixed feelings. The Republic of thieves is worth reading, but it doesn’t live up to expectation. I can only hope that the promise shown in the first and second books matures with interest in the fourth.

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