This is the second of the five reviews I plan on writing by the end of the month for the finalists for the 2007 World Fantasy Award for Best Novel. Like the two that shall follow this, I first read this book last year and this review is more of an expansion of sentiments that I posted elsewhere and not a wholly new review as it is, in case the tone here is different than what might be expected.
The Lies of Locke Lamora is the first of a planned seven novel sequence called The Gentleman Bastards. Set in a Venetian-style city called Camorr, with its gondolas and canals, the story might at first glance have a more "Mediterranean" feel to it than what might be expected out of what appears to be little more than a "fun caper" subtype of the multi-volume secondary-world fantasy. However, it is the characters that at least partially redeem the rather stock feel of the setting.
The plot here revolves around Locke Lamora, a sort of Robin Hood fellow without wearing those hideous green tights. He and a close childhood friend, Jean, head up a gang of thieves. Not robbers or strongmen, although when the time calls for it they can do just that, but thieves, because of this sense of responsibility and derring-do that makes for an interesting throwback to caper stories of the early 20th century. Their machinations and what results from them serves as a hook for the readers looking for nothin' but a good time, helping to ease the reader into what really is a very long story that depends in part upon character flashbacks for the entire picture to develop. So when the scene has been set and the real action begins, one will have already read close to half of the 500 page novel to arrive at that point.
Lynch's characters carry the plot here. Not enough of the slowly unfolding story has been revealed yet for that to drive the reader to push on past barrels full of "unique substances" and other quaint but ultimately small events. So it takes strong, interesting characters to get the reader involved and to care enough about them to wonder, "What happens next?" Locke and Jean in particular are the core here, with their long-running friendship, the struggles they have to overcome as the main villain makes his late entrance upon the stage, and how they interact with others in their group. These two characters I believe Lynch fairly much nailed for what he wanted to do in The Lies of Locke Lamora, and it shall be interesting to see how they develop in the upcoming books.
Although Lynch has a deft touch in regards to dialogue and small character detail, there is much work to do in order to make the overall plot leaner and meaner. While I understood the rationale behind the frequent flashback sequences, I felt it was a bit too much and that it detracted from the flow of the narrative. The pacing just felt like it was all over the board, first going fast, then slowing it down for some character introductions at length, to fast for a moment, then some more flashbacks, and then back again. Alternating between flooring it and slamming on the brakes is a good way to screw up a car's engine and I think this is true as well for pacing mechanics in a novel. I took a few breaks last year when reading The Lies of Locke Lamora precisely because I was starting to get a bit frustrated with how Lynch had developed his plot pacing.
The Lies of Locke Lamora certainly is a fine first effort from an author who entertains without being too shallow or predictable with his plotting or his characterizations. However, there are some concerns that I had about how the book was structured, things that I believe ought to be worked out in the future volumes, as Lynch does have the potential to be more than just an above the epic fantasy writer average author. But right now, out of the four novels I've read (the King will be read in a few days and reviewed next week), the Lynch has the poorest style and grasp of storyline mechanics. He is a good to very good author in a category where there are some really outstanding prose authors, so I just cannot see him winning this award. Rookies rarely win MVPs and I believe that also applies in fictional award balloting.