Some books deserve more than just a straightforward review. Books that are such huge releases that there’ll be a gazillion straightforward reviews anyway. Books people have been waiting for so long that the wait itself has become its own sort of narrative…
The long-awaited new Gentleman Bastard novel The Republic of Thieves by Scott Lynch is definitely one of those books, so I hope you’ll forgive me for this very unconventional review of a novel I was extremely eager to get to.
Memoirs of a Con Man
“You’re not going to start rambling about that book again, are you?”
The Con Man took a step backwards, lowering the hefty hardcover he’d been about to thrust into the face of yet another unsuspecting convention visitor.
After studying his victim for a moment, the Con Man said: “Oh… I did you already?”
The man nodded, glaring from the well-read copy of The Lies of Locke Lamora to the Con Man’s face and back. “Yes! You went through your whole routine with me yesterday.” Switching to a very credible imitation of the Con Man’s voice, he went on: “Fantasy debut of the century! Irreverent humor! Spectacular action! Scintillating prose!”
Crestfallen, the Con Man mumbled: “Sparkling prose. Sparkling. I’d never say scintillating.”
“Whatever. I got it. Go bother someone else.”
The Con Man shrugged and started looking around for another potential convert.
That was in 2006. The Con Man had just read The Lies of Locke Lamora for the first time. From that moment on, he was on a mission, and that mission was spreading the Gospel of Lynch. Thinking of himself more as an “Itinerant SFF Scholar” than a “Con Man” (at least that’s what it said on the business cards he insisted on handing out to hapless conventioneers), he made a remarkably complete circuit of minor and major science fiction and fantasy conventions around the country, talking to anyone who would listen (and many who wouldn’t) about the novel that had consumed his life.
Nowadays, his presence at these events was frequently limited to whatever bar or watering hole convention-goers favored. Partly, this was because buying admission to every single convention was becoming financially impossible. Occasionally, it was because he’d been politely but firmly informed that his presence on the convention floor was no longer welcomed.
Case in point, in the summer of 2007, the Con Man was muttering to himself at the bar of an utterly depressing faux Irish pub attached to the Wyndham, location of this year’s Something-or-other-Con.
“They asked me to leave. Me! To leave!”
He was a bit vague on the name of this week’s convention. They tended to blur together after a while, much like the row of empty glasses that were arranged neatly in front of the two thick hardcovers he always carried around. The bartender gave him a weary glance, then went back to polishing glasses.
“‘Just don’t start talking about Red Seas under Red Skies again’, they told me. Well, I didn’t, and look where it got me. Here, Sabetha, I’ll have another one.”
The bartender glared as she poured him another shot. “For the third time, my name’s Joanne, not Sabetha.”
Things had gotten a bit rowdy during a panel discussion on Spirit Animals in Fantasy Fiction, a few hours ago. The Con Man had been forcibly removed from the half-empty room after holding forth, semi-coherently but at great length and with astonishing intensity, about Peter S. Beagle’s The Last Unicorn. The panelists’ collective sense of relief that he’d finally stopped talking about the Falconer from the Gentleman Bastard novels had been short-lived. First, there was the Con Man’s insistence that Beagle’s unicorn did, in fact, have a spirit animal. Then he’d pulled out a multi-page paper he’d written that (so he claimed) would prove conclusively that said spirit animal was a wombat. When he couldn’t be dissuaded from reading the paper out loud to the room, security had been called.
“So, Sab—I mean, Joanne, have you read these books?” he asked, patting the little stack of Scott Lynch novels.
The bartender visibly hesitated before answering this question. Maybe it all came down to a sense of pity. The Con Man would think back to this moment many times over the next few years, waiting for the near-mythical third book in the series.
“Actually… I have.”
“You have? Both of them? Really? I mean, RSURS just came out a few weeks ago!” Somehow, the Con Man actually did a credible job of pronouncing the abbreviation of the second book’s title.
“Ruh- russurs? Oh, the new one? Yeah, I just picked it up last week. Fun book, isn’t it?”
The Con Man whispered the word “fun” to himself a few times in apparent disbelief. Then, visibly forcing himself to adopt a calm, level tone, he choked out, “I’d call it a legendary masterwork of fantasy myself, but yeah, sure… it’s. It’s.” Deep breath. “Fun.”
Joanne nodded enthusiastically. “The scenes at the Sinspire are just amazing. And Ezri is such a wonderful character!”
The Con Man blinked a few times, taken aback now someone had actually engaged him in conversation about the books, as opposed to the more usual reaction of backing away slowly.
“Although that whole setup with Stragos and the pirates is a bit far-fetched, if you ask me.”
The Con Man looked a bit taken aback. Finally a successful conversation about these books, and now it already strayed into criticism. “F-far-fetched?”
“Well, yes. I mean, Jean and Locke have no experience at sea whatsoever, right? You have to admit that there should be a hundred easier ways for Stragos to raise a pirate army and create unrest than by poisoning those two and sending them out to sea. It’s preposterous.”
The Con Man nodded weakly, taking this in, but after a moment, he regrouped. “I always thought that Lynch sending them off to sea was a perfect expression of his use of vertical space as a metaphor for social mobility.”
Joanne pondered this for a second, then nodded. “He does use heights a lot, doesn’t he? The Five Towers in Camorr, the Sinspire in Tal Verrar, the staggered levels of the cities… It’s like ascending levels of exclusivity.
The Con Man nodded, eyes wide, repeating the words softly to himself. “Ascending levels of exclusivity… Right! Even from the very start, the pickpocket kids live underground, then the Gentleman Bastards operate out of a basement, sitting on the steps of the temple to sucker money out of the people walking by.”
Joanne grinned. “And even all the punishments—the spider cages, the Midden Deep … It’s all playing with height!”
The Con Man seemed, by this moment, a little breathless. “Right, right… and so Jean and Locke ending up at sea is a metaphor for them starting over from scratch, on the same level as everyone else. You haven’t by any chance read my paper on this, have you?”
She shook her head, grinning. “No, I haven’t. And I think you’re maybe pushing it a bit with the naval stuff.”
He took this in for a moment, then shrugged. “Maybe. I guess. Still, you’re really into these books, aren’t you? Why didn’t you say something before?”
Joanne shrugged. “Well, you know. You have a bit of a rep. The business cards. The wombat thing earlier today. You should ease off the “Itinerant SFF Scholar” act. Maybe just chat about books with people, you know?”
The Con Man nodded, surreptitiously sliding the business card he was about to hand her back into his pocket. “Yeah. I guess. Hey, when do you get off work?”
About six years later. The Con Man had, given the circumstances, severely reduced his convention schedule. Joanne agreed with this decision, as did—somewhat less coherently but with equal enthusiasm—their two year old daughter Auri. (Getting the Con Man to agree to that name had taken surprisingly little effort, and if he sometimes affectionately called the toddler “Bug,” well, Joanne could live with that.)
The long-awaited third novel in the Gentlemen Bastard series was finally about to arrive. The Con Man had actually managed to score an advance copy a month or two ago, mainly thanks to his efforts at maintaining a book review blog. (He also occasionally posted additions to the growing body of Gentleman Bastard interpretative criticism he’d been working on over the years. The latest article, “Forbidden Fruit“ went on, at length, about Scott Lynch’s twisting of the Forbidden Fruit trope throughout the series: chewed oranges to simulate vomit, apple mash to fake a skin disease, pear cider to deliver poison. Joanne just shrugged. At least he wasn’t harming anyone with it.)
“So what did you think?” he asked when Joanne turned the final page on the hefty tome.
She pondered the question for a moment. “Well. Hmm. Structure’s not his best point, is it?”
The Con Man nodded. “It’s true. The books tend to ramble a bit. I don’t think I noticed it as much, before. It’s just always so exciting and fast-moving and funny, and the prose is—”
“Sparkling,” he said firmly, throwing her a look. “Sparkling. Plus, you know, he’s always liked to squeeze a lot of plot into each book. RSURS always felt like three novels mushed into one cover for me.”
Auri, recognizing the word, gleefully yelled “Ruhsurs! Ruhsurs!” She was wearing an obviously home-made t-shirt featuring a green cartoon pig glaring at an angry-looking red bird under the words “Nice bird, poopiehead.” Most of their friends didn’t get it.
Joanne nodded. “And always with the flashbacks. Half of The Republic of Thieves is flashback! I get what he’s doing, but in this case it was a bit much.”
“Yeah. I think this would have worked better if the flashback part had been done separately, as a prequel or something. Imagine if that part had been released three years ago. I know it’s not that easy, but the fans would have been dancing in the streets.”
Joanne leafed back to the beginning of the book and glanced over a page. “And this plot with the Bondsmages and their election. What the hell? It’s like Stragos sending Jean and Locke off to sea all over again, except it’s Sabetha and Locke and now they’re political advisers?”
The Con Man winced. “I know. I… know.” He glanced at his laptop, his unfinished review of The Republic of Thieves on the screen. “I’m trying to word something about how Scott Lynch is one of the only authors I’d forgive for this much improbable plot-maneuvering, just because his books are so much fun. It’s… hard. I really wanted to like this book a lot more than I actually did.”
Joanne looked sympathetic. “I know how you feel. Well, I still had a blast with, uh, are we calling it TROT now?”
Auri yelled “Trot trot trot” a few times and climbed on her mother’s knee for a horsey ride.
The Con Man sighed and nodded. “Yeah, TROT. I had a blast with it, too. I think maybe the anticipation built up a little too much, you know? It’s a fun novel, but it didn’t give me the same kind of rush as the first two.”
Joanne patted his knee consolingly. “I did like that scene where he said ‘More skullduggery, less skullcrackery’ or something like that? Remember that one?”
The Con Man grinned. “Hey, that would make a good title for the review! Or maybe for another paper… What’s the etymology of skullduggery anyway?”
“No idea. I think you should go with that other idea you had, you know, when you said Lynch adds some welcome whimsy to the grimdark genre and you called it “grimsy”? I liked that. Anyway, answer me this: are you still going to read Book Four?”
His eyes widened in disbelief. “Of course! It’s going to be a blast! I can’t wait!” He paused, then added soberly: “Let’s just hope he finishes it before Auri starts school.”
The Republic of Thieves is available October 8th from Del Rey
Stefan Raets reads and reviews science fiction and fantasy whenever he isn’t distracted by less important things like eating and sleeping. You can find him on Twitter, and his website is Far Beyond Reality.