There are some spoilers herein. I’m not giving away the whole book or anything, but if you’re sensitive to them I would stay away. That is all.
This was a vast improvement over the previous installment. It corrected almost all the problems I had with the previous book, as well as picking out and keeping some elements that I really did cheer for.
By this book, Scott Lynch has found a formula that appears to be working for him. Just as with the second book, the beginning of the third book finds Locke and Jean struggling with the aftermath of all the things that went wrong with the disaster that ended their previous adventure. Jean lost his lady love (in a move that I still feel was unnecessary and the fate of all too many fantasy novel ladies), and Locke is still poisoned with the apocryphal substance that, it seemed, would turn out to be the bullshit that 80% of what they are involved in winds up being- until the final few pages when it was made clear it was not. Locke secretly makes Jean take the only antidote to the poison, which means that Locke is the only one left poisoned- effects to be made apparent six weeks or so after the close of the second novel. To boot, they are left with not much alternative but to leave their current city, with very much less than the funds that they had planned to have (because for all their cleverness, they are not as clever as they think they are- this is the part where George Clooney and the gang discover that Vincent Cassel beat them to their mark and all their cleverness doesn’t matter so much. Only there’s not much of a clever back-up plan to redeem them in the rest of the movie.)
As before, Scott Lynch uses this time to indulge in a pause in the plot that allows for him to tie up loose ends and show off some of both the most and least attractive traits of his protagonists. It picks up two months or so after we’ve last seen the boys, in a new city where they’ve landed by virtue of Locke being too sick to go on and running out of funds. Jean is desperately trying to find Locke a cure for the poison, no doctor can help, Locke has reached the point of self-pityingly trying to get Jean to leave him to die (is this sounding familiar?). As in the second novel, Scott Lynch writes accurately and incisively about the ugly, dark nature of depression, and how hard it is to continue to like someone when they’ve sunk that far down- often everyone around the person has to get ugly themselves. He does some interesting psychological analysis of the “death wish” and what we would call Locke’s manic depressiveness or possibly some form of bipolar disorder. Having kept up with the reasons behind the late publishing of this book, it is hard not to see some personal experience creeping into the book here, but it makes what could have been a meandering opening powerful and persuasive.
At this point, Lynch introduces the ever convenient fantasy deus ex machina of magic and intrigue that swoop in to change the boys’ life and give them the kick in the ass to keep going on to the next high flying con. The proposal comes to them from a member of the Bondsmages, which fans of the series will remember from the delightfully evil Falconer in the first book. Her proposal is to help Locke in exchange for his help in a little matter of her own. There are elections happening in Bondsmage-ville, which this lady would very much like to turn out a certain way, and which for Reasons she can’t interfere with directly. But she would like to interfere indirectly very much by putting Locke and Jean on the case. Oh and did we mention, because OF COURSE, this case pits Locke and Jean against their old friend and Locke’s forever-lady-love Sabetha?
Hijinx (interspersed with some capital-D drama), you can safely say, ensue.
Lynch doubles back to his manner of storytelling from the first book. He opens us in the midst of the present action, and then once we get going, he does his character development and adds pathos and history and humor and breaks from the action through episodic throwback memories to the days of glory of the Gentleman Bastards. In this case, there is a heavy dose of memories of Locke’s growing relationship with and then feelings for, Sabetha, the only female member of their little gang. This evolves into a progressing ancient-history con (including some long-dead friends who get to come back to play!) that moves forward alongside the present day con.
At times this device can break up the action a bit too much for my taste- to the point where I feel and I feel that Lynch is much less invested in the present day plot because it gets so much less attention than the one being told through memories. But then again, by book three we’re all in it for the characters and we’ve waited this long to meet Sabetha so I’m betting that not too many people are complaining.
Although Locke’s love-at-first-sight-from-childhood thing was less than convincing, once I accepted it as a fact, I got over it and ended up finding it as charming as I was meant to. I also liked her, overall. I do feel that she’s a bit much of a standard fantasy type of woman- beautiful, intimidatingly smart, and very very prickly and ill-tempered for no apparent reason but making her seem cool and not girly-girl typical in any way. I appreciated her insistence on independence and having her own life. I liked how self-aware she was about her hang-ups and how aware of Locke’s flaws she was. It made her more distant than I liked, but as the book progressed we saw the shell crack and I suspect that we’ll find out later on that she’s much less distant than she appears. I also really liked the time that Lynch took to let her and Jean have a relationship too- and remember that she and Locke with their Twooo Wuuuvv were not the only ones with a history.
The con/plot itself is fun, and much more tightly plotted than the last one. It mostly consists of “What crazy thing did Sabetha do now? How are we going to respond to that crazy thing and get crazier ourselves?” It was episodic and cinematic and I could hear the soundtrack of wackiness playing as I read it, but that, I thought, was a sign that everything was moving along as it should be, at least in the present day section of the plot. The whole Locke/Sabetha courtship aspect was a wee bit unrealistic given the apparent danger both of them would have been in from both sides (although I suppose there’s an argument to be made for Locke’s near-death experience and his general impetuousness/possible impulse control issues), but who the fuck cares at this point? Again, I defy you to tell me that anyone wanted less screen time for their romance by this point in the series.
By the end of the book, Lynch seems to be finally giving hints that the rest of the series may start to operate at a more macro level, with the whole book universe getting involved in a larger plot, more like a traditional epic. Heretofore, and for the most part in this book, Locke and Jean’s world is heavily confined to the present city and moment that Lynch has built- but it seems all this world building will not be for nothing. I suspect it is going to start all being woven together slowly over the course of the next few books until the boys (and possibly and more than likely Sabetha) will somehow be involved in the central A plot climax this has all be leading to.
But there’s also plenty of personal drama to come as well. Sabetha is fled, and the character who seems to be being set up as a Big Bad or at least Locke’s personal long-term nemesis basically ends this book running off maniacally into the night laughing, “Mwahahaahaha!”
I’m not sure how I feel about this whole “Locke is magic and fantasy” element that’s being introduced, but Lynch has left the door open for it all to turn out to be bullshit, and I must say that I hope it does turn out to be just that because one of the strengths of Locke Lamora’s character is that he has avoided being caught up in a lot of the tropes of fantasy epics. Going in for the “magical, dark unknown past, hey it turns out you are a prince with important parents and are a special snowflake!” thing would be a bit much. But hey, Lynch proved me wrong with this book- it was much better than I had hoped. Here’s hoping he can pull that off too if that’s the way that’s going.
This is getting exciting, sports fans! I’ll see you at the next installment. Seems we’re gearing up for another Sabetha centered plotline, the one that was hinted at in this book, moving around the governmental collapse we’ve heard about distantly in Emberlain. New city, new characters, and you know what that means… new con! Can’t hardly wait.