The Lies of Locke Larmora“The Lies of Locke Lamora” has received more than its fair share of attention this past year, first with a number of raving and positive reviews, along with favourable blurbs by the likes of George R. R. Martin. As a result of this it was later on involved in a rather distasteful confrontation between several bloggers regarding the neutrality of some of the reviewers, who were accused of falling in thrall with the publishers of the said book, due to being provided with free advance copies and a generally close relationship cultivated in hope of receiving favourable reviews and generating a certain amount of buzz around the novel.

Well lets put all that rubbish to bed; “The Lies of Locke Lamora” is a fine read, written with skill and a deft hand by Scott Lynch, who draws the reader into the story by interspersing the rollicking high-adventure of the primary narrative with so-called ‘interludes’ into the main character’s past as a young boy. For those who don’t know the basic premise of the novel, it follows the misadventures of one Locke Lamora, a thieving, conniving con-man who carries out the most elaborate (and I must say, enjoyable) confidence games with the rich and privileged of the city of Camoor. Known to those he steals from only as the shadowy figure of The Thorn of Camoor, a near-mythical hero thought to steal from the rich to give to the poor, he truly only cares for no one else but himself and his merry band of thieves, The Gentlemen Bastards, so named due to their pitch-perfect ability to mimic the ways of the upper classes of any known culture.

Lynch infuses his created world and city with a rich, layered tapestry, an achievement that shouldn’t be ignored, as so many writers of science fiction and fantasy fail most obviously in this very respect. Keeping in mind that this is merely the first in a multi-novel sequence, Lynch drops tantalizing hints about the history of both the title character as well as the fascinating city of Camoor, possibly to be developed on in future novels. A long dead magical race thought to have built a whole series of astounding cities along the coast, of which Camoor is merely one, are mentioned here and there without much elaboration. It is merely said that humans wandered into these abandoned cities and claimed them for their own, along with all their magical secrets that they held, and one can only hope that more will be developed regarding the history of both the seemingly dead alien race, as well as questions regarding the history of the humans that came to these forgotten shores, such as “Where the hell they came from?” After all, it could hardly be that primeval man in his animalistic state wandered in to these amazing urban jungles and suddenly decided to set up shop.

Additionally, there are several magical and fantastical elements involved in an otherwise renaissance era story: first, the often described and carefully elaborated alchemy of the world that is used to achieve such wonders as creating hybrid plants, powering lights (no candles here) and various other powerful uses from explosives to elixirs. Lynch does an admirable job in introducing this element into a world otherwise stuck in what is perhaps the seventeenth century. He does not overuse it nor uses it as a crutch; he merely shows how such a powerful tool would be used in the various facets of a pre-industrial society.

The world of Locke Lamora is not without traditional magic. Indeed, without giving anything away, I would say that it plays a significant and powerful role in the book. However, its use is carefully and ruthlessly controlled by the ominous magicians guild, the Bondsmagi, who brook no competitors to their art, nor any attack on one of their order. The magic itself, however, seems to be a touch too strong for the world created by Lynch, a single Bondsmagi being able to achieve nearly any thing he desires via his powers. With a large part of their powers coming from knowing the true names of the magic’s target, it seems a little to easy in a world where everyone’s true name and public name are one and the same, so that merely knowing the name of the person you want to affect gives you near total power over them. Traditionally, this element of magic is powerful because true names are traditionally hidden, not broadcast for the world to know. For instance, true names are one’s childhood names that could be discarded (or concealed) by adopting a new name upon reaching adulthood, or it could be that true names are in some esoteric language, revealed via long years of study and by achieving true understanding of the world. Being able to uncover them by merely asking someone on the street and pointing to one’s target, just seems awfully easy. Also the Bondsmagi having already proven to be able to defeat any traditional army, and now existing as the sole wielders of magic, should conceivably be able to reunite the fragmented elements of the once great Therin Throne under their rule. That they haven’t seems puzzling, but Lynch does leave us in the dark about a number of elements not immediately important to the plot, so one can only assume that these issues will be tackled in future novels.

Talking about dangling plotlines, Lynch is actually pretty much on the spot in making The Lies of Locke Lamora a standalone novel, and any lingering questions are largely a result of hints as to the protagonists past that serve to layer the story and provide it with hidden depths, making me all the more eager to read the coming sequel in June. Case in point, a sixth (female) member of the Gentlemen Bastards is sporadically mentioned, and is absent from both the fashbacks as well as the main story line. Yet Lynch makes it abundantly clear that Locke is in love with her, that something has, for some unknown reason, come between them, and that she will surely appear in an upcoming novel. Similarly, the nature of the alien beings that created the glittering city of Camoor, will surely serve as ripe material to be further developed as the series goes on. Yet, by the end of the novel, our main concern is the continuing adventures of the Gentlemen Bastards, after what can only be described as momentous and life-changing events of this current novel.

Lynch writes well, and I don’t mean that as ‘well for a fantasy writer’ kind of well. He knows how to keep the plot skipping along without making us wait around for big events to happen. He pulls the reader continuosly from one direction to another, with break-neck, whiplash-causing speed, and the plot twists are nearly always surprising and eye-popping. He writes his hero in with enjoyable depth and witty banter, and a strong cast of supporting characters, not only among the Gentlemen Bastards but also the rest of the residents of Camoor. The city itself, inspiring images of Venice, is filled to the brim with interesting figures and factions, from the seemingly all-powerful Underground Don (known as the Capa), to the shadowy and hidden figure of the Grey King that opposes him, as well as a well fleshed out nobility that is the target of Locke’s activities. No character comes off as one-note or feels underserved by the story, and the flashbacks provide us with ample backstory for the main characters.

Everything that Lynch writes is meant to add to the sheer fun of reading the novel, and it shows in the end when you put down the book with a sense of both satisfaction at being well served by a talented author, as well as the disappointment one feels when finishing a good book. The Lies of Locke Lamora comes with my enthusiastic recommendation… pick it up and prepare for a few sleepless nights!

Nick Hornby is one of those authors that one always keeps as a good backup, saving him for a rainy day, though never really thinking about him for all the other sunny, summer months in between. I’ve been aware of Hornby’s work for many years now, probably soon after I watched “High Fidelity” and figured out it was based on a book. And while the movie was good, you just knew right away that the book would be better, based on the sole fact that the insights and perfectly constructed moments of the film would be given more room to work with by the very nature of the written word, as opposed to the rather confined medium of film.

Yet, in my keen search of a more (for lack of a better word) substantial novel, I’ve been passing Hornby up (when I do manage to remember him) for novels with more to say than describing the minutiae of the everyday life of a record store owner.

I so wish I hadn’t.

I stayed up all last night finishing “About a Boy“, another of Hornby’s movie adaptations, and discovered the simple joy of his writing. I picked up the novel at my favourite second-hand  book store, after choosing between this and “How To Be Good” (the only two choices available – the cost of shopping on the cheap I guess).  I was somewhat apprehensive about starting off my Hornby experience with a book whose movie version I had already seen (and absolutely loved), especially since it was far more recent and fresh in my memory than High Fidelity. But the aforementioned promise of hidden depths and insightful jokes within the novel, lost in translation to the format of film, inexorably drew me in.

To begin with, Hornby’s characterizations are spot on. Marcus (the boy) and his constant inner monologue ring true, and his pitch perfect (spoken) tone coupled with the (mental) confusion due to his inability to understand the world outside his head add a charming sense of humor to any scene he is in. Marcus alone is worth reading the book for, and Hornby’s insights channeled through the boy’s voice and thought process suck you right into the novel from the first chapter.

Then there’s Will (the Boy), forever young, self-obsessed, blissfully aware of his life and his place in the world; seemingly everything Marcus is not (and of course, twenty-something years older). His own insights and inner thoughts, though nowhere near the somewhat shocking and stark nature of those of Marcus, add its own charm to the book, and provide an enjoyable counterpoint to Marcus’ responses to the same situation, as we switch from one character’s point-of-view to the other. Will’s own tangential story line of shallow and meaningless attempts to satisfy his every (usually sexual) whim, is quite worthy on its own merits, revealing the mind of the increasingly relevant stereotype, the slacker. It is a testament to Hornby’s skill as a writer that Will’s chapters are not shortchanged in any way, and the usual pitfall that a novel of this structure (constantly switching POV’s every chapter) succumbs to, of the reader getting more attached to one of the narrators and resents the switch in point-of-view, is effortlessly avoided.

The plot itself appears predictable – the redemption of the perpetual slacker/commitment-phobe who finds meaning in love, and the coming-of-age of the awkward social misfit, who overcomes his inability to connect with the world around him. I was reading another novel along with this one, as I am often wont to do, called “Gates of Fire” by Steven Pressfield. It was everything in a novel I was looking for; it helped meet my historical-fiction quota, it dealt with big, impressive themes like death, the meaning of courage, etc etc. and above all was rather well written. I found myself having to constantly justify reading “About a Boy” to myself. I just felt that the story just didn’t have that oomph to it, especially if I was picking it up after a few days of reading about the heroic battles and sacrifices of the ancient Spartans.

But every time I did pick it up, I just got pulled in, the dual narratives stringing me along as I convinced myself that just one more chapter and I would put it down, just after I could se how Marcus responded to the same event I had seen Will react to. Yet I was mystified… sure the narrative was good, but the underlying story just didn’t seem to add up when viewed as a whole. How was Hornby keeping me so hooked?

And then I figured it out. Like the fictional Will Freeman, who charmed his way into women’s beds, Hornby is a real charmer, making the perfect joke at the perfect time, the right smile with just the right amount of twinkle in his eye. The novel just exudes charisma… oodles of it, making the journey enjoyable and unique and ever so beautiful. This is precisely the sort of book that I would usually avoid, where people tend to promote the writing style and the authors intricate observations about life rather than a compelling story, but I must say the ride is eminently worthwhile.

I am now a firm Nick Hornby convert. All that remains is to decide what next to read, “High Fidelity” or “A Long Way Down“.

I had, at first, been reluctant to pick this book up, inundated as I was with all the marketing and buzz surrounding it. The last time I had felt like this about a novel, was with "Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrel" by Susanna Clarke, and I was thoroughly disappointed after buying it. But on the insistence of a friend who had read this behemoth of a novel in a single sitting, I finally got myself to my favourite Indigo bookstore and picked it up.

Reading this book reminded me how differently a novel reads depending on how much importance you give to it. It made me think of the first time I read "The Lord of the Rings" . The edition I had bought contained the entire trilogy within it, costing a full five hundred rupees, an enormous sum for me at the time. I was so excited when I got home, confessing to my mother about spending so much in one go, at the same time convincing her that it was worth it. My previous reading of "The Hobbit" had conditioned me to anticipate one hell of an adventure story (I didn't really appreciate the fantasy aspects at the time), and the sheer weight of expectation regarding the trilogy (along with its own considerable charms) lended to it a central place in my mind for many years to come, and made it one of my favourite books of all time.

And so when I began reading "The Historian", hyped as it had been by my friend whose judgement I trusted implicitly, I opened to the first page with respectful reverance and trembling anticipation. I reminded myself to savour every carefully chosen word, to fully realize every scene of colourfully described imagery, and above all, to enjoy the novel as its author intended: by noticing and enjoying every detail. I have been obsessed of late, with the number of books I read, quantifying and recording this year's readings rather than focusing on getting the most out of them; I am now determinded to change that.

I admit then, that perhaps this book impacted me more than it would have usually done. But despite even that, it is a compelling read. The author wastes no time getting into the action, the central mystery being revealed within the first few pages. The entralling story of an obscure book that comes into the narrator's father's possession, hooks you into the novel, not allowing for any disctractions. The colourful descriptions of Eastern Europe make the smells and visions of the scenery come alive, the historical yet alien locations lending the tale a certain ominous air. The prospect of encountering the terrifying Drakula is made readily apparent within the first few chapters, giving all further readings a sense of dread anticipation, as we are assured of a coming doom. Yet I am a mere fifty pages into the book, hardly enough to create a complete picture of what I expect to come. Still, I hope to continue reading, and am even more hopeful that I shall continue and complete this review. Till later then, I bid you adieu, and based on my first impressions, encourage you to give this novel the good ol' college try (I always wanted to say that!).

I made a committment earlier, to write about each and every book I read this year. Obviously, I have failed to do so rather spectacularly. So it is with great pride and joy that I unveil the Rolling Review. From now on, I shall attempt to write about a book as I am reading it. This is the result of being frustrated with the ususal reluctance I feel about posting a review after reading a book, without having a complete and comprehensive thesis about the damned thing. Hence, the Rolling Review. No pressure. Just pure thoughts.

I hadn't even thought about this until I read another blog (I forget where) where the author claimed this approach greatly helped him with both understanding and apprecitating a novel, as well as get him to post more frequently on his blog.

And so, with no further ado, I present the first edition of the Rolling Review.

P.S. (or, Some ado before we continue): The nature of the writing, following as it does the meandering thoughts of my mind, tends to wander from the specific subjects of a particular book, and often incorporates other musings my brain fancies while wandering the narrow path the author provides. Please, I ask you to bear with me, for in the end even the daydreams that a book elicits from me, have hopefully, something to say about the novel itself.

I’ve been trying to figure out what exactly attracts me to fantasy novels. The historical aspect is no small part of it; I began looking to fantasy as a replacement for the poor selection of historical-fiction that was available. But it was something more than just that.

Today I started reading ‘Assassin’s Apprentice’ by Robin Hobb, when one possible reason became rather obvious to me. Fantasy novels (and by extension, their authors) tend to inherently posses a certain amount of arrogance within them. This arrogance is justified because the author, in every sense of the word, is truly the ‘creator’ is such a setting. Freed from all the restrictions of reality, of physics, history or even evolution, the fantasy author is like some playful Yahweh, proclaiming the existence of the sun, a moon or two, all with a few shakes of his mighty pen. How can any fantasy author help but be arrogant?

Faced with such absolute power, the author lends himself a sense of importance, a belief that the events he describes are momentous, earth-shattering and entirely under his control. Other authors in comparison, subconsciously cower in the face of the immense limitations that bound them to the painful realities of this world. So much so, that they shrink themselves, reaching more timidly than would be normally allowed by the boundaries of our universe. They seem to ignore the absurdities and wonders that appear in our everyday lives. For these authors, there always remains the small trace of self-doubt, the small voice whispering in their heads telling them that they could not possibly have all the answers, have the complete picture.

For what mortal can assume to know what was going on in the mind of Julius Caesar as he chose to cross the Rubicon, or be fully aware of all the circumstances that surrounded the event some two thousand years in the past. The fantasy author, on the other hand, is comfortably secure in the knowledge that every motivation, every event, indeed every breath taken will only occur at his behest.

Neal Stephanson, the author of ‘Cryptonomicon’ and other sci-fi/cyber-punk classics, (as well as the historical-fictionesque ‘The Baroque Cycle’) talked briefly about this arrogance. He said that he had been scorned by ‘literary’ authors for the appearance of this very arrogance in his writing. These ‘literary’ authors are the ones cowering far within the limitations of this world that they write in, and for them assuming such omniscience is incomprehensible (my words, not his). The arrogance however, appears in abundance within the writings of fantasy/sci-fi authors, the best of whom make full use of this license and weave a story of such imagination and scope that we are left in awe of their creations. While I may be stretching his meanings a little (since he was talking about himself compared to the ‘literary’ authors, not fantasy or sci-fi authors) but I believe that he parallels my discussion closely.

Guy Gavriel Kay, nominally a fantasy writer, truly writes historical fiction (or you must, then historical fantasy). His insight is in openly acknowledging and embracing a truth that everybody already knows: that all historical fiction is truly fantastical in nature. In Kay’s case, by marginally changing the names of people and places he is writing about, he allows himself the freedom to assume the mantle of a world creator, rather than merely a chronicler of history, a figure that he even includes in one of his books. His historian is a bumbling yet sly figure, fully aware of the obscurative powers of history, knowing that even though he is part-villain in the present, history (under his control) will show him as an innocent bystander in the horrific events that he was forced record on page.

Examples of successful wielders of this arrogance I go on harping about are numerous, most recently (in my readings) by R. Scott Bakker in his “The Prince of Nothing” trilogy (a series I will soon talk about in far more depth). Outside the realm of novels, I believe Peter Jackson is a stellar example of someone with such capacity, in both The Lord of the Rings, as well as (more surprisingly) in King Kong. In the latter movie, I was struck by how uncompromising he was in his commitment to his vision of the movie, with a long introductory section based in a wonderfully recreated 1930’s New York. Here, in what many people felt was an unnecessary and somewhat cheesy sequence, Jackson unflinchingly throws us into the heart of the Depression period, and is so true to his vision, that I was swept up along with him, even as Naomi Watts plaintively cried to her surrogate father figure “But you’re all I’ve got!”.

The fact is, I tend to enjoy myself the most when the author/director fully embraces his mantle of ‘creator’ and show us a world where the differences are revealed in all their alien glory, rather than grudgingly explained away, as if to say “see, see, its not all that different after all!”. So it is the Scott Bakker’s of the world that truly transport us into their living worlds of inexplicable customs and races and powers, and with their sheer determination and conviction, sweep us away and allow us to truly experience a book.

I did it again…

February 25, 2006

I grew reluctant. Reluctant to post, though I had a lot to say. I’ve written a lot over these past few weeks, but without exception, all of it awaits in the shadowed wings of the ‘Drafts’ section, or saved in some obscure corner on my computer.

I need to remember to post what I write. If I continue to wait until I feel a particular piece has satisfied all my various demands of coherence, elegance and brevity, then I shall post nothing.

I must also start writing about the books I read while I’m reading them, rather than wait till after I’m finished. Otherwise I always forget or get caught up in some other book, until it is too late and I begin to feel that it has been too long, and my recollections have become blurred by the passage of time and consumption of other novels.

So over the next few days I am going to attempt to fix up my drafts and post them here, as well as complete some reviews of a few novels I recently read, including R. Scott Bakker’s intriguing “The Darkness That Comes Before”, and a few others.

Here’s to many more (frequent) posts!

An Ode to Book Lovers

February 8, 2006

I think at heart, book lovers are lonely people. Not lonely literally, but rather lonely for lack of similar minded people around them, for lack of similar readers. Readers come in all shapes and sizes, and this diversity tends to isolate them in insular pockets of monologesque discussion with themselves. Today there are the “women” readers, the bestseller readers, the murder-mystery readers, the non-fiction readers and of course ‘those sci-fi/fantasy types’. Each of them seem to occupy their own little niches, surrounded in a world overtaken by the frantic pace of television, movies and hit-of-the-week pop songs. Not that these readers don’t inhabit this world; they form a significant part of it… no-one is free from the addictive forces of TV. But within this fast-shrinking world of book readers, and the even smaller subset of book lovers, there has appeared a startling lack of a forum for book discussion.

The reading of books in general is viewed as far too indulgent a luxury; taking time off on a weekend to watch a two hour long movie is one thing but a book is a long term commitment. Its like getting into a new relationship, and the wife already takes up enough of your time. And once you actually commit to the damn thing, it seems almost excessive to actually spend time talking about it. Ever notice that book clubs are only shown as the pass time of bored housewives? Where is the neighborhood book-club for the guys? Indeed where are the books for all the male readers? It seems to be a growing trend that the popular books and the critical favorites are usually meant for women. Not explicitly, but on a more subtle level… the tag line of one goes: “the sensitive story about the black slave that helped out his recently widowed white owner to run her farm”. Another boldly displays its intentions in its title: “The History of Love”.

And what are we poor men supposed to read? The DaVinci Code? Or probably some new Robert Ludlum novel. Please. Today men are divided into two categories: either he reads the latest and hottest “business” book that tells you how to get rich fast, or its the weird sci-fi nerd who plays alone with his lightsaber. I guess I hadn’t really thought about this until I read on some random Amazon review about how a particular book was a real “guys” book, rather than something probably marketed to some lonely 30-something female with relationship issues. And that is true. Those are the books I scour the net for, going through hundreds of reviews to find that perfect gem of a fiction novel which will fit with my current mood. And those are the type of books that I have the hardest time finding. Not that reading “The Time-traveler’s Wife” wasn’t enjoyable… its just that sometimes…. throw a dog a bone, willya?

But I have gone somewhat off-track (though not totally). What I started by saying was that book lovers are lonely for similar minded book readers. I have been a voracious reader since I ever learned how, and through out these years only rarely have I come across someone I can actually talk to about books, and almost never have I met one who truly shares my tastes. Well there was this time in third grade… but I guess that doesn’t count. When I first came to university I joined a book club. My first meeting was a revelation; never had I experienced so many people sharing so much about reading. But ultimately it turned out to be a failed experiment. While a true eye-opener, the club was mostly a bunch of girls (dowdy ones at that) who insisted on reading some archaic novel about the trials of small town life and the importance of family. I just couldn’t get around to forcing myself to read a novel that sounded like the most boring piece of work ever put to paper.

For me, I’d rather just have a couple of friends who share my taste in books, who I can recommend an amazing book I just read to, and have one recommended to me in turn. But alas, those few of my friends who do make a semi-regular habit of reading, tend to have vastly different tastes in books. A book lover who finds someone who shares his love for a particular book (and for books in general) is a pitiful creature. I say pitiful because of the almost grateful and eager note in their enthusiasm, as they discuss this sole book that has brought them together. They get this somewhat crazed glint in their eyes as they bob their heads in agreement, knowing that they will never meet this kindred soul again, for surely they are stuck in a twilight zone of some kind. Or they feverishly hope against hope, even though they know that it is inevitable, that this is not some one-off chance, that this is not the only book that the two share a passion for, or indeed the only book in the known universe that both of them have read. In all probability however, it will turn out that one almost exclusively reads sappy love stories the print equivalent of “Must Love Dogs”, while the other is obsessed with the non-fictional accounts of the greatest military commanders in history. They shall inevitably have to await the much anticipated mash-up of Sun-Tzu and a Jackie Collins novel that is in the offing.

And so the forlorn book lovers retreat into their solitary worlds, enduring as their friends patronize them with a customary “So what did you think of the DaVinci Code” (sorry Dan Brown!). This trend however, has recently led to some very interesting developments occurring in the internet. Developments like Library Thing, which is a personal library cataloging service with Web 2.0 sensibilities (I know, groan, but seriously if you haven’t checked this out, do so now). These services, along with others like MetaxuCafe, are all efforts to overcome the inherent solitary confinement of the book lover, and create a forum for public discussion in a virtual scale where a real one doesn’t suffice (or even exist). This is a good development, not only because of its inherent value but because it is leading the way for a true platform for discussion of nearly any topic on the internet. So to book lovers I say, look forward with joy; ignore the cries that herald the death of book publishing… that may happen for the model as we know it. But for book readers, a new golden age is coming… welcome it with open arms.