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!

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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!).