The good news is, I still like 'em.
And I stand by everything I said about them back in the days when Scott and I were just newbie authors together, annoying the fuck out of everybody else at the WFC mass signing. For your reference, there are old posts* on The Lies of Locke Lamora (Which I blurbed, back in the day. Guess I've forever blown my chances of ethically getting a reciprocal blurb.) here and here, and a much briefer post on Red Seas Under Red Skies here.
There will, by the way, be spoilers below this point. And I'm certainly not about to level any critiques that I haven't already discussed with the author, then and now.**
So now you get the entertainment value of watching me talk about my boyfriend's books in public.***
This first entry will concern itself largely with The Lies of Locke Lamora.
The thing that continues to engage the hell out of me regarding Scott's books is the narrative voice. These are funny novels, and not in a forced, slapstick sort of way. They're wry and clever and very, very sharp, but with a level of humaneness that I find lacking from a lot of the other third-wave epic fantasy out there, which can, I am sorry to say, tend toward the unleavened grimdark. (What John Gardner would have called, with his characteristic pith, "disPollyanna Syndrome").
The Gentleman Bastard books are not gritty for their own sake (to misapply a Charlie Stross quote, grim meathook fantasy land is grim and meaty!) but rather because they're full of some very ruthless, nasty people doing ruthless nasty people things--but they're people. They have moments of humor and loyalty and heroism, and the narrative itself refuses to take itself too fucking seriously. Having erred on the side of portentous self-importance myself once or twice, I have to say, it's fucking refreshing to find that narrative and linguistic playfulness in modern low fantasy. It harks back to Leiber and Hammett, and it makes me happy.
One of these things that I really like about The Lies of Locke Lamora relates closely to that ruthless nasty people element: there's a substantial critique of class issues as commonly portrayed in fantasy encoded in this book. It would have been very easy for that to come across as tiresome, but it's embedded enough in the aesthetic of the adventure narrative that it's never pedantic. But instead we get a range of people in all stations of life, and a really unflinching look at how they all feed off of each other.
Our protagonists are criminals, and while they are very charismatic criminals, they are certainly not Robin Hoods. They are likable and engaging because of their wit and their loyalty to one another, but Locke Lamora is a nasty fucking piece of work, and the narrative never goes out of its way to kick leaves over that--but nor does it castigate him for being what he is, and it explores the positive aspects of his personality as well. It examines him without judging and lets the reader make her own decisions--and it allows his mistakes to have massive negative consequences, which pleases me. In a related vein, I adore how plain it is that Capa Raza and Capa Barsavi are not different in terms of ruthlessness or potential for sadistic evil; it just matters what side they're on.
I remember being impressed upon first reading Lies by the number of female background characters and the casual nature with which they are embedded in the world. In the wake of The Heroes, this was even more evident. There are a limited number of major female secondary characters (five, and a number of minor ones including my favorite, who appears for all of one scene and charms me by being the absolute antithesis of a Frank Miller or Jacqueline Carey prostitute--much more like the working girls in Cherie Priest's Ganymede, she's an engaging woman for whom sleeping with people is a job, not the sum total of her character) but they all have agency and motivations that go beyond the men in their lives--and while three of them meet rather messy demises, those deaths are not out of scope with what happens to analogous male characters. In particular, the death of Nazca Barsavi stands out to me: she dies for reasons identical to those leading to the death one of the male garristas, and it struck me on this reread that it's the male character who suffers sexual violence (he's castrated and nailed to a wall and left to bleed to death).
The other thing I picked up on reread that I don't recall noticing so much the first time is how few of these people are your standard heroic fantasy northern European white people. Very cheering to suddenly notice that it's pointed out as weird on those rare occasions somebody has pale skin.
The first time I read Lies, I had some trouble with the omniscient point of view, and found it somewhat wobbly. On this reread it felt smoother--though I still noticed a couple of rocky transitions--and I wonder how much of my focus on that first time was from just having written Whiskey & Water and having point of view issues badly, badly on the brain. This time, I mostly noticed places where if-it-were-my-book, I'd have gone after a particular adjective or prepositional phrase with a flame thrower. I like to think it's a sign of my own maturing as an artist that I'm much more capable, these days, of recognizing the various ways an artistic choice could have been made and not being so damned possessive about the way I would have done it being the only right way by cod.
Possibly because, these days, I'm usually aware of about five different ways I could make any given choice, and strengths or weaknesses relating to each.
The thing that niggled at me then that still isn't my favorite thing in the world is the structural issues in the first third of the book--the very self-conscious manipulation of the two parallel narratives so that not only is the book doing on simultaneously in present and past... but neither narrative is presented in linear order.
The problem here is that the author's withholding information from the audience, which is not a sin in itself, but he's using a cheap trick to do it. A proper caper story gives the clues up front and then only reveals what they mean at the end. There's a couple of places here where the clues are withheld just long enough to make something that's not a plot complication seem like one, and then it's revealed what was really going on. (The Locke-as-Midnighter sequence in particular.)
For a book that relies so heavily on caper structures to maintain its tension, this is a bit of a flaw.
On originally reading Lies, I have a very clear memory of getting bogged down in the past-time thread as the present-day one was starting to pick up. This time, I was able to identify why. It's because there's a point where the thread loses narrative drive and cohesion: its through-line falls apart. As an example of this, the bit where Chains and Locke are off to Locke's apprenticeship at the farm. It serves as a natural opportunity for exposition... and never quite goes anywhere after that. This makes that thread feel like it's stumbling, and it robs some of the power from the book's engine.
Fortunately, by this point, people in the present-day thread are being cut down in their blood by the dozens, so there's plenty of drive in the book. (There's a point in Red Seas where I think the narrative swamps itself as well, and takes longer to right itself; more on that in the followup post.)
I'm still in love with Camorr, though, and the textures of the city, and the inventiveness of the fantasy landscape. This is not a generic European fantasy; this is a specific and realized place full of mad details and inventive frills and bizarre worldbuilding gracenotes that serve no purpose except to give the book the sense of being, in part, a travelogue of a real and sweaty city, full of rich people and poor people and just-getting-by people.
In short, still probably my favorite first novel of the last ten years. And boy, isn't that a relief?
Imagine the pained silences at the dinner table if we each thought the other kind of sucked....
...tune in later this week for commentary on the other book...
*(Man, it's a bit odd rereading those comment threads now.)
**(The stuff you never have to consider in most relationships that aren't between two more-or-less public figures in the same field of endeavor.)
***Different only in a matter of scale, really. I talk about my friends' books in public all the time.
****Including something we just did on a podcast that should be out fairly soon....