Fiction: 'Dance Dance Revolution' by Charlie Human
Unpacking the 2014 Eisners - Part 2

Underground Reading: The Republic of Thieves by Scott Lynch

[This is part of a series reviewing all ten finalists for the David Gemmell Legend Awards.]

9780553804690_p0_v1_s600Well, for those following closely, I'm out of sequence - if I'm alternating Morningstar/Legend finalists, I'm supposed to be reviewing The Path of Anger. Alas, I managed to confuse even myself, so we're getting this one instead. Please update your home scoring accordingly.

There are spoilers a-plenty in this review - both for The Republic of Thieves and the two preceding books in the series. 

Scott Lynch's The Republic of Thieves (2013), the third in the seven book Gentleman Bastard sequence. The first, The Lies of Locke Lamora introduced readers to the dashing rogue Locke Lamora and his stoic pal Jean. The second, Red Seas Under Red Skies, followed the pair as they fled their home city (primarily because of a nasty entanglement with a sorcerer 'Bondsmage') and, in an attempt to elude the Bondsmagi's collective wrath, get stuck into politics and piracy. Red Seas ended dramatically, with Locke poisoned, Jean's girlfriend killed and, as is now routine, the two thieves broke, homeless and on the run.

The Republic of Thieves picks up with Locke on the verge of death. Jean's burned through the rest of their money trying to find doctors. Locke lies on his bed bleeding from strange places and drinking his weight in cheap wine while Jean runs around kidnapping physicians. Just as this situation hits rock bottom (which, honestly, is about as bad as it sounds), one of the Bondsmagi shows up. "Patience" is one of the most senior of her order, and she comes with a proposition: do her a favour and she'll save Locke's life. Hell, she'll even call off the hounds as part of the bargain. Our chaps have no choice but to agree.

This build-up - or resolution to Red Seas - is roughly the first half of the book. The second is discharging they debt they owe Patience. Locke and Jean are taken to Karthain where they are asked to rig an election. This city is built in the shadow of the Bondsmagi and, every five years, the wizards play a little game with the free will of the citizens. The Karthainians (Kathraginians?) think they're having free elections (well, 'free' in the most feudal sense of the word: rich landowners only), but really, two factions of wizards are using this as their equivalent of the SuperBowl. This time around, Locke and Jean are quarterbacking the 'Deep Roots' faction. On the other side of the line, with the 'Black Iris' party: Sabetha.

For those unfamiliar with the series (I mentioned the spoilers, right?), Sabetha is the last unseen member of the 'Bastards' - the group of child-thieves raised and trained by Chains waaaaay back in Camorr. While the other members of the gang died grotesquely in Lies, Sabetha has only been a distant figure. That is, she's only appeared in a few tangential mentions - generally subtle inferences along the lines of ZOMG SABETHA LOCKE HAS FEELS. Feels aside (or, actually, feels very much included), Sabetha is the perfect foil for the Locke and Jean duo. She knows their tricks and she, like them, is out to win.

While the election in Camorr plays out in the 'present', Republic is also interspersed with scenes from the past. These include Locke's very early youth, when he meets Sabetha as a beleaguered orphan, and later, when they're re-united under Chains' tutelage. The titular Republic is also the name of a play that features heavily throughout the book: a play put on by Locke, Sabetha, Jean and the other fledgling Bastards as part of a training exercise (or prolonged field trip) for their criminal teacher.

What light through yonder window breaks? - William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet

I really liked this book.

Over and above my self-appointed DGLA task of finding it interesting and thematically resonant and whatnot, I just flat out liked it. That shouldn't, I suppose, be a surprise - Lies is one of my favourite books of all time, in any genre, and Red Seas is an exceptional book that only fails in that it is not Lies. It took me less than a few pages to be immediately transported back into the world of Locke and Jean and their shenanigans. After a half dozen books that I have found interesting and thought-provoking and occasionally (but not always) even good, it is a delight to find one that I genuinely adored from cover to cover.

What is it about Republic that floated my boat? Quite a few things, actually:

Locke and Jean are a fantastic pair. They are a combination of understanding, affection and mutual goading. A friendship forged in childhood has only been further solidified through the events of the last two books. In a world that is filled with chaos and distrust and plotting, it is evident how much they rely on being able to trust one another completely.

Trickiness! I love it. Sure, Jean can handle himself in a fight, but we're reading about a pair of (broke) confidence men that are (somehow) (barely) surviving on their wits in a world dominated by powerful wizards, far-reaching criminal empires and fantastically wealthy nobles. In both storylines - past and present - Locke's charisma and cunning make you forget that he's perpetually the underdog. He's a weedy, undersized, under-aged, orphan nobody. Yet, even as a child he's running a vastly complicated theatre/crime operation and as an adult he's courted by a council of wizards for his talents. 

The dirty politics are a blast. The sports analogy above really is an accurate one. An election is supposedly something meaningful: Karthain's, however, is a sham contest, put on for the benefit of the wealthy and powerful. So, hell, there's not even anything to feel guilty about when Locke, Jean and Sabetha lie, cheat, steal and scheme their way towards victory. And they really do pull out all the stops - everything from forged documents to the ol' 'snakes through the chimney' trick (!) to a legion of very cunning grandmothers (!?). The Bondsmagi conveniently set a ground rule of 'no killing', so Karthain turns, for the period described in this novel, into the fantasy/political equivalent of Animal House - lots of pranks and lots of laughs.

Sabetha was worth the wait. We've waited two books for her reveal, which makes is a fair amount of pressure. And still she was exactly as smart, fun and nastily cunning as I hoped she would be. It would be almost too easy - or too traditional - for Locke to fall head over heels for someone that's set up as his 'inferior'; someone he's supposed to protect. The fundamental concept of Republic is that Sabetha is the equal - if not superior - of Locke and Jean combined. That the two lads together can, at best, keep up. And, with our glimpses into the past, we see that this has always been in the case. Sabetha is someone for Locke, and the reader, to admire.

Republic mixes feminism and epic fantasy. And, shock of shocks, the world hasn't come to an end. Sabetha is the equal of Locke and Jean (and, as noted, both of them together), and Republic does two things with this premise: 

First, it ignores it. Of course she is. She's just as smart and just as well trained. Sabetha has been off having her own rather exciting adventures while Locke has been having his. The reader may be following his narrative, but that's not because it is more important. Of course the Bondsmagi would recruit her, and of course she's been off toppling empires on her own. Why wouldn't she be? 

Second, it tackles it head on. Locke gets opportunities that Sabetha doesn't because he's a man. Which, she points out. Sabetha wants to join the inner sanctum of Camorr's thieves - they choose Locke instead. She gives advice to the youthful Bastards - they ignore her for Locke, who says the same things. Despite being with Chains for longer and being just as talented as Locke, Chains chooses Locke as his heir. Rather than take these situations for granted, Sabetha challenges Locke about it, pointing out the discrepancy and the bias in the system.

This is doubly impressive given that this is an epic fantasy: Sabetha's challenging the deeply traditional tropes that a) the man merits the leadership position and b) the chosen one deserves it as well. All of these situations (Locke leading the Bastards, for example) are things that the reader has taken for granted. But, ultimately, why not Sabetha? Perhaps it isn't even that Sabetha is Locke's equal - all things considered, she could be far better than he is, she just has fewer opportunities to demonstrate it

Having an epic fantasy that challenges our assumptions of the genre is great. Doing so within the text, while still being a blast to read? That's brilliant.

The course of true love never did run smooth. - William Shakespeare, A Midsummer Night's Dream

A few examples where the author has been openly acknowledged learning from another genre: The Heroes - war stories, Red Country - Westerns, She Who Waits - noir crime, A Song of Ice and Fire - historical fiction, the list goes on and on. Obviously, I can't vouch for what Scott Lynch read or his influences or, of course, his intentions, but I find it hard not to see The Republic of Thieves as a romance.

My kneejerk response of course, is to say ZOMG THAT'S TOTALLY FINE, as I suspect that epic fantasy readers look down on romance readers in the same way that spiders look down on snakes (that is to say, they shouldn't, because the mainstream still shits all over both). But these are actually genres that have intertwined for years. Fundamentally, they're both heavily reliant on using recognisable formulas, and operate within extremely rigid sets of expectations. Because of this, both genres also rely heavily on atmospheric world-building to be distinctive. And both are escapist genres: books meant to transport and inspire, with empathetic characters so we can 'walk in their shoes' for the most immersive possible reading experience. 

(The list continues, of course: they're both marketed as gendered [see: 'all covers ever']; they both have expansive communities of involved readers; they're both large enough to have other-genre-inflected-subgenres within; they're both gateway books - the first adult books that kids read; etc. etc. etc.)

Similarly, I'm not sure I could argue that a romance influence on epic fantasy is a new thing. For one, both genres stem (arguably) from the same school of medieval literature, just refracted through different sets of lenses. And, of course, in more modern times, authors like Mary Stewart have been leading figures on both genres. 

Still, over and above the general connections between the two genres, there are some specific points within The Republic of Thieves.

For one, the critical conflict is the romance. From the instant Locke arrives in Karthain, Republic establishes that the stakes are no longer life or death (in fact, as noted, they are specifically prohibited from being life or death). Karthain itself is a meaningless prize, and neither Locke nor Sabetha have any attachment to the city or its people. So what's actually at stake for half of this (rather lengthy) book? Locke and Sabetha's emotional fulfilment. The primary concern of Republic is not who actually wins the election or the background machinations of the Bondsmagic (since only the reader is even aware of those) - it is whether not our two main characters fall in love and live happily ever after. You'd almost forget there was an election on.

The 'conflict' (romance) is reiterated in the way individual scenes are treated. While Locke does all sorts of interesting political stuff, that gets the hand-wavey treatment in favour of expansively detailed dinner dates with Sabetha. The conversations between the power-mongers of Karthain are outlines; the back-and-forth monologues on the nature of love and responsibility are captured verbatim. The priorities of Republic could not be more clear. Locke - and seemingly Sabetha - are living for the moments where they are together. The in-between is just that: waiting.

It is also worth pointing out that the greater framing of the larger story is a traditional romance arc. The love at first sight (as young children), being thrown together in an awkward adolescence, a moment's passion - then separated for the years, reunited on opposite sides of a great conflict. (Well, a small conflict. But still...)

I don't say any of this to frame Republic in a negative light. I am a fervent believer that learning from other genres is a Very Good Thing, and romance is no exception. If, like epic fantasy, romance relies on formula, unlike epic fantasy, it can't draw on big splodey action or complex magic systems as a distraction. Instead, romance books have to rely on keeping readers interested through characterisation, dialogue and interpersonal tension - often within confined spaces. These are all tricks that epic fantasy should be studying feverishly. And writing women with agency. That'd be nice too.

End of aside.

Now is the winter of our discontent. - William Shakespeare, Richard III

As evidenced by my fawning appreciation, I think The Republic of Thieves is pretty nifty. But, as always, a few quibbles and criticisms:

It ain't quick. I alluded to this in the plot recap, but it takes half the book to get to Karthain and Republic's ostensible conflict. That's half the book where Locke is, well, on his back. Mostly dying, actually. And throughout the book, whenever we were on the verge of anything significant actually happening, the reader would be flung into a different narrative - with a long wait before we returned to the action.

This isn't helped by the fact that the book's fundamental conflict is a slow-burning romance, and one that's expressed largely through a series of very Long and Meaningful conversations. There's only so long (or so many times) one can wait on tenterhooks for a nice meal and the series of back-and-forth lectures on social responsibility that will come with it. Which leads to my next point...

It gets Republic's messages. But Locke and Sabetha's conversations did get a bit predictable. Locke will start with an apology based on the misunderstanding that clouded their last time together. He'll then say something soulful about how he's learned, and what this means for the way he'll act and, generally speaking, how this has opened his eyes to the role of agency/love/parity/responsibility/social pressure. Sabetha will stare at him for a while, raise the tension a bit, then reluctantly accept his apology - her reluctance, of course, is based on her dawning realisation that she thinks Locke is the bee's knees, but doesn't want to admit it. Then Locke will say something stupid, and things will end badly. Or, maybe he won't, and things end with a vague sense of hope that next time, next time... and then an external factor will do something stupid for him, and they wind up back where they started.

It doesn't help that these conversations are frequently happening in parallel - both as headstrong kids and world-weary adults. The tension, I suppose, is in seeing how it pays off: two permutations of will-they/won't-they, and all the associated conversational ping-pong. But the charm of Locke and Sabetha's romance actually comes from their interactions as people: their flirtations and pranks, the way they come together as a team against the outside world. Their moments together as lovers were devoid of that joyful spontaneity.

I flat out did not care about the play. I've phrased this as an "I" statement, as I'm fully aware this is a deeply personal bugbear. Plays, like poetry, are a form of world-building: a way of adding significance and metaphor and cultural description. However, I can't shake my own prejudice: that this sort of thing too often hovers somewhere between interruption and indulgence. In Republic, the titular play goes deliciously un-detailed (because the play isn't actually important at all)...  until the three-quarters point, when it all comes rushing out at once as a tidal wave of story-within-story. The Cliff's Notes version of a fictional play in a secondary world. This is a shame - all the preparation and scheming and fun around the performance of "Republic" was great. "Republic" itself was unnecessary.

These are, as you may have noticed, fairly particular critiques. Nit picking, even. 

Resolve me of all ambiguities - Christopher Marlowe, The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus

Hey! I liked this book. In case you haven't figured that out, I think The Republic of Thieves is a cracking story and an exceptional book. But my good opinion, alas, is meaningless - what do the all-powerful Gemmell criteria have to say?

'Spirit of Gemmell' criteria:

  • Secondary world: Yes indeedy.
  • Traditional: Yes. Wizards and nobles and rogues and orphans and even a few traditional nods to the romance genre as well.
  • Heroic: Yes. We've a strong moral compass here. Locke and Jean and Sabetha are the thieves-with-rules: they don't take from the poor or harm little old ladies. Even their overt political corruption is couched as 'naughtiness' - we know it doesn't actually hurt anyone (and, in fact, the solution they engineer is theoretically even a way of empowering the Karthian people). The moral compass is even a progressive one: a book with chivalry and agency.
  • Epic: Nope. I'll grant that there are some behind-the-scenes shenanigans between Patience and Falconer that imply that the Big Thing is coming. And Patience's exposition of The Past Times feels like the set-up a larger story arc. But fundamentally, this text is about a political sporting event, the results of which have no importance. And even that is drowned out by the romantic maneuvering of two love-lorn twenty-somethings.
  • High fantasy: Yes. This is a world where magic is smoothly and unobtrusively integrated into both the story and the setting. It is clearly important and powerful and vaguely omnipresent, and there are checks and balances and  systems and... we're never drowned by the detail. 

'Excellence' criteria:

  • Entertaining: Yes. Very much so. As well as the shenanigans (in the theatre and in the political arena), there's just the fundamental fact that Locke is really fun to read. The characters have great, distinctive voices and are an absolute pleasure. I'd happily spend an evening reading about Locke prepping vegetables for dinner. (Which is good, because now I have.)
  • Innovative: Yes. As described above, I think Republic's contributions come on two levels. First, the way that it is overtly feminist. Second, in the way that it applies that feminism to the core traditions of epic fantasy. Don't just question the patriarchy, question the chosen-one-archy (destinarchy?). 
  • Reactionary: No. God bless this book. Finally. No.

We're running out of finalists! Only one book left on the Legend shortlist and two on the Morningstar. More so than ever, I look forward to discussing and comparing them all when the reviews are complete.