Do you love the giddy ridiculousness of a good heist story or a long con that finally comes to fruition and leaves the sneering, callous rich bewildered, humbled, and a little poorer? The “Gentleman Bastard sequence,” as author Scott Lynch has called it, has….some of that. If you dig through a whole bunch of other stuff. Currently three books long with more allegedly to come, the series centers around Locke Lamora, a street orphan who ended up as an apprentice of sorts in a secret religion where thievery is a sacred duty. As it happens, he is very good at it, and hijinks and peril ensue. Also there is some magic and hints of a lost civilization.
The first volume, The Lies of Locke Lamora, traces Locke’s childhood and training through flashbacks and in present day follows what is essentially a glorified, old school Nigerian prince scam that is complicated by underworld power struggles bleeding into their plans. The second story, Red Seas under Red Skies, branches out into another city-state or two and also some good old-fashioned nautical piracy. The most recent book, The Republic of Thieves, gives some more flashbacks and backgrounds, uncovers some more magical secrets, and focuses a lot on election rigging. (It came out in 2013, so thankfully it avoids feeling too on-the-nose.)
If that looks like an awful lot, well, it is. I understand that books have more room to sprawl than movies usually do, but the multiple parallel and intersecting storylines felt jumbled and often got in the way of any one thing being truly satisfying. At one point, I complained to a friend that it reminded me of The Name of the Wind series, forever starting adventures and then interrupting them halfway through with new ones. (If you enjoyed the Kingkiller books, maybe you will be fine with these, but this is my review and I’m going to complain as I please.) One of my favorite things about heist movies is how the good ones follow a tightly focused formula of mark, plan, setup, something goes wrong, a quick twist to elicit delighted gasps, and then wrapping up with an escape and cocky smirks all around. It is so much fun, and the Gentleman Bastard books run in the exact opposite direction. There are short flashes and areas of fun and excitement, but the frustration at their failure to cohere gets in the way.
The other major disappointment was with the portrayal of women. Admittedly, my expectations were pretty high; my first exposure to the books was seeing a good quote from Lynch smacking down criticism that an older female pirate captain with children and a lot of success on the high seas was “too unrealistic.” And, in all fairness, she ended up being a pretty awesome character. Unfortunately, she ended up a Zoe Washburne in a Whedon-verse of fridging and other methods of sidelining. In addition to being pretty well outnumbered in the cast of characters, an awful lot of the significant female figures end up dead, often in terrible ways. Sure, they get to hang around longer than your average fridgee so you get to know them better and maybe one of the men can develop feelings, but he still gets all the feelings and she gets dead in the end. Well, sometimes he gets feelings and sometimes she doesn’t get another mention after her particular book ends. Sure, a lot of dudes bite the dust too, but the percentages aren’t exactly equal. And then the most enduring female character serves mostly as an object of pining of the protagonist and doesn’t even actually show up for a very long time.
I was so excited for these books, and on paper they looked like the perfect stories to devour and recommend to friends, but in the end, I’m not sure I can do that. There was so much they had going for them, and they do have genuinely thrilling or fun parts, but it never quite gels. Then again, perhaps if you lower your expectations and go in willing to skim a bit here and there, it’ll steal you away for a little anyway.