Friday Reads: The Republic of Thieves, by Scott Lynch
The third instalment in the hugely popular Gentleman Bastards series, this novel has been the subject of so much fevered anticipation in the six years since Scott Lynch left us with the cliffhanger of Locke’s fatal poisoning that disappointment seems almost inevitable. Since I didn’t read Red Seas Under Red Skies until earlier this year, my wait was shorter than most; just enough to make me excited for Book 3. So was I disappointed? Yes, maybe a little, but mostly Hell No! I’m not saying The Republic of Thieves is flawless—no book ever is—but I enjoyed it enough to rip through it in a week, despite it being a fairly ponderous tome (almost 600 pages in hardback).
N.B. I’ll try and avoid major spoilers, but a few minor ones are inevitable if I’m going to be able to discuss what I liked and didn’t like.
Even more so than previous volumes, The Republic of Thieves shifts back and forth in time, telling the parallel stories of Locke & Jean’s adventures in Karthain (present) and the Gentlemen Bastards’ theatrical escapades in Espara (about 8-10 years ago?). If you’ve read the description, you’ll know that Locke and Jean get roped into interfering in the election process in Karthain: home of the Bondsmagi and the last city in the world that the Gentlemen Bastards are likely to want to go anywhere near. Thus begins an intriguing new chapter in Locke’s life as he is snatched back from the jaws of death…
As soon becomes clear, The Republic of Thieves is not just another heist caper for Locke and Jean; rather, having kept Sabetha in the shadows for two books, Lynch makes up for it by bringing her to the fore in this one. Which means *gasp* romance!
In the current climate of misogyny in the SFF world, switching your focus from boyish criminal escapades to a love story was always going to be a big gamble, but for me at least, it was one that paid off. I’ve seen reviews dissing the romance, saying that it fell flat and seemed unbelievable, but I didn’t feel that way at all. Sure, Sabetha was somewhat melodramatic, but her anger at Locke is rooted in a subtle understanding by Lynch of male privilege; she’s basically pissed off because runty little Locke waltzed in and took over leadership of the Bastards in her absence, without even realising what he’d done—and she’s furious with herself every time she finds herself succumbing to that same charm. It’s a motivation that I think a lot of female readers will get, and a lot of guys just won’t. Sabetha is intelligent and ambitious, and it irks her to play second fiddle to anyone, even (especially?) the man she loves.
I also really liked the fact that we see a lot more of the Bondsmagi and discover that they aren’t quite the “ultimate evil” that they were painted in the first book. I long ago outgrew the need for black-and-white morality in my fantasy, so it was almost a relief to discover that the Falconer is not a typical bondsmage. That’s not to say that the rest of them are pussycats, but in this book they become more understandable but at the same time more worryingly dangerous; the road to Hell is, after all, paved with good intentions.
As I said above, the book isn’t flawless. The theatrical chapters did feel over-indulgent in places, with page after page of the eponymous play being quoted verbatim for no apparent reason—and I say this as someone who has written an entire trilogy that heavily features both the Elizabethan theatre and the Italian commedia dell’arte! Lynch’s faux-Shakespearean text is certainly accomplished, but I feel that less would perhaps have been more.
My real disappointment, though, was that the election storyline felt like an excuse to have Locke and Sabetha go head-to-head, with the politics itself merely a sideshow. The gorgeous cover art had led me to expect Venetian levels of Machiavellian scheming (to mix my Renaissance metaphors), not a campaign of simple vandalism and bribery. Of course if the politics had been gone into in as much depth as Locke and Sabetha’s personal arc, it would have been an even longer book, but it did feel a little unbalanced to me.
Those small gripes aside, it’s still a good book, standing head and shoulders above most of the competition. The final third is as tense as any of its predecessors, and the epilogue’s twist is deliciously satisfying. (Well, OK, maybe I’m biased, since I’ve been known to perpetrate this kind of thing myself…)
In summary: if you love the Gentleman Bastards, you can’t afford to miss out on this latest volume. Not only does it have some of the funniest lines from the series so far (one of my favourites similes is “as crooked as a snake in a clockwork snake-bending machine”), but it brings a whole new level of epicness to the story, and reveals some secrets from Locke’s past that are going to have a major impact on future stories. I’m just glad there’ll be an interim publication (two prequel novellas in one volume, called The Bastards and the Knives) to keep me going until Book Four, The Thorn of Emberlain. Locke and Jean in the war-torn Kingdom of the Seven Marrows; what could possibly go wrong?