Monday, 12 February 2007

The Lies of Locke Lamora

Lord knows it's not a promising title, but it's the first book I've read in a while which made me feel like saying something about it in semi-public.

I have a problem with fantasy writing. With a few exceptions, it leaves me cold. Generally, it all seems to me to be variations on a single gag; draw a world which will fit conveniently into a two page map, and then drag your characters through it from one end to the other so that you can show it all off along the way. Always the man of destiny shows up with no clue, so that everything has to be explained to him, and no friends or allies, so that all the other characters can explain themselves to him, and above all, at the wrong end of the planet, so that he has to trudge through many adventures to get to the climax three books later and do the needful.

I blame Tolkien, or rather I blame the people who read Tolkien and like it so much that they want to do it all over again themselves, But just once it would be nice to read a fantasy novel where the man of destiny is already in charge, and right on the spot, on familiar ground and ready to do something immediately.

The Lies of Locke Lamora is not that novel. But it's good enough that it doesn't need to be.

Locke Lamora is a crook. So is practically everyone else in the book. He earns his dishonest livelihood in a city which resembles a Venice gone bonkers, and he is completely in control of his affairs and smarter than most of the people around him. The action does not really leave the city, and no-one goes to some place where things are unfamilar and where the quaint natives will have to explain what's going on. In other words, in terms of structure and logistics, this book couldn't possibly be more unlike the usual let's all go on a quest hernia inducing seven hundred page monster. For that alone, even if it was dreadful, it would deserve some kind of applause.

However, it's also quite well written. I'm not claiming that it's Dostoevsky (I'm not even claiming that I've read Dostoevsky), but the characters are sketched in at least as well as they would have been in a good detective story and the dialogue reads well - it's more clever than the way people talk, but not unbearably so. And the city is well imagined; nothing's too far over the top, there's never a moment when you find yourself thinking "But hang on, how would that really work out in practice?" and it's laid out for you cleverly - there are little flashbacks to give you back story on the main characters, and the explanations of the various parts of the city are handled straightforwardly by the narrator as he sketches in the mise en scene, rather than hammered down your neck for you by the characters explaining things to you. It's a sly narratorial voice, a simple idea which I wish more people would experiment with. After all, a book is a story, and it must have a teller. When there's a ton of background - and in an invented world there always will be - sometimes it's best, let alone easiest, to let the author's voice come to the fore and deal with things rather than cook up situations which will allow exposition to do the same job in three times the space.

But this is by the by. The important thing is that Locke Lamora works very well as a book. You care what happens, the characters are real enough for the job, and the author is neither too sentimental to shy away from moments of real unpleasantness nor so sadistic as to revel in him. He is telling a story of rough tough people doing rough tough things. People get hurt - often people get hurt who the usual laws of narrative would protect. There are a number of moments when you go hang on, that character's been built up way too much for that to happen to him out of the blue. But so it goes, and when the remaining cast respond their cruelty makes perfect sense without being any more comfortable to watch.

It's the first of a "sequence", which suggests an author with things on his mind but perhaps not a clear idea of what comes next. I'm looking forward to seeing what happens.

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