The Lies of Locke Lamora is a delicious story of revenge set in a fabulously well-constructed world full of corruption. It was entirely too gory and too vulgar for my taste. That, of course, didn’t keep me from dropping everything I was supposed to be doing because I just had to find out what happened.
There were three things that really stood out in this debut novel: the imagination of the author, Scott Lynch, the way exposition was handled throughout the book, and the non-stop tension.
Scott Lynch has a to-die-for imagination. The world he built was dark, seamy and rich in details, but what really caught my attention was its novelty. The story could easily have been wasted in the more traditional generic medieval setting. Instead, it’s set in Camorra, a canal-filled city that is brimming with character. There are terrible, treacherous monsters in the waters, there are thieves who hold court on a permanently anchored ship, there are smug nobility who believe themselves protected by the "Secret Peace" that keeps the thieves from preying on them. Adding another layer of mystery are the Elderglass towers, which are indestructible and were already in place when the current inhabitants found the city. The world of Locke Lamora is a living and breathing place. Lynch also has a flair for violence; his descriptions of torture and fights and murders were brilliant and creative. Also stomach-turning, but I can ignore that to admire the genius.
Exposition was also handled very creatively. The book alternated chapters between earlier incidents in Locke’s life and the main story line. The flashbacks almost always related directly to the chapter of the current events that followed it. In this way, we were able to see the significance of Locke’s best friend’s favorite weapons, the “Wicked Sisters” before we saw him use them, without a lot of straightforward exposition. It took a few chapters to get used to the abrupt switching back and forth, however, and toward the end the exposition chapters were used to explain bits of history about the city and its buildings and politics. At that point, the technique became blatant exposition, and I think it could have been handled better. It wound up reading like a history book or a tour guide. Also, there was some exposition fit into the chapters covering the main story line, and often the story stopped while Lynch explained some custom or feature of the city.
The level of tension that Lynch was able to maintain was impressive. I read this book just after reading an interview from Writer Unboxed with Donald Maas, author of Writing the Breakout Novel and president of the Donald Maas Literary Agency, where he talks briefly about how important it is to maintain tension in your novel. Here’s a short excerpt:
Q: I encourage all writers to get WtBN and read it for themselves, but I’d also like to provide everyone with a taste of what your book offers. What’s your favorite exercise, the one you believe offers the most promise?
DM: The absolutely essential exercise that everyone should do, with every novel, is to toss the manuscript pages in the air and collect them again in random order. (The pages must be randomized or this won’t work.) Next, go through the manuscript page-by-page and on each page find one way to add tension. Now, that sounds easy enough but most people are quickly stymied. That is because they do not truly understand what tension means. In dialogue, it means disagreement. In action, it means not physical business but the inner anxiety of the point-of-view character. In exposition, it means ideas in conflict and emotions at war. Study your favorite novelists. If they make you read every word, even while turning pages rapidly, it is because they are deploying tension in a thousand ways to keep you constantly wondering what’s going to happen. Tension all the time is the secret of best selling fiction, regardless of style, genre or category. If it sells big, it’s got tension on every page.
At first, Lynch’s novel seemed like a textbook example of this point. I was unable to put it down, and I was definitely turning the pages rapidly, but eventually, there was too much tension. I couldn’t keep reading every word- I committed the ultimate crime and skipped ahead. First I flipped to the end, to see who made it out alive. Then I tried to keep reading, but soon found myself skimming the remaining pages. I was about three-quarters through at that point, and I skimmed until I knew the rest of the plot points, and then I was able to go back and enjoy the story.
From Donald Maas’ point of view in the excerpt above, you can’t have too much tension. And yet, I found The Lies of Locke Lamora tense enough to break my strict rule about never skipping ahead. So that leads me to a question (two, actually): can there be too much tension? Or am I just a wimpy reader?
Overall, The Lies of Locke Lamora was a thrilling, fascinating book. I hope to learn from Lynch’s style, and I look forward to seeing how his writing grows throughout the remaining books in the series.