Among the many titles in the fantasy genre, Scott Lynch’s Gentleman Bastards series stands in good company with The Lord of the Rings trilogy and A Song of Ice and Fire in terms of the rich and deeply textured world it presents to the reader in the process of telling its story. It also brings a fresh and unique take on the traditional fantasy tale by focusing on a class of people often relegated to the sidelines of most heroic quests: the roguish thieves who earn their living by robbing from the rich and powerful. The result is a compelling cast of characters and a fascinating protagonist who regularly achieves heroic deeds while remaining a sort of antihero who mostly acts out of self-interest and self-preservation. It is a testament to Lynch’s considerable talents for characterization that Locke Lamora is even more fascinating in this third entry in the series than he was in the preceding two volumes. Even after over a thousand pages, Lynch’s antihero still has many surprises for those well-versed in his misadventures.
Longtime fans of this series will probably notice a slight difference in the pacing of this story as compared to the previous two novels. Whereas the first two books were filled with many stories of sword fights, ship battles and assassinations, in this current story much of the fantasy violence is absent in favor of political machinations and simple subterfuge. This is all well and good, as this serves to place the emphasis on the characters and the introduction of a key figure from Locke’s past who serves as his primary rival and love interest in this tale. Through another series of misadventures, Locke Lamora and Jean Tannen find themselves in the employ of the notorious Bondsmagi. These Bondsmagi are representatives of a political party in their homeland of Karthain, and they contract Locke and Jean’s services to help rig Karthain’s election in their favor by making them a deal they cannot refuse. This unusual set of circumstances is made more extraordinary when they learn that the opposition party has contracted similar services from an old friend and associate, Sabetha, who fans will recognize as an important figure from Locke’s past who has been often referenced but never introduced to the reader. Here the logic of this novel’s pacing makes perfect sense, since the relatively calm movement of the story throughout most of the book provides the perfect backdrop to the romantic tale of Locke and Sabetha. The story takes a great deal of care in introducing the character of Sabetha as well as providing more vivid details about the history between her and Locke and the nature of their relationship. That’s not to say that there aren’t plot twists and dramatic actions aplenty, as there certainly are and they culminate in an electrifying conclusion that both satisfies and leaves the reader in eager anticipation for more.
The story takes place mainly within the context of two different cities: Karthain and Espara. Karthain is set during the present moment after the events of the second novel, an ancient citadel that delivers more mystery and intrigue than even a longtime fan of the series might initially anticipate. Espara serves as the location for flashback chapters, which focus on a newly adolescent group of Gentleman Bastard’s who are tasked with acting in a theatrical troupe after being temporarily evicted by their esteemed patriarch. These chapters are enjoyable in themselves, both for painting the picture of Sabetha and Locke’s first love and for the fun excerpts from the play that they stage, Republic of Thieves, an Elizabethanesque tale of tragic romance between star-crossed lovers. Taken together, these alternating chapters serve as a sort of narrative portmanteau with each perspective reinforcing the central tale of the romance of Sabetha and Locke. The Esparan saga tells of how they fell in love in the first place, and the events in Karthain show how many of those elements still persist many years into the future, for good and ill. The final product is a fascinating adventure that both alters and enhances the reader’s previous understanding of this long and interesting saga.
Readers new to the series should note that each subsequent title relies heavily on the assumption of prior knowledge of and familiarity with the previous novels. This is especially true of the third volume in this series. First time readers will therefore want to read the first two titles, The Lies of Locke Lamora and Red Seas Under Red Skies, before picking up this current tale. Anyone familiar with the story of Locke Lamora will find this an immensely enjoyable and satisfying read.