Retro review: Can’t help falling in love

Review originally published on LiveJournal in July 2007.

I don’t remember which of you brought Locke Lamora to my attention (and it may have been more than one, but , I think this one’s your fault) . It wasn’t like I hadn’t seen it, sitting smug and happy on numerous bookstore tables, usually clamouring to be bought on a 3 for 2 offer. Or maybe I’m making that up, and I just choose to remember resisting it for ages. It’s hard to tell. Perhaps the book simply sat there, unobtrusive, shy, hoping quietly to be taken home. Having met Locke now, I rather doubt it.

Regardless, it finally smuggled its way onto a recent Amazon order and claimed a glittering place on my shelf. And the air of overwhelmed anticipation is my response to finishing it. You see, I happen to know that the sequel is out too… so the only real question is will I resist buying in trade edition?

The best news is that it’s not just The Lies of Locke Lamora that’s burst onto the scene. Apart from the publishing of reliable staples (Katharine Kerr’s latest installment, The Spirit Stone, is deeply satisfying for longterm readers, even if it doesn’t finish the bloody story off; Kushiel’s Justice is a worthy addition to the tales of Terre d’Ange, and Russian gothica Twilight Watch came out last week), there’s also the spectacular Scar Night by Alan Campbell. So, on to the shameless fangirl enthusiasm.

The Lies of Locke Lamora – Scott Lynch

Think Hustle set in a techno-mediaeval (or is that post-apocalyptic?) Venetian underworld and you get a glimpse of the unbridled fun lurking inside this little gem’s silver-blue binding. Locke Lamora leads the city’s only gang of high-class con artists, breaking the local godfather’s Secret Peace on a nightly basis to fleece the untouchable nobility of as many crowns as he can. Thriving on danger, at his best when his plans are in pieces, and absolutely determined to come out top, Locke is a whirlwind protagonist with neither looks nor skillz, who triumphs through mental agility and a bewildering willingness to be beaten to a bloody pulp until back-up arrives.

The plot is intricate, balancing present day difficulties against flashbacks that provide context and colour (the recounting of the Gentleman Bastards first real heist – stealing a dead body for a black apothecary – is absolutely priceless). And the difficulties are extreme: attempting to steal a colossal sum of money, avoiding marriage to the godfather’s daughter, and blackmail by the godfather’s rival. Lynch manages to keep the ever-escalating action just sufficiently in check, and while there’s plenty to secondguess nonetheless succeeds in delivering some sharp surprises.

Dripping in black humour as well as gore, the worst that can be said of this debut novel is that it’s too polished. It’s going to make an excellent piece of cinema, and I’m quite sure someone already has it optioned*. And that’s hardly a bad thing as long as they do a good job.

Scar Night – Alan Campbell (with it’s own website)

By contrast, Scar Night trades in humour for gothic gloom and a dash of angst. Deepgate hangs suspended in chains over the pit into which the fallen god Ulcis gathers his army to re-storm heaven. The dead are cast into the abyss with all honours to swell the ranks – except for the victims of Carnival, an outcast angel surviving on vampirism. Once per month she hunts the streets of the enchained city, and not even the Church’s assassins, the Spine, can stop her. But other bloodless corpses have been showing up in the nets below the city streets, and even the Church has to start asking questions…

The novel goes for a slow-burn, early chapters building the oppressive atmosphere of the city creaking under its own weight (and occasionally toppling into the depths), but Campbell builds a solid foundation and cranks up the tension with a master hand. From the Dumbledore-like geniality of the Presbyter to the insane intensity of Mr Nettle, the cast of characters is diverse and if not always original, still memorable.

There’s possibly less surface polish here than in Locke Lamora, but the standard of writing is equally high, lush prose sucking you in. Added bonus (from my perspective) is the inclusion of strong female leads: Rachael Hael, determined but unproven Spine assassin, and tortured Carnival herself, wracked with guilt yet embracing her appetites.

I do question whether Scar Night provides a launchpad for a full series (which it is intended to). It is an excellent standalone novel, self-contained and satisfying; however the resolution robs any subsequent books of the same setting. Still – Campbell is a man of undeniable talent (what is it with all these Scottish software developers, eh? Is it something in the ethernet up there?) so I’ll certainly hang out to take a look at volume two as it expands its focus to the world outside Deepgate. Besides, he freely admits that part of his set-up was a shameless excuse to blow shit up. I like that in a man.

*I’ve not quite decided whether Locke reminds me more of Jack Sparrow or . I’ve not quite decided how much that choice should worry me, either.