Have you ever noticed how so many people, especially those who pride themselves on being paragons of moral rectitude, are willing to give a pass to lying? No one's morality becomes as "relative" as when their deceptions find their way under the microscope of others' scrutiny. And when lies are backed up by entrenched and powerful ideologies, like politics or religion, then it all becomes even easier. In those cases, hypocrisy rules the day and lies simply become truths. Until the day, as Douglas Adams pointed out, black becomes white and you get killed at the next zebra crossing.
Locke Lamora doesn't have this problem. Oh, he's a world class liar, all right. But he's no hypocrite. If there's one thing he's scrupulously honest about, it's his lying. Locke is a thief, and while that may be a crime, it's also a vocation. Meticulous, even artful lying is merely a necessary skill set in Locke's profession. Amid the bustling streets and putrid, roiling canals of the coastal city of Camorr, Locke has trained for his career from childhood, an education as intensive, if not as respectable, as that of any university. He has absorbed myriad cultures, their customs, accents and religions. As a boy he is sent to a rural community to work on a farm for a season, so that he can learn how to pass himself off as a native of that community to a mark should the occasion ever arise. He becomes no mere grifter, but a consummate actor. He aims to steal only from the most rarified heights of the aristocracy. He is the very best at what he does. The thing about being the best at what you do is that it only lasts until someone better comes along.
What an extravagant and irresistibly fattening twelve-course banquet this book is. Everything comes together in a way every novel should, yet so few do. The Lies of Locke Lamora is, by turns, hilarious, profane, suspenseful, ironic, heart-wrenching, terrifying, violent, tender, action-packed, contemplative, beautiful and tragic. It's a Dickensian epic fantasy whose battlefields are all of the human heart. Lies heralds the arrival of a master trickster of the written word. That it is Scott Lynch's debut is either a miracle or a galactic injustice. How can he ever top this, especially as the series it launches is slated to run seven volumes? Whether he does or not, well, we'll always have Camorr. Locke, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
Locke Lamora leads the Gentleman Bastards, a gang small enough to serve as a family for its orphaned members. They were raised by Chains, a con man passing himself off as a priest, who had a little agenda of his own. Camorr's underworld is regulated by an unspoken agreement called the Secret Peace, between Capa Barsavi, the kingpin to whom all Camorr's gangs pay tribute, and the city's Duke. I won't tell you exactly what this entails, except to say that it's Chains' goal that Locke as his fellow orphan thieves learn to undermine it as much as possible.
As an adult, Locke is so successful at leading the Gentleman Bastards that they literally have more money than they can do anything with. Indeed, to spend any of it — let alone do the Robin Hood thing of redistributing it among the poor — would draw unwelcome attention, and so it sits in a vault. This would seem to defeat the purpose of thieving, except that Locke isn't especially materialistic. To him, his profession isn't about the acquisition of wealth, but the exhilarating challenge of finding new and innovative ways to liberate wealth from its highborn owners. Locke's cons are all about perfecting his craft. As we meet Locke and the Bastards — chief among them his loyal man Friday Jean Tannen — they have just launched a complex grift designed to deplete the net worth of a young don and his wife, the machinations of which you will simply have to read to appreciate. Locke is brazen almost to the point of recklessness. Frankly, he's got balls like boulders. After securing the don's trust under one disguise, Locke actually returns in the guise of the city watch and quite openly tells the don he is being scammed — a bravura stunt that only serves to guarantee the don's continued willingness to hand over huge bank drafts.
Locke is on good terms with Capa Barsavi, mainly because he knows that his most elaborate cons (like the present one) fly completely outside the Capa's radar. But out of nowhere comes a game-changer. A mysterious assassin known only as the Grey King is picking off the Capa's men. What this individual wants, and what he is willing to do to get it, will raise the stakes higher than Locke has ever had them raised before. The experience will test his abilities and his personal convictions, and leave him forever changed.
Lynch's command of his story's narrative architecture is what carries it over any number of easy traps the plot could have fallen into. In early chapters, we observe, in flashback, Locke and Jean's childhood training, intercut with the Bastards' grifting teamwork. This leads to scenes that kick your chuckling reflexes into overdrive. A rich sense of humor endears us to these characters, so that by the time the tone of the story begins slowly to change, our investment is complete. Locke's family (and here I may mention the intriguing detail that there is one among the Gentleman Bastards who is discussed but never seen) becomes our family. When circumstances begin to go from good to bad to worse to "oh shit!", there's nothing to do but see it through. Lynch can have you doubled over in mirth in one scene, and in another, leave you reeling from the sudden awareness that he's a faithful student of the GRRM maxim "Anyone Can Die!"
On a more intimate level, Lynch is also remarkably deft at giving a scene a dramatic flair. Consider the chapter in which Locke, in disguise as the heir to a foreign family of vintners, wins over the confidence of the young don and brings the man on board the scam that will rob him of tens of thousands of crowns. The scene unfolds at a public festival, where the crowd is being regaled by a bloodsport featuring women warriors battling a ferocious and alarmingly intelligent species of shark. At the moment Locke and the don clasp hands in agreement, the shark gets the better of his challenger, and as the waters churn red, the doña comments disappointedly on the foolishness of falling for such an easy trick. In Locke's easy-to-visualize smile, we see not only the doña's irony, but the smugness and overconfidence for which he will soon pay dearly.