A good fantasy yarn is difficult to come by. I find that few authors have the chops to immerse me in such a work, but Scott Lynch is apparently one of them. That The Lies of Locke Lamora is his first novel is surprising, it has a polish and sophistication which put many more experienced authors to shame.
The trait I find recurrent (and perhaps most important) in quality fantasy is world building. Some schools of thought shun this in favor of pure character development, but the very best fantasy evokes a rich sense of place. You'll find this in George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire series, or China Mieville's 'New Crobuzon' novels. Even Tolkien was excellent at re-packaging old Europe into a finely tuned fiction, and Lynch is no exception. The novel is set in the city-state of Camorr, a retread of early Venice, divided by waterways into a great many districts against the backdrop of the enigmatic Elderglass towers, left behind by an ancient race. Camorr is given much attention in the novel, and we learn about its various districts through the exploits of the primary characters, a troupe of thieves and confidence men known as the Gentleman Bastards.
The story centers on the garrista (street boss) of the Gentleman Bastards, who operates by the name Locke Lamora (named for the Final Fantasy VI character, according to Lynch). Numerous chapters detail the boy's origin and the events leading to his current situation, though Lynch has wisely left a few holes where further stories might be set. While 'flashback' or out of sequence chapters can occasionally annoy or distract, these are paced perfectly throughout the current events of the book. Lamora and his gang are thrust into a deadly tale of revenge between the current criminal overlord Capa Barsavi and a mystery assassin known as the Gray King. In addition to some entertaining stories of Lamora's various schemes, this is a tale of murder and betrayal. Without spoiling much, I will tell you here that the plot is for the most part reasonable and satisfying. There may be a bit of Hollywood in the various close escapes of the main characters, but not as tactlessly plotted as you would find many inferior fantasy works.
Locke isn't a disagreeable character, but he does feel outclassed by much of the supporting cast. In particular, I enjoyed the boastful 'Eyeless Priest', the scornful sorcerer known as 'The Falconer', and Don Salvara's henchman Conté. All colorful folks that one might populate his or her D&D campaigns with. Lynch has admitted he's an avid gamer, a fact which is apparent through this richness of setting. The most IMPORTANT character, however, is the city of Camorr. Beautifully realized, from the Italian-derived language to its geographical layout. The wonder of its noble-inhabited Elderglass spires to the seedy underbelly of its criminal underground, where traitors are fed to various sea creatures. Not only is the city fleshed out well, but plenty of hints are dropped towards the world at large. Karthain. Tel Varrar. This is a world we want to explore. A world we WILL explore (Lynch has already published the 2nd novel, Red Seas Under Red Skies, and promises 5 more in this saga...with the possibility of a second 7-book series ... no shortage of ambition.)
The action is taut and sufficiently brutal. The prose is well developed if not too lyrical. The cussing and street talk of the characters highlights the immediacy of their situation, the thread of fate they all hang from. There are a few surprises and hints at ominous future rivalries with a rather deadly caste of villains. This is relatively low-fantasy, comparable to Martin's saga. Sorcery and alchemy exist but they are performed by few, and in many cases for cosmetics, herbs and lighting fixtures. I have few gripes at all. I'm not a huge fan of the central character, I feel he's one of those hero types who gets beaten on endlessly but always manages to turn the fight around. The end of the novel isn't quite the best it could have been, feeling mildly rushed, especially after such a labour of love in building up this setting.
It's pretty much a given that readers of urban centric fantasies like Perdido Street Station or the surreal City of Saints & Madmen will enjoy this, but it might also be fun for historical or crime fiction addicts. I am eager to get started on the second novel, and this is the type of fantasy world I'd like to explore further. Lynch is a young talent. I admit a little envy here, but the good kind.
Verdict: Epic Win [9/10] (I can choke all day if I have to.)