Books Reviews: The Lies of Locke Lamora and Paper Mage

Posted by Unrepentant Escapist

June 15, 2010 -- 1:31 a.m.
It's amazing how a little thing like an argument can completely throw off your mojo for an entire day. It destroys time you don't have, and leaves you frustrated because there's no way to resolve a conflict. Most of the time, you have to forgive, forget and move on, even though you crave the satisfaction of the other person admitting that you're right.

But enough of that. Anyway, here's the promised book reviews:

The Lies of Locke Lamora, by Scott Lynch

For writers, there are two types of books in the world--The books that make you think, "I wish I had had that idea because I could have done it so much better." And the books that make you think, "I'm so glad I didn't write that book, because otherwise I couldn't have gone along for the ride."

The Lies of Locke Lamora is definitely the latter. But what else would you expect from a Campbell award winner that the master George R.R. Martin himself graces with a blurb? (Speaking of which, a Game of Thrones preview is up on HBOs web site. If you're a fan, go check it out.)

Locke Lamora is a thief who steals too much. In a city of glass and canals, where gladiators battle sharks and thieves are ruled by hidden gods, Lamora is a conman who plays both sides against the middle. He's ostentatiously working for a man who is the fantasy version of the Godfather, yet at the same time he's stealing from the upper class nobles that the Godfather has declared off-limits. He's kind of a Robin Hood...except that he keeps the money.

Lamora is on track for pulling off his largest heist ever, until a mage in the service of a mysterious vigilante decides to blackmail Lamora into helping his revenge scheme against the Godfather figure and the nobles both.

Who doesn't love the fictional antics of a conman? This was a guilty pleasure for me. Yes, I got my credit card number stolen once and it sure as hell wasn't funny then, but that doesn't stop me from loving Lamora as he goes on his merry, rampaging way. It's always easier to sell me on righteous thieves than righteous assassins, even though the assassin character was very popular in fantasy for awhile. It's one thing to rob rich people of their money, it's quite another to kill them, and I thought that of lot of assasin books, much like the "pimp" phenemonon that inexplicably gripped pop culture, glorified a lifestyle that, in actual reality, was very sordid and exploitative. However, because I enjoyed Lies so much, and he only ruins people instead of murdering them, I guess I have to set my principles aside. It helps that the class conflict in the book is so demarked. It's also amusing that, though Locke Lamora steals, he doesn't really know what to do with the money afterward.

This book crackles with tension and suspense. Granted, not every twist and turn was unpredictable, but it's rare for a book to startle me so frequently and to such good effect. Lynch has mastered "the surprising-yet-inevitable" art of the twist. I found my jaw dropping in the middle of the novel, and I was cursing by the time I had to set it down and go to bed.

Like the Da Vinci Code, most chapters ended with a hook to drag the reader forward. Except in this book, for me, they always succeeded. What made this feat even more impressive is that the book utilizes an unusual structure, spacing chapters about Lamora and the other character's pasts in between chapters that propelled the main narrative forward. In other words, Scott Lynch could keep me wanting more even when I knew that the stakes were low--no character deaths, just a lot of info-dumping. Yet I loved every page.

Besides being a master of colorful characterization, Lynch also has a deft hand with description. Few of the details of his world struck me as stock fantasy set dressing leftover from the LOTR movies.

Lamora is also notable for not having much of a romantic subplot. This is strictly a buddy comedy. Well, in some parts, a buddy tragedy. There is a love plot in the sequel--a book which might even be superior to the first--but (SPOILER ALERT...Scroll over the text to see it) it's pretty obvious from the beginning that's it's going to be a case of women in refrigerator syndrome--a term propagated by comic book readers and applied to the love interests of superheroes who are fated to die for the sake of the plot.

Be warned, for those of you who aren't a fan of adult language, Lamora has it's fair share of it. It's not meant as a book for children. Also be warned that the second book ends on a cliff-hanger, and Lynch's blog suggests he's been having problems that may delay the third book for some time.

But if Hunger Games was the best book I read last year, I suspect The Lies of Locke Lamora will be my favorite of 2010. I read it back in February and haven't found another book that even comes close to toppling it. Lamora was fresh and exciting in a genre that so often embraces clones. I can't wait to read the sequel, and depending on how the rest of the series goes, "the Gentlemen Bastards Sequence" might even be up there with the works of George R.R. Martin and Robert Jordan.


Paper Mage, by Leah Cutter

I don't know if there's ever going to be another book where the magic system is centered entirely around origami.

Xiao Zen is a female paper mage struggling in a fantasy world reminiscent of Imperial China. She folds paper creatures to bring them to life. Her family is disgusted by her profession because they believe it will harm Zen's chances of marriage, but her manipulative aunt sees it as a way to guarentee herself immortality. Zen herself isn't sure what she wants and struggles throughout the book to come to terms with her talent, her feminity, and her duties to her family.

I'm putting this book next to the Lies of Locke Lamora because they both use a similar narrative system--one chapter on background, one chapter on the present, alternating throughout the book. While structurally similar, the purposes are quite different. Lamora, though populated with a large number of memorable characters, is a plot-driven book, and even the background pages give you a dallop of mystery. Paper Mage, on the other hand, is a character driven book, where the suspense comes more from the character's decisions than from anything about the plot. Because I'm not as much a fan of character-driven fiction as I am of plot-driven fiction, this didn't necessarily always work for me as well as Lynch's book did. For example, Xiao defeats the big bad evil warlord in the middle of her book, not the end, which honestly left me scratching my head a little.

Cutter is excellent at capturing a culture not her own. I'm not used to being in character's heads who are so alien from me. I think a lot of fantasy readers are so used to female characters who embrace the modern tennants of feminism, so it's surprising when we see a woman so firmly torn between career and family. And one who often believes that she is made less by the soft squishiness between her legs. Her attitude frustrated me to death sometimes, but also helped me see into a world that is admittedly very far from my own.

The setting itself is interesting. I loved the tidbits like part-rat/part-dragon monster, and how Zen has to find creative ways to defeat things with paper.

Paper Mage is an impressive study in characterization and cultural exploration. Writers can learn a lot about using foreign cultures and different ideas in this book. But if you're expecting a lot of suspense, swordfights and flashy fireballs, this is definitely not a book for you.


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