Locke Lamora was an orphan, native of the Venice-like city of Camorr. After the quarantine of the Black Whisper, which kills everyone over the age of about twelve, the orphans of the Catchfire district were distributed: some sold as slaves, the best of the rest were bought by the Thiefmaker, who lived with his children in tunnels under the graves in Shades Hill. Lamora, quite young at the time, tailed along unnoticed at first. The Thiefmaker taught children how to pick pockets, and how to create diversions to enable the pick pockets. If you came back with stuff, you got food, otherwise you went hungry. Lamora was a thief at heart, and also had a good head for strategy. But he was too young to be aware of the consequences of his actions, and he was too ambitious to limit himself to small thefts, so he ran afoul of the unspoken rules of who you can steal from. The Thiefmaker got permission from the boss of the underworld, Capa Barsavi to kill Lamora, but before he did, he visited Father Chains, who thought the boy might be good material and bought him for a few coppers.
Father Chains was a priest of Perelandro, who in showed his devotion by having his eyes plucked out and his hands and feet chained to the interior of the temple. He implored people to provide for the orphans with his copper kettle. After Lamora performs a “miracle” we discover that Father Chains is not blind, nor is he permanently shackled, nor is even the temple of Perelandro a run-down place: it had an Elderglass cellar, wherein Father Chains taught the few children he bought how to be actors. He taught them to be fluent in several of the nearby languages so they could pose as foreign businessmen. He taught them to cook, to appreciate culture, to do mathematics. In short, he taught them to be high-end criminals. Capa Barsavi had come to power over the fractious gangs by ending the gang warfare and promising that his people would not steal from the nobles. This arrangement meant that the nobles had peace in the city and so they ignored Capa Barsavi. Father Chains taught the boys to be skilled enough to break the rule and steal from the nobility.
After Father Chains’ death, Lamora and his gang were quite successful in stealing from the nobles. Their current heist involved Lamora, as the foreign Lukas Fehrwight being strung up and mugged, along the route the minor noble Don Salvara would take as he made regular Penance-day trip to the temple one of the twelve gods. Fehrwight was clearly a foreigner new to the town, wearing nice clothes that were entirely too hot for the weather, and Don Salvara and his bodyguard Conté “rescued” Fehrwight. The rescue was a lucky break for Don Salvara, as Fehrwight was to do business with a rival of Don Salvara, and Don Salvara was able to talk Fehrwight into doing business with him instead. On Don Salvara’s sumptuous canal-boat they watched the gladiatorial-like games between man/woman and sea creatures while they talked business.
It transpired that Fehrwight was from Emberlain, and the House of bel Auster which manufactured the peerless Austershalin brandy, which sold for exorbitant prices for even a small bottle. The political situation being what it was, it looked like war was going to overtake the vineyards of bel Auster in a few weeks, so the family was looking to flee Emberlain with as much of their brandy as possible, which they could sell for famine prices, as there would not be any more for many years, since the vineyards would have to be reacquired and the Austershalin alchemical process applied to the soil for years after that. The difficulty was that, on such short notice, they needed help from a third party, who would, of course, be richly compensated with a small share—the only outsider’s share—in the family business. The profits would be immense—the family considered the situation almost a blessing—but it did require the layout of twenty thousand crows for two galleys outfitted with men. Fehrwight clinched the deal by giving the Don a (real) bottle of the extremely rare 502, and shocked him by offering him a taste of last year’s in-process 559—unheard of and impossible, and also totally fake. The did a little negotiation, and the Don was excited to finance the deal.
That night a man from the Duke’s Midnighters entered Don Salvara’s house and surprised him in his room before going to bed. He showed the wallet containing the special gold-and-frosted-glass spider sigil, and informed Don Salvara that Lukas Fehrwight was none other than the Thorn of Camorr, an almost mythical thief who stole only from the nobility. The nobles that were previously robbed, embarrassed and shamed into silence, told no one. The scar-faced Midnighter told the Don to cooperate and give Fehrwight whatever he asked—he would be compensated afterwards—because the Midnighters had finally caught up to the Thorn and could get the evidence they needed if the Don cooperated.
Lamora and Jean, the fighter of the Gentlemen Bastards, as Father Chains had named his small gang, had little difficulty in getting into Don Salvara’s villa, but definitely some problems subduing Conté. And now, by telling the truth through a theatrical lie (the sigil was made a great expense in a distant city), Don Salvara would give them everything they asked. But, after Fehrwight had “spent” 15000 crowns outfitting two galleys and was on the edge of needing a bit more for bribes and necessities, the situation was thrown into disarray by the appearance of the Grey King.
The Grey King had shown up several weeks prior and was making a point of killing Capa Barsavi’s leaders. The Capa was worried, and called Lamora in for a visit. Lamora was one of the Capa’s trusted pezon, because he was not a liar, which the Capa knew because Lamora was verifiably a small-time operator due to the random variation of tribute he brought. Others would bring the identical amount every week, which was obviously fake. The Capa did not know that Lamora randomly selected some trinkets from a bin that they periodically acquired, and would sell them at a pawn shop to generate the random funds to pay the Capa. The Capa did know that his daughter and Lamora were close (Lamora had sworn fealty to her as well as the Capa when Father Chains brought him to the Capa, as she had demanded it, being the same young age as Lamora and quite precocious), and gave Lamora permission to marry her. Lamora was only interested in a girl who had been missing from the Gentlemen Bastards for many years, and neither was she interested, but one could not refuse the Capa. The Grey King had killed one of his sons, and the Capa was afraid for his daughter.
The Grey King caught up to Lamora shortly afterwards, and Lamora discovered that the Grey King had hired a bondsmage. The bondsmagi had forced all wizards to join them or be killed, so they had a monopoly on magic, and they charged monopoly rents for their service. Hiring a bondsmage for a month required an insane amount of money. But the bondsmage definitely lived up to the reputation of fearsome magic, and so Lamora had no choice but to promise to meet the Capa dressed as the Grey King the next week for a discussion.
About this time the Doña Sofia Salvara confided one of her high nobility friends, an elderly lady the Doña Vorchena, that she and her husband were being robbed by the Thorn of Camorr, and asked if the Midnighters were involved. While denying that she had any involvement, she did allow that she could spread some gossip to well-chosen people and inquire. The Duke would be having his annual party at the magnificent six hundred foot Elderglass tower he lived in; why not say they needed time to get the money and invite Fehrwight to the party? She could arrange for Midnighters to greet him, to serve him drinks, to attend his every move. Then, Doña Vorchenza wrote a message, and sealed it with the secret blue seal of the Spider, the chief of the Midnighters. (Everyone thought the Spider was a man, which proved ever-so useful.)
The Capa told Lamora to join his entourage for their meeting with the Grey King. The Grey King (via the bondsmage) had eliminated the problem of marrying the Capa’s daughter by killing her, but Lamora had to buy some black market alchemy to make himself wretching-sick to get out of his service and to make an appearance as the Grey King. He was protected by the bondsmage’s spells, and sure enough, nothing the Capa’s large and confident entourage fired at him hit him, but something was not right. It transpired that bondsmage’s spells are very specific, and one of the Capa’s men had been informed by a drunk associate of the Grey King—just by lucky chance—that he know what things were not protected by the spells, namely normal clubbing, which the Capa’s men gleefully proceeded to do. After they finished, they threw Lamora the Grey King down the waterfall that led to the ocean. Jean was there waiting, and noticed the normally skittish (but heavily armored) spiders actively attacking him about when Lamora came down the water. Jean was able to dispose of the spiders, and the two went back to celebration that Capa Barsavi was throwing on his barge. They were in time to see the Capa eaten by an unusually high jumping shark (that bondsmage had a way with animals), his sons killed by his own gladiators, who turned out to be sisters of the Grey King, all of whom had been biding their time for years against Barsavi. The Grey King appeared, announcing himself as Capa Raza and requiring fealty from all of Barsavis’ men. Those failing to do so in three days would be killed.
Lamora and Jean returned to the temple of Perelandro via the secret back entrance. They found the cellar ransacked: the years of disguises destroyed, the 40000 crowns they had accumulated gone, their three fellow Gentlemen Bastards dead, and an assassin in the kitchen along with a glove with Jean’s name written on it—courtesy of the bondsmage—which physically disabled him. Lamora managed to defeat the assassin, and freed Jean by destroying the glove. The cellar destroyed, they had nothing left, so they set the whole thing on fire and left for the section of the city that was so poor that no one went there, which is where Lamora collapsed from exhaustion and was out for several days.
When he came to, Jean had found a doctor who had reasons to hate the Grey King. Lamora took what little money they had to parlay it into a rich suit of clothes for Fehrwight to wear to his meeting with Don Salvara. He went to the Merragio’s Countinghouse and after failing twice to convince associates to let him rent their clothes (the Merragio had trained his staff against scams), he finally got a guard to agree to it. Then, dressed as a guard, Lamora went to the Merragio himself, informed him that there was a plot against his life which the guard was a part of and he needed to give Lamora his clothes or he risked being shot on sight. The Merragio was ultimately convinced, put the guard in confinement, swapped clothes. Lamora let the guard escape before he left to see Don Salvara. And so, Fehrwight had finally aceeded to climate of Camorra and bought more suitable attire than his hot wool Emberlain outfit, which earned him a compliment from Don Salvara.
Lamora was shown around the top of the Duke’s Elderglass tower, which was a magnificent spectacle. Then Doña Sofia suggested they visit her elderly and eccentric friend Doña Vorchenza, who was knitted in a side chamber. While waiting for the Doña to come out of her (apparent) senility, he was surprised by a sharp pain in his neck—the Spider had stabbed him with a poisoned knitting needle. She promised to give him the antidote if he cooperated. After a short discussion about why that would not be beneficial for him, he simply punched her in the mouth, knocking her out. He took the antidote, then politely searched her clothing for money (of which he was in short supply). Then, seeing no other way down, he leaped of the side of the tower onto one of the external elevator car, picked the lock, got in, and bribed the guards to say it was a huge bird.
He made his way back to the ruined hovel he, Jean, and the animal doctor who had nursed him back to health after his collapse, had been living in. He was just in time to find the bondsmage taking revenge on Jean. A plague ship had arrived some days prior, and Capa Raza had been generous in providing aid to those in it. Jean, suspicious, went down dressed as a initiate of the goddess of Death. It seemed that the food supplies were quite heavy, and had the unmistakable sound of metal. He investigated too frequently, though, and Capa Raza’s gladiator sisters found him. Father Chains had sent Jean to be trained by his friend from the army days, the martial master that trained the nobility, who lived in the Elderglass tower with the Garden of Roses on top—Elderglass roses which had razor-sharp edges which drank the blood spilled on them, becoming a little redder when they did so. Rumor had it that they could drink a man dry. He taught Jean well, but even so he was hard pressed as one on two. Against the odds he prevailed, killing the two sisters. Capa Raza wanted revenge. Seeing Lamora, the bondsmage initally wrote Jean’s name on a parchment, naming his true name and commanding him to kill Lamora, but then he decided it would be more fun if Lamora killed Jean. The bondsmage made a fatal assumption—he knew that Lamora was not Locke’s real last name, but he assumed that Locke was his first name. It was not, and the spell was not binding, allowing Lamora to wound the bondsmage with a hatchet-ball to the groin. Lamora noticed that the bondsmage’s falcon was also in pain, apparently they shared not only their sight, but their feelings as well. Lamora chopped off the falcon’s head, leaving the bondsmage writhing.
When the bondsmage woke up from his pain, Lamora and Jean cut off his fingers and cauterized them with a dagger heated in the fire. Killing a bondsmage was unwise—a few had been killed in a war that they had been hired to fight against the emperor, and all the bondsmagi came back to the city, burning it and all the remaining inhabitants with magical fire so fierce that nothing remained except ashes and the perfectly preserved throne. Removing a bondsmage’s ability to do magic, though, did not fall in that category. Under threat of losing his tongue, too, the bondsmage finally broke the client agreement and said what he had been hired to do. The Grey King had been a child when Capa Barsavi came to power, and his family was killed as part of preserving the Secret Peace where the Right People would only steal from the non-nobility. He and his twin sisters had been saved, and nursed vengeance against Capa Barsavi and the nobility. So the Grey King had spent twenty years pirating enough money to buy a bondsmage and wreck his revenge. He killed all of Capa Barsavi’s men, and he killed Lamora when he found out that the Gentlemen Bastards had 40000 crowns (enough to pay for another month of bondsmage service). The money was being sent to the plague galleon, which would weigh anchor at twilight, sail past Capa Barsavi’s barge where Capa Raza had taken residence, and Capa Raza would leave town. As for the nobility, he sent the Duke a gift of four lovely glass statues—each full of wraithstone with an alchemical fuse set to go off at twilight. Wraithstone smoke very quickly Gentled an animal or person—they would never do anything on their own initiative again, they would just stand there without a will even to eat.
Lamora was a thief, but he could not let hundreds of people be Gentled, so he went back to the tower, surrendered himself on condition of talking with Doña Vorchenza, who he only just managed to convince to examine the statues. (He pointed out that returning of his own will and surrendering himself was hardly in his own interests.) Sure enough, they were full of wraithstone. Wraithstone is rendered impotent by immersion in water, so they quickly hauled all the statues up to the pond in the garden at the top of the tower and dumped them in. Lamora then negotiated his freedom, arguing that he had performed a service to the Duke, and also informing them that he knew where the money was—underneath the refuse on one of the three refuse barges. He also pleaded with them to sink the plague ship, saying that Capa Raza had animals on the barge, which can carry the plague, which he planned to release into the city if his other plans of vengeance failed. His argument and fear prevailed, and Doña Vorchenza gave the order to sink the barge, which was done by lobbing fire-oil barrels at it with catapaults, and then shooting any survivors (there were none) with arrows as they swam to shore.
Without his getaway ship the Grey King was still there for Lamora to take his revenge on, but Capa Raza was a much better fighter than Lamora. Lamora was only able to kill the Grey King by using the fear of Jean to buy a half second with which to steal his dagger and stab him with it. Shortly afterwards Jean arrived to find Lamora mostly dead. Several days later they sailed out of Camorr. Doña Vorchenza’s men never found any gold on the barges, and when that happened she remembered that Lamora had said the plague ship needed to be sunk for all propriety, and she realized that the money was on the plague galley, in sixty feet of shark-infested waters. When a thief’s actions unintentionally lead to the death of people close to them, the thief gives a Death Offering, which must be money that is stolen and then destroyed. She realized that Lamora had made the money a Death Offering for the Gentlemen Bastards who had died.
The Lies of Locke Lamora is most akin to a crime caper set in a fantasy setting. The first part is quite fun, I always enjoy a sophisticated heist. The arrival of the Grey King throws a serious wrench in the plans, but it just seemed like a textbook “throw stuff at your characters and see how they get out”. The bondsmage is an interesting twist, but they are definitely overpowered. With the power to immobilize people, protect them from weapons, co-live with a bird and watching many inaccessible places, to control people simply by writing their true name on a piece of parchment, and to burn a city completely to ashes, how would this group not rule the world? Who could stop them? The end is a hostage plot (the nobility held hostage), and I just hate hostage plots. It is kind of like a deus ex machina except to force your characters into a box rather than get them out of the box.
Lynch does create a fleshed out world. It has multiple cultures, both geographically and also by status and profession, which we get progressive insights into as the story and backstory unfold. Camorr does not sound like a pleasant place to live. In addition to poverty, regular bouts of plague, endemic bribery, and misrule by the nobility, there is such a high population of thieves I cannot see how the middle class manages to retain any money. It is geographically too square for a natural wetlands formation, and the culture feels like a thieving quest from Dungeons and Dragons rather than a world that would realistically be self-sustaining. While culture is fleshed out, it is rather arbitrary. There is powerful magic, but it never gets used except rarely. There is alchemy, especially biological alchemy, but no technology. There is ancient alien Elderglass, finely manufactured and impervious to anything, while the present world has all the abilities of the medieval age, but with a Renaissance political system and a pagan religion. So the world is fleshed out, but it is a patchwork without any economic or other logic to give a feeling of “of course it must be this way.”
Still, the book is an engaging story, full of twists which, even if they are a little obvious at least have the benefit of “wow, I wasn’t expecting that!” A number of times I laughed out loud at the twists, because they are unexpected, because the controlled situation spirals out of control giving a sense of payback for Lamora’s arrogance in thinking he was smarter than everyone, and because the conflict is so overpowered that I’m curious how he’s going to get the characters out of it. But he does manage to do it gracefully and with strategy and logic.
The structure of the book is interesting. There are frequent short interludes that tell fragments of the story of what Lamora did to earn him a death warrant, how Father Chains raised them, Jean’s experience of training and more. The interludes set up information that makes gives context later on, and somehow they do not distract from the main, present-day story (unlike, say, Neal Stephenson’s interweaving threads that lurch back and forth). There is also a slow, continual revealing of mysteries, some of which you do not initially realized are mysteries. For instance, the reader is introduced to the idea of a Gentled animal, first from references in conversation, then to a description of the result, and then it changes from being a flavor of the world to key to the plot and we see how it is actually accomplished.
The strengths of this book are its pacing, which is very even, and its highly technical plot. It is well-written and engaging, with three-dimensional characters and a rich world. It is also original—this is not your traditional Joseph Campbell hero’s journey fantasy, or coming of age fantasy. It is a crime caper gone wrong, and while Lamora does arguably take the journey, he loses everything and becomes a small hero. If you liked “Ocean’s Eleven” or “The Italian Job” you will probably like this book. And congratulations to Lynch on doing such a good job with his first book.