Republic of Thieves by Scott Lynch
Republic of Thieves is the third in the Gentleman Bastards Sequence by Scott Lynch. Following on from the gloriously-titled The Lies of Locke Lamora and Red Skies Over Red Seas, the series follows Locke Lamora and his colleague Jean Tannen, the last remaining members of the eponymous Gentleman Bastards, a collective of thieves specialising in deception and the long con.
Without spoiling it, Red Skies Over Red Seas put Locke and Jean through the ringer, and left Locke consigned to a seemingly inescapable fate. The early pages of Republic of Thieves focus upon Jean’s efforts to save Locke from his fate, a task at which he succeeds, but only due to the intervention of a Bondsmage of Karthain.
The Bondsmagi have been established as extremely powerful antagonists in the series to, by virtue of their being very expensive mercenaries for hire, the Bastards not having the sort of coin that would allow the hiring of one, and the Bastards making a habit of making the folks they are conning want to hire expensive mercenaries. Oh, and also the Bondsmagi are wizards. Powerful wizards, who veer towards godlike if they happen to know your name. Unfortunately for Jean, Jean Tannen is his real name; fortunately for Locke, Locke Lamora is a pseudonym (he’s unaware of his real name. I’m not sure if that’s fortunate. It sounds sort of cruel).
Anyway, in short order Locke’s fate is semi-secure, on the condition that he and Jean do what the Bondsmage wants: rig the election in Karthain, home of the Bondsmagi. Apparently election-rigging is a regular hobby in Karthain, with the only rule being that Bondsmagi can’t do it directly, but must employ outsiders to work on their behalf. Hence: Bastards.
That’s an interesting enough setup before you factor in that the other faction of Bondsmagi against whom Locke and Jean will be rigging the election have hired the sole surviving former Bastard (and Locke’s former lover, who he is still very much in love with), Sabetha.
In addition to the main plot, there are a series of flashbacks to the early days of the Gentleman Bastards which tells the story of how Locke and Sabetha fell in love (in Locke’s case, instantly; in Sabetha’s, with great reluctance) during a production of the classic play Republic of Thieves.
Both plots are interesting enough, but overall Republic of Thieves is a step back from the high standard established in Lies and Red Seas. The plot suffers a little from a pervading sense of inevitability: in the flashbacks you know that everything is going to be ok for the young Bastards, and that Locke and Sabetha will get together; in the present there’s a sense that Locke and Jean will triumph after early adversity, and that Locke and Sabetha will reunite. There are some fairly significant twists towards the end which leave some fundamental issues still shrouded in mystery even after the book is finished, so maybe the plot isn’t entirely predictable, but for about 80-90% of the book it feels like it is.
I also wasn’t a massive fan of how much of a back seat Jean took in comparison to the previous book. Lies was certainly Locke’s show, but Red Skies was more a co-lead affair. Thieves is definitely Locke’s show, with Jean back into a supporting role.
The main issue with Republic of Thieves though is that it just lacks peril. The previous books have done a masterful job of escalating the plot in such a way that it seemed they are fucked early on, then they steadily spend the rest of the book raising the stakes until it becomes clear they are absolutely and entirely fucked. Whereas in Thieves, they start off entirely fucked, sort that out, and then just have a bit of lark rigging an election. The Bondsmagi make it perfectly clear that as long as they make an effort to win the election, they’ll a) not get hurt and b) get paid. In the past, b) has been a long shot, and a) has been a near-certainty. It just never feels like much of consequence will happen to them.
The epilogue suggests the potential for a return to form in the “being fucked” department in future books, but the lack of life-or-death consequences throughout Republic of Thieves meant that it never felt that there was much tension, and that meant no satisfaction in seeing Locke and Jean yet again lie, cheat and steal their way from certain death.
I also didn’t really like how the one major reveal of information within the plot was handled. There was a rather (initially) shocking reveal of Locke’s true identity. For a start, Locke just gets told this, mainly to fuck with him and put him off his game. But the real issue is that fairly soon after there’s some significant doubt cast over whether the information is actually true. Which feels a bit cheap. I’ve always felt that if you’re going to solve a mystery, it needs to be revealed straight up, not revealed and then with doubt added by saying “Or is it?”
I’ve probably given this book more criticism than many others that I’ve enjoyed far less. That’s probably due to my level of expectations going into Republic of Thieves. Lies and Red Skies were both absolutely enthralling experiences, with great plots and great characters, but Republic of Thieves was a step back. It’s still a good fun book, certainly, but it just wasn’t as good as I was expecting it to be. Still, I’ll be eagerly awaiting the next instalment, hoping my expectations can be met.
Why you should read it: because if you’ve read Lies and Skies you’ll want to read more about the hijinks of Locke and Jean.
Why you shouldn’t read it: because it isn’t as good as the previous two instalments in the series.
Next up: The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton