Let me just repeat something before I start this. The Lies of Locke Lamora is among my favorite books of all time. I think Scott Lynch is an amazing writer. But I also think he can do better. I know he can do better because I’ve seen him do it before.
I’ve finally read Republic of Thieves. I generally disagree with fandoms, but this is one of the few occasions when my impression matches the popular opinion. Namely, that the book starts with the possibility of being the best in the series, but (like most things in life) ends up the worst. Which still isn’t that bad, because the overall quality of Lynch’s writing is so high. The man could write a phone book and I’d read it.
There’s a lot to love here. Locke is fun (except when he shares a scene with Sabetha, but more on that later). Jean is a guy everyone would like for a friend. The late Sanza twins steal every flashback they are in. The book continues from (and resolves) the poison cliffhanger, which is something we’ve all been dying to see. The aforementioned writing quality is through the roof. Lynch has toned down the descriptions prevalent in his older work, and the end result is a much tighter prose. Good stuff.
But it’s not all good. The book strays, which would be fine if what it becomes was as engaging as what it started out as. Namely, we are teased with insight on the workings of the bondsmagi, and then tossed into a long ride with Locke’s love interest. With Sabetha.
I’m not opposed to the element of romance. On its own, it warms the heart. If used in contrast with darkness, it sears the soul like little else does. But in order for someone to enjoy, or even care about a romance, that romance needs to have some kind of positive element. Something good. Warm. This can be a lot of things, but Locke and Sabetha don’t have any of it.
No one would ever want Sabetha. The real Sabetha, not one of her acts and personas. Aside from masochists and those who admire capable women solely for being capable, I cannot imagine anyone voluntarily spending time with her. And she never really warms. up. Even the rare moments of tenderness she gives Locke (and us, by extension) are explicitly self-serving. She does what she does because it feels good. This is fine as a character trait. But in order for us to get invested in the romance, we need something to grasp. A straw, if need be, but the woman the protagonist pursues needs to have some element that would make us, the readers, want him to succeed. Instead, what we get is a petty thing who spends most of her time as a criticism dispenser. And when she isn’t doing that, she is either angry or waiting for a reason to go off.
But what is worst is the stifling effect she has on Locke. In a series focusing on cleverness and wit, she has the power to turn our protagonist into a bumbling idiot. This is one more thing that would be fine on its own. Men become idiots in the presence of women, and women tend to use it. Good. But mix it with someone whose only redeeming trait (at least as far as we get to see) is that she refuses to inflict physical harm on Locke and Jean, and what you get is a character whose effect on this book is entirely negative.
Yet Locke doesn’t stop pursuing her, which creates huge dissonance between the protagonist and the reader. The greater the dissonance, the greater the damage to the reading experience. Which brings me to the way in which Locke’s obsession was explained. Yes, the bondsmagi-reveal thing.
I’m sure there are people who liked the reveal. I found it out of place at best, and retroactively damaging to the previous events at worst. When we learn to love a character who had to crawl his way out of the gutter, then are told he was special all along, a part of the reason we liked that character disappears. Locke is still great and fun, but he didn’t need any of this. Perhaps his origin will be put to good use in the future, but for now it just dilutes what he is.
Given how much fury I’ve unleashed here, one might think I hate the Republic of Thieves. I don’t. I’ve had a lot of fun with it, and the character development and world-building it contributed to the series will no doubt serve it well in Thorn of Emberlain. But (ironically similar to Sabetha) this time, I choose to focus on the negatives. They don’t dull my enthusiasm toward the next book, whenever it may come.
Good luck, Mr. Lynch.