The Importance of Being a Bastard

Not for the first time, I asked myself last night: “Maybe it’s me?”

I’ve been juggling anywhere from three to four new books by new fantasy authors for a few days now.  Each and every one of them is a lovely story written by a very talented author with a lot of compelling things about them and I can certainly recognize that.  I’d have no problem rattling off a list of what makes these guys very desirable to someone who would be interested in their particular piece of work.

Each of them has a firm plot.  Each of them has a strong lead character.  Each of them has a solid conflict.  Each of them has a fairly unique setting.

So, not for the first time, I asked myself why I wasn’t particularly gripped by any of them.

There are gruff bastards aplenty.  There’s action.  There’s bloodshed.  There’s research.  There’s unique settings and cultures and worldbuilding.  These tend to be signposts that most fantasy readers eagerly follow.  And clearly, these books have a lot of appeal and I’m sure, as days go on, we’re going to see a lot of talk about these various authors and I’ll see a lot of reasons as to why they’ve gripped other people.

So, again, I wonder if it’s me that has the problem.

It could easily be that I’ve seen too much.  An author reads a book for different reasons than your average reader.  We enjoy the story, but we also see the technique, the tricks, the voice.  It’s as much a craft study as it is a romp.  To that end, I think an author values a romp, a moment where he totally forgets he’s looking at craft, even more than your average reader.

And that’s when it hit me.

I can only barely remember the last time I read a fantasy book and felt that the author was having fun with what he was doing.

A friend of mine suggested that a good description for my work was “half-literary savant, half-mega-nerd who can’t see the line between his enjoyment and the audience’s.”  I’m fairly certain he intended the latter half of that statement as a criticism, but for the life of me I can’t understand why anyone would take it as such.

A book, at its best, is not unlike a contagious disease.  It is something that positively explodes and infects you, drawing itself into you as much as you draw yourself into it.  Telling a story is an exercise in sharing joy, in making your enjoyment and the audience’s enjoyment synonymous, and my favorite stories are the ones that don’t hesitate to let me know how much they love what they’re writing.

And I think love is something that’s missing a lot from fantasy literature these days.  We, more than most genres, are obsessed with tradition and influence.  When we review a book we like, we’re as likely to credit the books that came before it as we are the book itself.  When we review a book we don’t like, we usually express disappointment that it’s not a book by someone we did like (in many instances, the fact that it’s not by that person is considered valid criticism in and of itself, which seems silly).  And when someone comes out and defies the genre by subverting it, we tend to cheapen the effort by linking its success to the authors that it’s trying to move away from.

And this, I think, has affected our writing.  Publishing, certainly, has something to do with it: publishers are there to make money and it’s easier to convince them to take a chance on something that’s been done already.  But even more than that, we’re kind of regurgitating the same story.  The names change, we sometimes move from swords to flintlocks, but we’ve got the same bastard protagonists, the same lengthy cultures, the same commentary on the same stuff.

Not that this is a bad thing.  Clearly, it works.

But not for me.  Not entirely, anyway.

So I asked myself, not for the first time, when the last time I was really enjoying a book in that contagious way.

And that’s when I noticed that Fantasy Faction was doing a re-read of Scott Lynch’s The Lies of Locke Lamora.

I don’t think I’ve ever made any compunctions about the fact that Lies is my favorite fantasy book of all time and that Scott is my favorite fantasy author (seriously, when he gave me a blurb for The Skybound Sea, I went into conniptions for a week.  They had to pull my tongue with pliers).  But I’m not sure if I’ve ever told anyone exactly why he’s so special.

I mean, the obvious answer to that is to go read it yourself and see exactly what I’ve seen, but for those who are leery…

Lies of Locke Lamora follows the exploits of The Gentleman Bastards, a small band of thieves in the canal city of Camorr, through the past and present.  Equal parts memoir and heist movie, Lies is the story of the titular Locke Lamora, incompetent with a sword, utterly incapable of doing anything without his best friend Jean, and gifted with a singular talent for lying, which he does especially well.

I could go into the worldbuilding here, about how the city of Camorr is a living, breathing thing easily the equal of any sprawling map.  I could go into the character development, how the characters are actually self-actualized and have their own motives and goals that–gasp!–do not always require them to be the remorseless, heartless bastards that are so chic right now.  I could go into the prose, how it’s equal parts lyrical poetry and equal parts bawdy tavern song.

But these aren’t what make Scott such an amazing author.  And this isn’t what makes Lies such a special book.

And the only way for you to find out is to read it, because that’s the only way to realize just how much Scott loves his characters, loves his world, loves his book.  It’s the only way to see what kind of fun he’s having when he’s writing it.  It’s the only way to see how he jokes and jests through comedic scenes and then turns deadly serious in an instant.  It’s the only way to see how he can actually tap into something that’s become something of a dirty word in fantasy: love.

And that love is everywhere in this book.  It’s in the description of the dogleeches in the tunnels, plying their illegal medicine.  It’s in the elaborate weaving of disguises and lies upon lies in an effort for the biggest score of these thieves’ lives.  It’s in the Salt Devil spiders lurking in the sewers and damp places of the city.  It’s in everything two friends will do for each other, in just what it means to be a Gentleman Bastard when the world’s been a bastard to you.  It’s in every single word.

And that is why it’s special.

And that is why I’m not sure I’ll ever read anything like it again.

Because I’m not sure when it stopped being okay to love.  I’m not sure when we grew concerned with what every other genre thought of us and started striving hard to be taken seriously, leaving behind everything we enjoyed about this genre.  And I’m not sure when I’ll see that sort of gushing joy again.

But, in the meantime, there’s always re-reads!

21 Responses to “The Importance of Being a Bastard”

  1. Chelsea

    I’m so glad to hear you talk so highly of Lies. It was an amazing book that took me on a very similar adventure. I’m really curious to see what others thought about the sequels. I ripped through Lies, but I had a hard time getting equally excited by the next novels. I guess the question I’m trying to ask is why do we find so much heart in one novel and with its characters, then become so equally repelled by a sequel? I’m going through a similar moment with the sequel to Patrick Rothfuss’s “The Name of the Wind”. Any insight, friends?

    • sam

      I’m certainly not about to answer for Scott, but I think the second book of a trilogy has the problem of suddenly being aware that people are looking at you. The first book is endless love because it’s all for you, the author; my first, Tome of the Undergates, was such a book. Black Halo, my second, suffered from the idea that people were watching, so I better REALLY step it up here, when what it needed was even more from the first.

      By the third, you usually find your groove. And Scott’s had a long time to work on Republic of Thieves, so I expect huge things.

      • Chelsea

        You’re right! The second book funk is so real. Scott has my loyalty as a reader, so I’m always looking forward to what he has to offer next. And like you said in your post, the re-reads are always there for us!

  2. Landy

    I understand what you’re saying and the last book that I fell in love with and still think about is The Night Circus. It felt infused with wonder and love and took me places that I had never imagined.

  3. Mike Douton (@NewGuyMike)

    Agreed ten thousand times. Lies is as close as you can get to being universally adored in the genre.

    All the love for the book and the passion put into it is why the five year wait for book three doesn’t phase me a bit. If that’s how long it takes to get it right, well then that’s how long it takes. Seriously, I’m planning a day off from work to read this and going to Massachusetts for the book release party because it is that easy to get excited about reading something when you know the author is too.

    Beyond the enjoyment of reading it, that kind of passion is infectious. It makes me want to challenge myself and have fun with my own work.

  4. Redhead

    Everytime I read Red Seas Under Red Skies I like it more. Took me a while to wrap my head around the misdirection behind the plot.

    And Republic? It’s fucking brilliant. thank you NetGalley!

  5. Kathleen

    Another book to put on the pile. Thanks Sam.
    Do you think the pressure to sell well rather than to create is the biggest stumbling block for a writer? Yes, it requires creative thinking to write, but do you think that underlying business end of it is like a subtle poison? Was art ever for arts sake or has it always been about money?

    • sam

      I think the most successful writers are able to let themselves take a little more time to craft and create, yeah, when they’re not concerned with money troubles.

  6. June

    I am very much looking forward to reading this book. I get a lot of recommendations from the authors I follow on Twitter and have had some disappointing reads I couldn’t put a finger on. But when I read what you wrote here it struck a chord. My dad got me hooked on books at a tender age, and I recall fondly discovering Robert E. Howard, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Fritz Lieber, C.L. Moore, Tanith Lee and so many other authors of the swashbuckling fantasy variety. I was beginning to think I had become jaded in my advanced age, but then I read something new and fall into the book like Alice down the rabbit hole and remember again why I love to read. Thanks for reminding me, and giving me a new recommendation to look forward to (once I finish my current read).

  7. Fantasy Fan

    I also read tons of fantasy. Loved “Lies” and am just discovering your work. May I heartily recommend Martha Wells Raksura series starting with Cloud Roads? Another series that I never hear mentioned but is fabulous is Karen Traviss’ W’ess Har series. Also Gail Carriger’s steampunk Parasol Protectorate is a series where the author is obviously having a rip roaring good time. Amont “newbies” Kevin Hearne and James R. Tuck are clearly having a blast and as a reader, so do I.

  8. Fantasy-Faction

    Absolutely wonderful post, Sam.

    ‘I can only barely remember the last time I read a fantasy book and felt that the author was having fun with what he was doing.’

    Nailed it.

  9. Paul (@princejvstin)

    Excellent post, Sam.

    Yep, one definitely gets the impression that the author is having a ton of fun with what he is doing.

    Ironclad proof: With his back bothering him, and a bit grumpy, Scott managed to show his enthusiasm and love of his characters in a reading from Republic of Thieves at Convergence. You could hear it in the words, you could sense it in his delivery.

  10. Anne Lyle

    Have to agree that there’s something elusive about what makes a book really capture your heart. I’ve had it happen with other books, not necessarily as well written as Scott’s but where the ideas and tone just struck a chord. And there have been yet others that I wanted to like but just didn’t click…

    And then there are series that started well and lost momentum, perhaps – as has been said – because the author was now more aware of being under public scrutiny. It’s something I’m very conscious of myself, and I’m taking steps to make my new project as fun to write as possible. Because why would I spend hundreds of hours of my precious spare time on something unless I’m having a blast?

    When it comes to the Gentleman Bastards series, I think I preferred “Red Seas Under Red Skies”, but maybe that’s because “Lies…” was so intense compared to my previous reading, it was a bit of a shock to the system! I’m looking forward to “Republic of Thieves” immensely, though I’ll have to be careful not to drool on the stunning cover 🙂

  11. stina

    I love the Gentleman Bastards. I do. I also love other forms of fiction and some are more of a more serious bent than others. *All* are fun for me. Here’s the deal: variety is good and not everyone agrees on what fun is. It’s best to not have a narrow view when it comes to a genre in general. If everyone wrote exactly the same, the genre would quickly become boring and die out. Each writer is unique. That’s a good thing. Why not try enjoying Scott’s work for the wonderful-ness that it is and not demand that everyone be exactly the same?

    • sam

      The beauty of love is that no two people think it’s exactly the same. I don’t think it’s cheapening one or more books by suggesting that more authors feel comfortable expressing their joy. There’s no way that Scott Lynch’s love is going to be the same as my love, so there’s no way either of our books would read alike.

      I feel the problem of sameness comes when love is taken out of the equation, when we, as authors, start trying to hit all the “right” notes, going down epic fantasy as though it were a checklist. “Gruff bastard protagonist? Check. Setting with transplanted society from our world? Check. Magic system? Check. Okay, let’s sell ourselves a book.”

      And the idea that LIES was not serious is totally unfathomable to me. It was having fun, but some of that fun came in the tragedy it dealt. It resonated even more keenly with me, in fact, owing to the fact that I could actually care about the characters. If someone dies in a grimdark book, it’s more or less predicted. The tragedy is part of the checklist, so you’re not really stunned by it. The goal of expressing love and joy in a book is to get the audience invested so that when tragedy strikes, it actually means something.

      As I said before, this is basically just me talking about what I’d like to see more of. And I’m asking for more individuality in a genre I don’t see as much of anymore.

    • Guin

      Artist loving what they write =/= non-serious book. I just read a biography of a man who is considered one of (if not the) father of modern surgery. Was it a serious book? Yes. Some of the conditions of the time (late 1700s-early 1800s), and some of the things that happened, were horrific — yes, even some of the things this guy did. Was it obvious the author enjoyed talking about the subject and highlighting interesting things about this guy? Oh yes. Books are better for that spark.

      I don’t think Sam’s saying everything should be exactly like this book. I think he’s saying that writers ought to write with their heart invested. Sometimes it’s very obvious when they’re not. One BNA I used to read added a book to a series because “fans demanded it.” Said so right in the intro. The book was AWFUL, because it was obvious the person didn’t want to write the book, and they had no love for it.

  12. stina

    Actually, I see *more* individuality now rather than less, but it’s cool to have different perspectives.

  13. @kkwrites

    If the implication here is that one cannot write a gritty fantasy (now seemingly transcended to the campy title of “grimdark”) with love, I disagree.

    If we’re using “love” as a measurement for the level of genuineness put into a story, it goes without saying that the abstract notion of love is about as subjective as you can get. Sam, you said it above: no two people think it’s exactly the same. Love is a weird thing. You might read something that was written with heavy-lidded, calloused-finger passion, every character a slice of the author’s soul, every word a breath of life. But you might hate it. You might find it contrived and stupid and shallow. That doesn’t mean there was no love there. It was just constructed in a way that perhaps your own sensibilities don’t allow for you to unearth.

    For the record, I loved LIES. It’s a singular achievement of the craft. But I don’t think it’s any more honest or genuine than a work that DOES have a gruff protagonist, a transplanted society, copious bowls of stew for dinner. No matter what a story is populated with, there are holes punched in its surface for the light of the love and honesty of the storyteller to shine through.

  14. Shawn Cook

    I don’t usually read blogs but this was a good one. For me David Gemmell is my Scott Lynch. Every book I read is compared to his and always they fall short in my eyes even if I really like it. But I would say the genre in general has evolved a great deal from hobbits wondering around on a grand adventure. So I get what your saying but don’t completely agree though I’m sure there’s some authors out there that just churned out a book because they had to. Lol but I speak as a reader and wannbe author, maybe if I’m published one day I’ll look at writing with a more critical eye…but I hope not :p

  15. Rambling Through Genre Episode 4 | Rambling Through Genre

    […] Sam Sykes’ blog post referenced in the episode can be found here […]

  16. Adam Matthews

    This was a great article Sam! Excellent post. I will likely read Lies just as soon as I’m finished with my current crop of books… including Black Halo.

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