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!