The third installment in Lynch’s popular Gentleman Bastard sequence, and the one that took the longest to write (some good five years). This time Jean and Locke find themselves caught in the crunch of Khartani making. Yes, the famous Khartani mages are back, with vengeance!
The novel starts almost exactly where Red Seas Under Red Skies ended, with Locke slowly dying of poison and Jean slowly dying of guilt. And who their final savior could be, if not a Bondsmage, and not just any Bondsmage, but one of the most powerful, brilliant and ruthless of them, who, accidentally, is also Falconer’s mother?
[Should I have put a spoiler alert? Well, I’m sure I have your attention by now :). And I promise no more spoilers (although this one is revealed very early on, so I don’t count it as a real spoiler).]
Because of course, Patience turns out to be not only savior, but also a client of our thieving duo. She has a nice little job for them, a piece of cake compared to what they’ve already been through – they are commissioned to rig an election at Khartain in favor of the magi-backed contenders. There’s only one tiny problem: the magi playing for the other side have their champion already in Khartain – and that champion is Sabetha.
Well, introducing live, flesh-and-blood Sabetha into the novels was going to be a mightily risky move. She had been so idealized in previous books, turned into some kind of demi-god, having almost unlimited power over Locke’s mind and heart, that coming back into a real world was inevitably going to be a hard, painful comedown. And it is, even though Lynch did what he could to make real Sabetha more than just a nice, strong and intelligent person. She is alive even under all that mass of expectations, and that’s a feat. But, even if we go along with Lynch’s suggestion that Sabetha’s image in previous books was mostly Locke’s wild imagination and overly fond memories, it’s still difficult to reconcile Locke’s earlier puppy adoration and dogged loyalty to her with his sudden mature approach. It just doesn’t stick together.
The novel is different in tone than the previous ones; I wouldn’t say it’s darker, maybe just more… cynical. The effervescent happiness of someone who thinks of the world as his oyster ready to be sucked is gone. Maybe it’s because The Republic of Thieves deals with political themes and views politics as a universally dirty, corrupted inherently amoral activity. But it’s also a well-known fact that Lynch had personal problems at the time, problems he openly talked about, and there’s always the almost inevitable temptation to compare the author’s private life and his writing from the time. In this case it had been enhanced by Lynch himself, who claimed that he had rewritten almost half of the book after he recovered.
The Republic of Thieves is actually two novels in one, interspersed and intermingled with each other. I enjoyed that mix, it gave a lot of insight into how the Gentlemen Bastards were shaped and how they had become who they are now, but I must say that of the two novels, one describing the past and the other – the present, I much preferred the one about past. Curiously enough, even Lynch seems to prefer the one from the past – the title of the book refers to a famous play the young Gentlemen Bastards are obliged to stage in Espara. Or it’s rather blunt commentary on his approach to politics in general :P.
The themes of theater, masks and false-facing are everywhere. There are allusions to Shakespeare, there’s a – not very subtle – attempt to show politics as a puppet show, and the whole thing smacks of Erving Goffman’s dramaturgical analysis from The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. It could have been cool if not for the fact that there’s a bit too much of it. That “theatrical” perspective oozes from almost every page of the book, the masks pile one upon another, and, sadly, when you dig through them all, it seems they’ve been covering very little substance indeed. Goffmanesque, as I said ;).
Lynch hasn’t lost his mastery with words, in fact, he may be even better now. The language is clear and crisp and flows effortlessly throughout the length of the novel. It seems a pliable, living thing in his hands, and he makes a good use of that. The descriptions are apt, poetic and sarcastic when needed, clearly indicating the author’s sharp eye and ear. The dialogues are witty and funny, the quick banter between Locke and Jean on par with the previous books.
But the plot is a different matter entirely. The book is long, over 670 pages, but the main plot seems flimsy and insubstantial. The story set in present, the elections in Khartain, lacked… It’s hard to pin down exactly what it lacked. The streak of wildness, so evident in the previous novels; the effortless craziness that drove the plot before; the unpredictability that led the main action into twists and rolls; finally, the supporting characters, who would be more than just cardboard effigies. The relation between Locke and Sabetha is put to the fore; the result being Jean pushed deep into the shadows, and Sabetha is sadly no match for Jean when it comes to personality. The chemistry between Locke and Sabetha is there, but it’s weak and fizzling compared to the one between Locke and Jean. And their story is so… cliché. I know it’s difficult to create something new in this field, but Lynch must have known the risks when he made this subplot the axis of his novel.
I think that this was supposed to be a character-driven novel, instead of a typical adventure/heist one. I have absolutely no problem with it; more, I’m all for it, usually. But in case of The Republic of Thieves the change in Locke’s personality seems ungrounded and forced and, frankly, more than a bit unrealistic. And since the character change was supposed to be the main driving force, the whole novel was floundering most of the time.
The final result was a novel which seemed labored and had long streaks of boring. It took me a while to finish it, and it left me completely disengaged. Even the final twist in Locke’s/Sabetha’s story failed to make any impression; and the epilogue… Well, I promised to myself I won’t use harsh words, and “cheap” is the least harsh of them. Let’s just say the epilogue didn’t sit well with me :).
All in all, The Republic of Thieves is an ambitious, but not entirely successful attempt at widening the playing field for Gentleman Bastard sequence. Not only in matters of geography or politics, but mostly in matters of genre and character development. I’m sure it will have its die-hard fans; I’m just not one of them. I might still read The Thorn of Emberlain when it’s out, but I won’t be biting my nails in anticipation.
P.S. Still, I really like the Subterranean Press cover :); all their covers to Gentleman Bastard sequence, actually :).