Letter From The Editor - Issue 58 - August 2017

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Writing Fantasy

  
Lady Lauren's Panacea
  Book Reviews by Lauren Harris
August 2013

PRESCRIPTION: The Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch
SYMPTOMS: Heist fantasy, thief main characters, gritty setting, subtle magic, mafia-esque antagonists, antiheroes
DOSAGE: (out of five)

Locke Lamora, the ringleader of a band of thieves called the Gentleman Bastards, is among the first con-artists his world has known. Though the legendary status of "The Thorn of Camorr" extolls his ability with a sword and gives him near-supernatural talents, the truth is that Locke is slight, bad with a sword, and skilled mostly at acting and getting his butt kicked in every manner possible. Truthfully, his biggest talent is the formulation of complex heists to steal from the rich and hoard the takings. Midway through a new and deadly heist, however, a secret war threatens to destroy the thieves' underworld home and Locke must find a way to keep everything he's ever known from falling apart without blowing his cover . . . and, of course, turn a profit.

The world of the Gentlemen Bastards series resembles Renaissance Venice in fashion, culture, and shark-infested canals (okay, maybe not the sharks), but hints at a distant history Lynch may or may not ever fully reveal. The city of Camorr is built over the remnants of a previous, more advanced, civilization, whose glittering structures of steel-strong glass house the wealthiest aristocracy. Of course, where there are high-flying aristocracy, there must be a thriving underworld, and Camorr's is comprised of thieves, gangs, and Mafia-like leaders willing to drown those who displease them in barrels of horse-urine.

Each chapter begins broad in an omniscient narrative mode that shows the festivals, culture, and pastimes of Camorr, and slowly tightens focus to the POV character within a few paragraphs. It's actually those brief glimpses of the city outside Locke and his friends' immediate experience that provide some of the most enriching details of the world. Though I normally would have been tempted to skip to where the limited third-person starts, these passages were so fascinating and well-written that I never even tried skimming them.

What really sold me on the series, though, was Locke and his band of merry antiheroes. Sharp-tongued, sarcastic, deliciously mercenary, and close as brothers, their dialog often had me snorting into my café Americano and garnering dirty looks from other coffee shop patrons. Also, sobbing, because Lynch was clearly exchanging make-up tips with George R.R. Martin.

Lynch pulls no punches with this book, and neither do his characters. The Lies of Locke Lamora is brutal, beautiful, hysterical, and heart-wrenching. It is absolutely in my top ten favorite books of all time.

PRESCRIPTION: Shadow and Bone by Leigh Bardugo
SYMPTOMS: Young Adult Fantasy, Russian setting, cool magic systems, gunpowder fantasy, magic schools, antagonist love-interest
DOSAGE: (out of five)

Wan, sullen Alina is an orphan and apprentice cartographer in the military of Ravka, a nation bisected by a treacherous swath of monster-infested darkness known as the Shadow Fold. When the army's expedition across the fold turns disastrous, it's Alina's long-buried magical gift that drives away the darkness long enough for their return. Before she understands what's she's done, Alina is unwillingly swept into the world of the Grisha, Ravka's esteemed sorcerers, and learns that the Darkling, their enigmatic leader, wants to use Alina's unique power to mend the Shadow Fold.

The world of Shadow and Bone stems from Russian influences, and the northerly shift was a refreshing change from the default British, providing readers' imaginations with different clothing, geography, culture, and food from most historical-based fantasy. The time period of the novel is also a departure, as the non-magical side of Ravka's military use guns, which are a relatively new invention.

Though magic plays a key role in the plot, the magic system doesn't stand out as much as other elements of the story. The two aspects I found the most inventive were the coveted magic-amplifiers and the specific branch of craft magic that allows those who possess the gift to create magical objects.

The unique setting and ins-and-outs of the magic system were enough to keep my attention through to where I assumed Alina was going to work with the Darkling to close the Shadow Fold, hopefully with dire results necessitating a sequel. Boy, was I wrong. A midpoint twist punted Shadow and Bone from the ranks of other magic character at magic school against magic threat stories.

The best surprise came in how much I enjoyed the Darkling's character. I feared another love interest who is dark, mysterious, dangerous . . . and not much else. Luckily, the Darkling is complicated, charming, and in many ways his own worst enemy. Also, the first male character in a young adult novel who's made me feel like I needed a cold shower. He is party to something of a love triangle between Alina and her childhood friend Mal, and while I usually hate triangles, this one works largely because of all three characters' complicated loyalties and choices give the triangle more weight, and because the Darkling's intentions toward Alina are potentially sinister.

The two things that kept this book from being five stars were the tired "pretty, catty rival girl who hates Alina and makes her feel inferior, even though everyone likes Alina better" plot thread, and the fact that Alina herself did not stand out to me nearly so much as the secondary characters. Her progression from sullen, pale cartographer's apprentice to the defiant young woman at the end of the novel is partially responsible - in order to become stronger, she had to start out weak - but I would have liked to see a more distinctive personality in that weakness.

From the first sentence to the last, the beautiful writing, fresh setting, and curveball plot of Shadow and Bone held me in its thrall. I read the entire book in a single sitting, which I haven't done since The Hunger Games, and immediately purchased the sequel. Though the story has its flaws, Fans of Garth Nix's Sabriel and Liani Taylor's Daughter of Smoke and Bone will love this book.

Read more by Lauren Harris


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