Republic of Thieves, by Scott Lynch

…is grate!!

So this is his third in the series that began with Lies of Locke Lamora, a book that made quite a splash some years back for being extremely clever and just so damn fun. (Think Robin Hood crossed with Ocean’s 11, with banter and camaraderie that Joss Whedon would envy.)

Unfortunately, when the next book came out, Red Seas Under Red Skies, it was… disappointing. It’s been years since I read it, so I don’t remember it well enough to analyze why it failed, but it didn’t have anywhere near the same verve as the first one. I, and a lot of other readers, concluded that whatever perfect storm had produced LoLL, Lynch didn’t know how to make it strike twice. Repeated delays on the release of Republic of Thieves seemed to confirm those fears, cuz books don’t get delayed when the author is on their game and writing like a house on fire.

…Or maybe they do, because Republic of Thieves is a gem and a joy that lives up to all expectations set by Lies of Locke Lamora. The dregs of RSURS‘s tortured plot get flushed away in short order, and our bold heroes Locke and Jean are back in the game. The game this time is to steal an election — and across the table, their opponent is Sabetha.

Oh yeah, you heard me. She’s finally in it. And because analyzing failure is more instructive than analyzing success, I’m going to spend the rest of this post turning a magnifying glass on the fly in Locke Lamora‘s ointment: Lynch’s weaknesses with women.

So for anyone who hasn’t read the first two: Sabetha is The Love of Locke’s Life, but the books go to some amazingly convoluted lengths to keep her from ever appearing onstage, and the snatches we hear of her from other characters made a lot of readers really, really dubious. Because everyone agrees that she’s perfect. That she was sooo beautiful, and sooo smart, and cleverer than Locke, and a better fighter than Jean, and of all of them, she was their mentor’s star pupil, and oh for fuck’s sake, I really hope I never have to meet this paragon, I thought with dread. She was either going to be, as they said, perfect — and perfectly boring. Or she was going to be a dud, only with the author and all his backup dancers trying to shove the “she’s perfect!!” line down my throat.

So now we finally meet her, and after finishing Republic of Thieves, I have mixed feelings. There are a lot of factors at play here, but to start with:

(1) Lynch is really bad at writing romance.

This doesn’t surprise me in the slightest, because the impression I’ve gotten since book 1 is that he’d be a lot happier if he could write all boys adventures all the time and didn’t have to deal with relations between the sexes. Capers and shenanigans are where Lynch shines, and Republic of Thieves has as much really clever, really fun capering as LoLL did — which makes the creaky romantic subplot feel all the more forced.

Because it turns out there isn’t actually anything wrong with Sabetha — but they are very, very wrong for each other. Their entire relationship is an endless procession of mutual misapprehensions and failures of communication, of always going in circles around the same fights and never solving anything, leaving them both constantly frustrated and exhausted. (I think what he was going for was ~tempestuous~, but it fell flat every time.)

I’m not saying that Sabetha can do better than Locke, because Locke is a super-awesome character, but ironically it’s his very desire for her that makes him so much less awesome — because whenever he’s in a scene with Sabetha, Locke becomes a neutered, less-interesting version of himself. He’s not trying to love her as who he is, he’s throttling everything special about him and tying himself in knots in an attempt to become his own misguided notion of what he thinks she wants. It’s bad for him, and it’s not what any woman deserves.

Which could be alright — interesting, even — if there was any sort of awareness in the text that they really are fundamentally unsuited for each other, that Locke is misleading himself and wasting his time by insisting that Sabetha is THE ONE, but instead it seems to treat the fact that he wants her as proof enough. Combined with their utter lack of chemistry, and I’m like, Guys, come on — just give it up as a bad thing already. Quit putting yourselves (and me) through this tedium.

To be sure, part of the reason why it failed for me is because I’m a queer dude, and a harder sell when it comes to straight romances. Particularly ones written by straight dudes, because when man-who-desires-woman is the subject, and beautiful-woman is the object, they paint a picture that I literally have no place in. But that also can’t be the whole reason, because I have gotten very invested in straight romances before. For fuck’s sake, I have eleven inches of Georgette Heyer on my bookshelf. Phedre and Joscelin from Jacqueline Carey’s Kushiel series. Dag and Fawn from Bujold’s Sharing Knife. And yeah, it doesn’t hurt to be getting it from the female gaze; Carey waxing rapturous about lithe and beautiful Joscelin is intrinsically more Relevant To My Interests than Lynch cataloguing Sabetha’s charms. No helping that.

But again: that’s not the whole explanation. To make a broad — but I think entirely correct — generalization, female authors tend to put more energy and attention into portraying emotional states, and into portraying love and desire in particular. (It is true of all the books I have on my shelf, anyway, but since I don’t delve into literary fiction much, I can’t speak to that genre.) And this is critical when it comes to trying to sell your romance to someone who doesn’t see themself in that picture.

Because dude, I am not in love with your dream girl, no matter how perfect your protagonist tells me she is. This is your party, and I’m not bringing the beer. I’ve got nothing to project onto a heterosexual everyman. You have to bring the emotion yourself, you have to plunge headfirst into your protagonist’s mind, get down and dirty with all the desperate, gut-wrenching longing that’s driving him — or I’m going to finish your book, hop on livejournal, and tell the world that you’re bad at writing romance.

(2) Lynch is really self-conscious about writing A Female Character.

I don’t know why that’s kicking in now, since he wrote Nazca and Zamira just fine in the earlier books, free from the miasma of unease that follows Sabetha around. Furthermore, I feel kind of bad giving him shit about this, because it’s blindingly obvious that he’s trying very hard to get it right. That when Sabetha and Locke fight, it’s not because wimmin, amirite? there’s no telling how their minds work, but because Locke doesn’t understand her, and doesn’t understand what he’s not understanding… and when she tries to explain it to him, it sounds like Gender Studies 101.

It threw me right the hell out of the story, because all of a sudden I wasn’t hearing Sabetha talking to Locke, I was hearing — practically verbatim — every time-honored feminist strategy for attempting to explain privilege in such a way that straight men can conceptualize. I was suddenly struck by a vision of Lynch, at a convention or something, sitting down with someone who’s agreed to explain feminism and privilege to him, hanging onto every word she says and scrupulously writing it down as he tries to process it.

And that’s a good thing. I applaud this. I wish more straight dudes would recognize that there are, in fact, gender equity problems that need addressing, and would make the effort to educate themselves. Lynch is an ally, and his heart is in the right place. (When, after RSURS, brodudes complained that Zamira — swashbuckling pirate mother — was just wish-fulfillment for middle-aged women, Lynch’s response was roughly, “Of fucking course she’s wish-fulfillment, and what the hell do you think Locke is?”) But making Sabetha the spokesperson for feminism does her characterization a disservice, and ensures that she’s never going to be as fun — and consequently as likeable — as any of the boys. She suffers from what I am now dubbing The Gamora Syndrome — the woman as conspicuous killjoy in a cast of comedic men.

So yeah. I’m glad that Lynch is trying to be more inclusive in his writing, and that he’s making the effort to understand the issues and power imbalances affecting women’s lives. However, it’s obvious that what he’s learned hasn’t really become internalized yet, and I wish he’d let it percolate some more, before regurgitating it into Republic of Thieves like a schoolboy who’s memorized the right answer without quite understanding it.


And on that note, since I still haven’t found a date to see Jupiter Ascending with, I decided FUCK IT, I’M GONNA DO THIS THING BY MYSELF. You guys, I am ridiculously pumped about this movie.

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