A couple of weeks ago, I wrote a post wondering about Scott Lynch’s The Lies of Locke Lamora. Fifty pages in, and a female character had yet to speak. Or possibly appear at all. Everything else about the book — the writing, the world building, the characters — seemed really good. Far more fun than the first 50 pages of most epic fantasy books I’ve read. But still, committing myself to 500-plus pages of a world where female characters didn’t matter? I wasn’t keen.
Thankfully, a whole bunch of people chimed in to tell me that I simply must keep reading. And they were absolutely right. I loved this book. Loved, loved, loved. I haven’t been so gripped by a fantasy series since I discovered A Song of Ice and Fire. The combination of super fun characters and schemes with really shocking (slash emotionally traumatizing) plot twists had me completely addicted.
And now I have some female character related thoughts. (Warning: this is NOT a spoiler-less review. If you want to read the book without knowing its plot twists — and I recommend that! — please look away now).
In my initial, 50 pages and online-reviews-based thoughts, I noted that Scott Lynch was praised for having lots of background female characters in positions of power, and pointed out that that didn’t really count. Well, I totally retract that thought. Obviously, I feel that having female protagonists is important, and I would have liked the book even more if some of the five Gentleman Bastards present (Sabetha, as an off-screen love interest, doesn’t really count here) were female. But it took reading a book where so many of the secondary characters and especially characters in positions of power were female to realize how strange and new it feels. The world of Locke Lamora is rather like those rare and wonderful fantasy RPGs that have realized that a) they have female players, and b) those female players don’t really want to immerse themselves in another sexist world. Guards, gladiators, gang leaders, important political figures… they’re as equally likely to be female as male, and I was shocked to realize how much I, as a reader, defaulted to imagining a male character in these roles. More than once, I was suddenly jolted to realize that the person the protagonists were talking to was actually a woman, when I’d pictured a man. This should definitely be blamed on my habit of skimming past descriptive paragraphs, and not on Scott Lynch’s failure to describe things properly, and it really demonstrated to me how much I default to male when reading about fantasy worlds. I wrote a whole blog post about how the series didn’t seem to have enough women, and then I was erasing them myself. It was a powerful thing to realize, and I definitely appreciate the efforts that Scott Lynch must have taken to escape these defaults and allow this to happen.
Of course, there’s still the slight dearth of truly prominent female characters to consider. Our heroes are all male, as are our two main villains, and the secondary semi-villain Barvosi. The fighting sisters are great, but they don’t really have much to do in comparison to their Grey King brother. And I started to get attached to the compelling-seeming Nazca, before she died horribly and unexpectedly and as a message/motivational tool to male characters. My gut instinct was to say that she had been “fridged,” but as she’s simply the first of what feels like a thousand deaths, including pretty much every named character minus the two protagonists, I think this one gets a free pass. She was killed to give angst and drama to the protagonists, but then, so was everybody else, male, female, young and old.
In the end, the most interesting female characters were Dona Sofia and the Spider. At first, the Dona seemed like an afterthought, the wife-accessory of the Gentleman Bastard’s true mark. But as it turns out, she’s a pretty well drawn character. She has an interest in business, is incredibly talented in biology and genetics, and is very perceptive. She’s a strategist, and she certainly has more of a grasp on what’s going on than her husband. She’s the one to help lay a trap for Locke and Jean, who otherwise seem quite untrappable, and she’s the one who figures out that the “harmless old gossiping lady,” Dona Vorchenza, is far more than she seems.
Dona Vorchenza herself was a breath of fresh air. The most powerful and feared figure in Camorr, the master of the secret police, is an elderly woman, and she uses the fact that nobody suspects an elderly woman of being master of the secret police to great advantage. The otherwise insightful and wary Locke Lamora walks straight into her trap, because why would he be suspicious? She’s just a senile old woman. She uses the idea that old women spend their days gossiping to cover up what she knows and the connections that she has, while simultaneously also gaining information. She uses stereotypes and expectations to her advantage, while also being a ruthless, cunning badass, and I have to love her for it. Please can she and Sofia appear again, if Locke and Jean ever return to Camorr?
The final sticking point is Sabetha. And honestly, I don’t know what to make of her. On the one hand, it’s kind of tired that the one female Gentleman Bastard is off-screen, so that her absence can cause Locke angst. She comes off as a femme-fatale, fierce and sexy and unattainable, and that kind of mythical status is not a good sign. I don’t want my female characters put on pedestals by their love interests. I want them to feel real. But on the other hand, the elusiveness of Sabetha works. I am desperate to meet her. When I read that she plays an important role in Republic of Thieves, I squealed in delight. I guess the proof will be in what she’s like when she actually appears. If her appearance explains more about who she is, and tears down Locke’s pedestal to reveal her as a real person (if awesome and compelling and talented one — she is a Gentleman Bastard, after all), then all of this intrigue may have been worth it.
But overall, this is such an amazing start to the series. I’d say “on to the sequel!”, but I finished it last night. What can I say? I couldn’t wait. So onto Sabetha and The Republic of Thieves, and I’ll be back next week for thoughts on Red Seas Under Red Skies.