After two novels and over 1200 pages, Scott Lynch’s Gentleman Bastard series finally introduces the mysterious Sabetha to the stage in Republic of Thieves. And she is well worth the wait.
The set-up to Sabetha’s introduction is as concerning as it is intriguing. In the first two books, all we learn is that she’s the only female Gentleman Bastard, she vanished a couple of years ago, and Locke is desperately, endlessly, head-over-heels in love with her. This set-up leaves us dying to meet this mysterious woman who had such an impact on Locke’s life, but it also creates the potential for some unfortunate tropes. Sabetha is the only woman Locke could possibly ever love, perfection herself, so flawless and heartbreaking that she can never even be mentioned in Locke’s presence. Locke puts her on a pedestal and worships at her feet, and there was always a risk that Sabetha would be presented in the same way, as an ideal for Locke to love, and not a character in her own right.
Thank god that wasn’t the case. The Sabetha who appears in Republic of Thieves is far from somebody’s goddess to worship. Someone on Goodreads called her a “stuck up bitch,” and that, I think, is one of the clearest statements that she doesn’t fit the sexist perfect-love-interest trope. She’s a bitch because she rejects a lot of Locke’s nonsense, makes explicitly feminist statements, and demands respect as an individual, and not just as a love interest. She takes 1200 pages of worshipful mysterious build-up and knocks it all aside with harsh, vibrant, wonderful reality.
She is, first and foremost, a human being in her own right. She remains somewhat mysterious, since we (with one exception) only ever see her from Locke or Jean’s point of view. But she’s clever, quick-witted and resourceful. She’s a bit ruthless, but she also has a sense of humor. She has relationships and friendships outside Locke, and she also has many fears and failures of her own. But she’s most notable for the way she challenges Locke’s obsession and subverts the narrative tropes of the perfect love interest — not by actually being a terrible person, but by simply being a person.
She calls Locke out on his bullshit again and again and again. She rejects him for fetishizing her red hair, despite the fact that she hasn’t had red hair for almost as long as he’s known her. She laughs at the idea that he could be in love with her when they’ve barely even spoken. She’s terrified of feeling like she’s being forced to love Locke, because they grew up fairly isolated, and he loved her from the beginning, and she was the only girl around. She finds his declarations that he’s loved her since he first saw her at five years old weird and a little bit creepy. Every time he attempts to put her on a pedestal, both in flashbacks and in the “present day” narrative, she kicks the pedestal over, and then kicks him too for good measure. She will not be a fetishized ideal. She will be a person, and she will have her own story and make her own decisions.
And Sabetha’s protests appear to be legitimized by the narrative itself. She isn’t presented negatively because she refuses to support Locke’s idolizing of her. In fact, the twist at the end of the novel, where Locke may have loved her from childhood because he’s the reincarnation of a crazy sorcerer who couldn’t get over his red-headed wife’s death and tried to raise her from the grave, supports a lot of Sabetha’s concerns. It’s not normal or healthy to glimpse a girl’s red-headed roots when you’re five and be desperately in love with her for the rest of eternity, putting her before all others and still mourning her and her perfection five years after she disappeared. It’s not a realistic love story, and it certainly doesn’t recognize the individualism of the girl herself. And so the novel presents it as something concerning, something potentially supernatural and definitely creepy… he may never have fallen for Sabetha because of who she really is. He may just have fallen for that glimpse of red hair.
All in all, it’s a refreshing challenge to the old fantasy tropes. My only complaint is that Sabetha vanished again at the end of the novel. The one thing this series lacks is a lasting female protagonist, and I would love the chance to see more of Sabetha as a scheming Gentleman Bastard, and not just as Locke’s unattainable love. Hopefully it won’t be another two books before we see her again.