Thursday, May 12, 2011

Opinions of Locke Lamora

I usually just talk about fiction in terms of how it can be reflected in games, but today I'm going to talk about the actual fiction itself. It should be no great surprise that I'm a fan of capers, and by extension, a certain sort of mystery and thriller. Plot, story and character are all important, of course, but these stories add an extra layer of puzzle onto the fiction. Over and above the interest in the story, there's an intellectual challenge to it. Can you, as the reader, stay a step ahead of what's going on? Can you solve the puzzle? Can you figure out the twist?

Writing these stories walks a fine line, and I do not envy the authors who try it.They need to strike a balance of showing the reader enough to allow her to try to puzzle things out, but no so much that it gives it all away. To make this possible there are a number of rules, tropes and traditions that allow the puzzler-author to get away with more things, specifically to allow for information to be obscured.

Now, this can be tricky. If the author withholds a piece of information that one of the characters have, it can utterly ruin the puzzle. You see this a lot in bad (but often popular) mysteries where the reveal revolves around something the detective hasn't mentioned to the narrator (because, hey, why write well when you can use unreliable narrator as a bulletproof shield?) until that very moment. That's a cheat because it means the reader could never have figured it out.

But at the same time, you don't want to show everything all at once. If the brains behind a caper is making preparations for a twist, we don't necessarily need to see what those preparations are, just that preparations are being made. This is often the difference between a good and bad flashback. A good flashback is built on a stub of an earlier scene - a bad flashback comes out of nowhere in an oh-by-the-way fashion.

If you read a book for the puzzle, you buy into the rules and expect the author to do the same, and when he does, that's a real problem.

It is with this in mind that I both love and deeply hate The Lies of Locke Lamora. This is a shame, because it's exactly the kind of book I SHOULD enjoy, and it's full of things I still remember fondly. If it had been merely an adventure novel, I would probably have enjoyed it a great deal. But it's a puzzler with both mystery and caper elements, and in that regard it falls down very hard.

Spoilers Follow

Lynch cheats in three very specific ways in the book, and i use the word cheat very deliberately. In each case he uses his authorial power to break the rules in order to keep readers in the dark. This is an admirable goal, but it's rather like scoring a touchdown in chess - it's not very impressive if you don't tell the other party what game you're playing.

So, first, we have the identity of the Gray King. This is set up very nicely, and there are any number of people it potentially could be, all of whom have some good reason (like being dead) why it couldn't possibly be them. This is a classic mystery setup, and in time you discover the lie and it reveals who's alibi doesn't hold up. It's set up so well that it ends up feeling like a double cop-out when the reveal is "Ha Ha, it's this guy that got mentioned on page 23 who has no connection at all to the story so far!" (and, in fact, it feels like a triple cop out if you view it as a "Ha Ha, I as an author am deliberately foiling your expectations!"). It's a cheat designed to make sure that everyone's guesses are wrong.

Second, we have the Bondsmagi. To put it bluntly, he's a walking Deus ex Machina, and that's _terrible_. Introducing magic into genre fiction is always hard, but it's super hard for puzzlers because it has the potential to undercut any and all logic. This is the reason, for example, it's so hard to do a locked room mystery in a D&D setting - there are so many ways to get in and out of a locked room that it's hardly a mystery at all. If you're going to add magic to your puzzlers, you need to have rules that you stick by (because nothing's cheesier than using violations of your own rules as resolution). If you want to bend or break those rules then you need to make sure the limit is not the rules but a character's understanding (*cough*Harry Dresdean*cough*). Better still, you don't want magic to ever be the _answer_ to a mystery unless it's also part of the question. Bottom line, the Bondsmagi is an unending font of cheating.

Last, LLL performs the ultimate cop-out of any caper. In an attempt to make the protagonist clever, Lynch often takes the shortcut of making everyone else stupid. The best and most obvious example of this is the fact that the virtually all-powerful and for-hire magi are an absolute blind spot for every single person in the city, including the spymaster who I can't help suspect reminded lynch of an NPC he disliked. Yes, they're crazy expensive, but we're talking about a rich trading city here. even if they can't keep one on retainer, it stretches credulity that no one else has thought of using one of these guys before (especially when you can apparently use one to steal huge amounts of money, which certainly seems to offset the cost).

Now, as I say all that, bear in mind that I think the book is full of fantastic, clever, well-written scenes. Many of these scenes are so good that I still waffle on my opinion of the book despite how much my problems with the main plot grate at me. But taken as a whole, it's a great book about how to run small cons, and a terrible book about how to run a caper.

That said, enough people have said good things about the sequel that I've downloaded the audio book and put it in my queue. I'm willing to give it a fair shot, if only because Jean is awesome, and I'm totally willing to read the adventures of Jean and his chatty sidekick.


  1. Thanks for posting this. I can't disagree with a thing you said. Frankly, I just enjoyed the characters and writing so much that the shortcoming were not a major issue for me. (I had a similar issue with Abercrombie, and ironically they are my two favorite series.)

    I will say again that I think you will be pleasantly surprised with Book 2. I read it awhile ago, but my recollection is that he does not indulge in these cheats very much if at all, and the caper is much better constructed. Make sure you tell us what you think when you get to it.

  2. The books are very enjoyable and easy to read, but I agree with your points. It felt like the Grey King identity was more of a mystery for Barsavi than Lamora (and by extension, the reader). It may have been more cliche, but I would have enjoyed it more if the Grey King were his mentor, Chains.

  3. @B.Mooney Absolutely. Or the crimelord's daughter even. I am _entirely_ comfortable with a little cliche - MUCH more than I am with cheating.

  4. I'm up to page 540 of my re-read that was sparked by the twitter convo that inspired this post.

    As I mentioned in email, the only hint we get to the Gray King's identity is that on page 293 where Locke has a passing thought that he looks familiar, somehow.

    For a 719 page book, that's pretty damn late for such a mild clue. (By the way, the reveal of the King's identity happens on page 494, and as of 540, we still haven't gotten the backstory.)

    However, my editorial spidey-sense has been tingling throughout this read, and I'm sensing a hole, a cut.

    There two places where decent clues (or even a single clue in one of them) could have been dropped to ground the mystery and let Locke's recognition build on it. Both are in moderate-length discussions about Vencarlo Barsavi's backstory.

    I strongly suspect that there was a hint, or at least a set-up, that specifically pointed to the Gray King's identity, but was either cut by Lynch or an editor at some point in the publication process. The shape of the story-thread demands it: 1) seemingly irrelevant fact, 2) Locke's realization; 3) reveal identity; 4) backstory; and 5) destruction.

    If that initial clue/explicit factoid had been left in, I think you'd be a bit more forgiving of the ID reveal. Right or wrong?

    The reasons for such an edit evade me. If they were aiming to position the Gray King as a total outsider muscling-in on Barsavi, Lcoke's hint makes no sense and there's no reason to hire a Bondsmagi for so damn long. Having written in a history between the GK and Barsavi, the lack of clue early on is just poor choice.

    So, yeah: I think we had an explicit clue in there that got ditched for confusing reasons.

    As for the magic, it's pretty clear that it's mostly mental magic -- illusions, mind control, pain-giving, mental communication, etc. There are one or two instances of force-type stuff or possible translocation.

    With only a few exceptions, I'm not seeing very many mystical-type trappings. Indeed, so far, it's feeling much like psionics (in a very GURPS like sense; this I was wondering if the three tattoos on the Falconer's wrist showed that he'd picked up the Psi Powers of Telepathy, Telekinesis, and Teleportation). Then again, I'm not done yet, and have to start my reread of book 2.

    Given that, I'm not quite sure if he's a deus ex machina per se. To me it feels more like he's the only guy with an automatic pistol and body armor when everybody else is naked and carrying a pointy stick. So, more steamroller than god from the machine.

    And yes, everyone's an idiot when the plot requires them to be. The out there is that Bondsmagi are so damn expensive to hire that people rarely do it (except when they do, for example, Capa Barsavi's shark tooth).

    Lastly, I do agree with Justin: much less cheating in Red Seas Under Red Skies, more Jean being awesome, and a plot that brings the pain.

  5. @chad Some amount of hinting would have helped, definitely, but I'd still be a little cheesed at him not "ordering from the menu" so to speak. You can subvert the "the culprit is from this list of suspects" idea while still playing in bounds, an idea that was probably most famously demonstrated by Agatha Christie in one of her better books. However, at that point I would have merely called it bad writing (focusing on something the reader doesn't give a crap about) rather than a cheat.

    Re: magic - I'll stick by Deus ex Machina, but I'm willing to go with a longer explanation. There are basically two kinds of magic i NEVER want to see in fiction (or games, really) and they're mind-manipulation and illusions. This is because, structurally speaking, introduce unreliability in the narrator, but do so within the fiction, so you get a double dose.

    The thing is, even the most unreliable narrator tends to just omit things, not lie to the reader entirely. Both of those magics allow for the reader to be lied to, and when that happens, it means EVERY conclusion a reader might draw needs to be appended by "Unless it was an illusion. Or the narrator's mind was tampered with."

    That means that even if there are things magic can't do, there's no way to distinguish that, ESPECIALLY when the rules surrounding it are so loosey goosey. Which means, even if it's not Deus ex Machina in terms of power, it is in terms of narrative.

    Make sense?

  6. Have you read Larry Niven's discussion of why Science Fiction Mysteries are so hard to write? I think it's in Playgrounds of the Mind or N-Space, discussing the stories of Gil Hamilton. Future tech presents an analogous set of difficulties to magic in regards to mystery stories.

  7. That does make sense.


    Rob, out of curiosity, how do you feel about the way Jim uses mind magic and illusions in the Dresden Files?

    (For the most part, I think Jim's been playing decently fair with them, but there are moments when it gets irritating. To his credit, he does make them both difficult, and one of them a capital crime, so there's that.)

  8. @Alden Once, long ago, but from what I recall, yes, that precisely.

  9. @chad I give mind magic a pass for Jim because he does a good job of making it clear that this is some toxic, bad stuff. I have no fear of minds being usually clouded - if it comes up, it's a big deal.

    Illusions are trickier, but he handles them well with two particular tricks. First, there seem to be rules to them. You can make one thing look like another, or hide something, but it does not feel infinitely unbounded. The function is more akin to disguise and sneakiness than calling into question the nature of reality.

    More importantly, the perspective character is aware of the possibility of such things, and keeps them in mind in his narration. Not to say he can't be fooled by them, but that's much more traditional fallibility than making everything suspect. And since we're already well used to Harry's fallibility, it feels in bounds.

    -Rob D.

  10. I walked away from the first book unsatisfied, although I'd attributed it to the violence after our merry band was viciously attacked. Part of the resason I enjoy caper stories is that the protaganists don't tend to just go around torturing and killing in revenge.

    That said, I hadn't realized how directly the mystery parts were undercut by the cheats you mentioned. I found the final battle with the crime lord to be servicable but if I'd been satisfied with the larger plot it would have been a fine addendum to a larger caper climax.

    I'll have to remember the rules on mind manipulation and illusion. I've really gotten annoyed with the use of mind control in some stories, as it can destroy characterization. I think the limitations you suggest make a lot of sense.

  11. Huh! I find this a fascinating reading of the book partly because your first point is one that I viewed as a major strength of the book. The way the Gray King's identity was handled stands as one of my absolute favorite parts on rereading, and something I've wanted to emulate myself when writing. So it's all sorts of useful/interesting to know that to some readers, it comes across as cheating.


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