When I read and reviewed the second book in this series, Red Seas over Red Skies, I could not hide some disappointment in what I perceived as a slackening of the pace and rhythm after book 1, The Lies of Locke Lamora, one of the best discoveries I made in the recent past. Well, I am happy to state that with this third installment Scott Lynch has returned to the levels of intensity and reader involvement I enjoyed with the series’ opener.
When I left Locke and Jean in the previous book they were in a tight situation, with Locke slowly succumbing to an insidious poison for which no cure was available, and Jean desperately trying to find the means to save his friend. Republic of Thieves opens on such a note and progresses forward, seeing the two in deep debt to Khartain’s Bondsmagi and at the same time involved in the kind of convoluted schemes they are masters of and enjoy playing. The story alternates between the present, where Locke and Jean need to bring, by any means necessary, a political faction to victory in Bondsmagi-controlled Khartain, and the past, where the story of the Gentlemen Bastards is explored in further depth. This constant switching from present to past imparts the novel with a constant acceleration that makes page-turning quite compulsory, and it also better showcases the mental and emotional arc of the characters – not to mention the added bonus of seeing again the late and lamented Sanza brothers in all their irreverent glory, and to add more interesting details to Father Chain’s personality and his creation of the Bastards’ swindler family.
The most important feature of the story, however, and the most expected one, is the appearance of the mysterious Sabetha, the woman we saw Locke pining for since day one: a former student of Father Chains and member of the Gentlemen Bastards, not to mention Locke’s love interest, she’s been mentioned often in the first two books and now she finally comes onstage in the flesh. Sabetha is a complicated person: wily, resourceful, a true and successful daughter of Camorr’s underworld, she’s also clearly still searching for something – be it fulfillment or even a definition of self – and she actively refuses to be fitted into any mold, and that’s what makes her such an effective player in the games of deceit and power, especially once she’s pitted in Khartain’s political arena against Locke and Jean. There are a few interesting flashback conversations between her and Locke, where she expresses her sense of isolation from the little family built by Father Chains: not just because of her nature as the only female in an otherwise male group, but because she feels no one paid her her dues. Sabetha holds a high sense of her own worth, and resents the fact that no one ever chose to give her the same unthinking loyalty the others always showed to Locke; she even seems jealous of the strong brotherhood bond tying Locke and Jean. And yet it all looks like an act at times, and the fact that part of those flash-backs involve the Gentlemen Bastards working as actors, in the play that gives the book its title, might very well be a clue: more often than not this act, if that’s what it is, keeps Locke off-balance and tips the scales in Sabetha’s favor. At the end of the day, however, Sabetha feels quite unsatisfactory as a character and love interest: yes, she’s something of a mirror image for Locke – and that might partly explain his infatuation for her, since there is much of himself in her and Locke is supremely self-centered – but what we knew of her, what we expected, was mostly built on Locke’s fond memories and his expectations, and the real thing falls a little short of the mark, just as Locke fails to win her lasting affection by trying too hard to prove himself to her.
The character that truly shines here, and continues to shine throughout, is that of Jean Tannen: his friendship with Locke, his brotherly dedication to him even in spite of Locke’s petulant wishes, makes Jean a wonderful person to read about. It was clear from the previous books, but here he gains substance and depth: he’s always on Locke’s side, always supporting even when Locke himself has given up hope and the will to fight, even when he launches into schemes they have little or not chance of winning; he’s the silent shoulder that offers Locke the firm ground he needs, and more often than not takes the fall for his friend’s miscalculations. He’s not flamboyant or flashy or outspoken – the perfect foil for Locke in this regards – and yet I gained the impression he’s definitely the better man. As one character remarks to a very young Jean “They sort of look to you to hold them together when there’s trouble, don’t they?”: this is the role he accepts and makes his own from a very early stage and this is the role he grows into, the responsible man who grounds the flighty children. Much as the adult Locke still sports a few childish quirks and inclinations, Jean is and always has been a man, reliable in his steadfastness, enjoyable in his humor, depth and solidity.
Bondsmage Patience is another remarkable figure: web-weaver, schemer and player of pawns, she is a sort of dark deus-ex-machina who pops up at the more unexpected moments and with the most unexpected revelations, like Locke’s true origins – if what she reveals can be taken as truth, of course, since I can’t forget an intriguing sentence she offers to the Gentlemen Bastards: “Before I was Archedama Patience, I was called Seamstress. Not because I enjoy needlework, but because I tailor to fit.” Given her nature of supreme manipulator and – more important – given her family affiliations, the so-called unveiling of Locke’s past might just as well be a means to unbalance him, or a subtle way to obtain revenge. How to otherwise explain her parting words, before she disappears into thin air? “And that’s part of your punishment. Go forth now and live, Locke Lamora. Live, uncertain.” This ambiguity also creates the best background for the unsettling events at the end of the book that introduce what will probably be the subject of the next one: a dark twist that holds great promise for the future of the series.
My Rating: 8/10