For this installment, we will be discussing the long-awaited Republic of Thieves by Scott Lynch, the long-awaited (5 years!) third book in his Gentleman Bastards series. It’s a great read and offers up a lot of really interesting characters concerning gender, so let’s get started!
For those uninitiated, the Gentleman Bastards novels follow the exploits of a gang by the same name, mainly through the eyes of its leader, Locke Lamora, who is as clever of a character as you could ever wish for. I don’t want to give too much of the plot of the first two volumes away, so I’ll just say that by the opening of RoT, Locke and fellow Gentleman Bastard Jean find themselves in very strained circumstances. When a formidable Bondsmage offers her aid in exchange for the two thieves’ services, Locke and Jean have little recourse but to agree. In return for her help, the Bondsmage, Patience, enlists them to serve as her faction’s pawn in an upcoming election, securing victory for their side by whatever means necessary, barring outright violence against the other side.
But the real kicker for fans of the series is who Locke and Jean will be competing against in the election: Sabetha. Oh, Sabetha. The single female member of the Gentleman Bastards and the object of Locke’s undying affection, much revered and oft referenced by other characters in the books, has not actually appeared in one of these novels until now (more on that when we discuss gender later on!). She is perhaps the only person who could match wits with these experienced charlatans, and she is not going easy on them.
The narrative, as in the previous two books, jumps between Locke’s present predicaments and his past growing up as a Gentleman Bastard (where we have also yet to see Sabetha until RoT). The particular thread explored in this series gives readers a glimpse of the burgeoning relationship between Locke and Sabetha, as well as the early exploits of the gang as a whole, as they truly come together as a team. More than anything, Republic of Thieves is a novel of transition for the series, marking a distinct shift in the trajectory of the narrative. Although I realize that the brief synopsis I’ve provided in an attempt not to give anything away may seem bland, I assure you that this book is anything but. It’s got heart, it’s got humor, it’s got intrigue, it’s got exploits – and so much more.
For those who are already fans, I promise that you will not be let down by the complexity added to Locke’s story in RoT (surprisingly enough, complexities that have nothing to do with romance) and you’ll still get plenty of the witty dialogue and fantastic heist plots that you already love. For those of you who have yet to pick up one of Scott Lynch’s books, I highly recommend them, although I would warn away the squeamish (Lots of bad things happen to your favorite characters in the first two books. Lots of very bad things) and those averse to violence and strong language. But really, SO GOOD. I’m afraid I’m not selling these as well as I ought to be: I VERY HIGHLY RECOMMEND THESE BOOKS I LOVE THEM SO MUCH. There.
I’m also happy to say that RoT did not disappoint me in terms of gender. As I mentioned earlier, although Sabetha is much referenced in the first two Gentleman Bastards books, The Lies of Locke Lamora and Red Seas Under Red Skies, she doesn’t actually *appear*. In the intervening years between when I first read those books and the release of RoT, I’ll readily admit that I had forgotten many of the finer plot points of the books, but one thing remained crystal clear: the one female member of the Gentleman Bastards never actually shows up, and the only thing you really know about her is that Locke loves her. This single memory didn’t bode well. What would Sabetha be like when she finally appeared? Was there really such a dearth of women in a series of books that I loved so well? Is she another one of those fantasy women that’s essentially just a prop for the main male character to pine over?
In brief: no. In a recent re-read of the first novel, I am happy to report that there are many awesome and distinct female characters, including Nazca, Sofia Salvara, the Berengias sisters, and Doña Angiavesta Vorchenza, just to name a few. None of them are the “main characters”, true, but each has a critical role to play, and these roles are varied. This is a seriously bad-ass contingent of formidable women, the likes of which I wish I could say appeared in fantasy more often. I could write a lot of praise about exactly how each of these ladies are awesome, but I won’t because I’m not technically reviewing The Lies of Locke Lamora. The same pattern holds true in The Republic of Thieves – these are the female characters I want to see more often in the books I read!
Patience, the Bondsmage I mentioned earlier, is pretty killer in her own right. God-like power, secret motives, generally manipulative but with her own brand of morals…yeah, she’s pretty great. But the real-show stealer is Sabetha. After years of waiting for her to appear, she doesn’t disappoint. She’s at least as smart as Locke, if not cleverer at times, she’s independent, she can fight, and she’s got complex internal depth that I rarely see in any side character, let alone a female love-interest one. I think a few examples might help me drive home how amazing I think Sabetha/Scott Lynch are. This first one comes from one of the flashback sequences. Locke and Sabetha are teenagers, and Sabetha has repeatedly rebuffed Locke’s attempts to disclose his feelings for her. At this moment, Sabetha has pointed out that one of the things she can’t reconcile about Locke is that even though she’s older and was a member of the Gentleman Bastards first, he’s still the one that ended up as the de facto leader of the gang. Locke protests that it’s not his fault that things turned out this way, that he has jumped through the same hoops she has. And that’s when shit gets real:
“I’m not talking about your training, Locke…I’m talking about the way you accepted everything as you accept your own skin. Something natural and undeserving of reflection. Well, let me assure you that the only woman in a house of men has frequent cause for reflection.”
“This is a complete surprise to me,” said Locke.
“I know,” she said softly. “That’s a problem.”
BAM. Drop the mic. That right there was a takedown of male privilege. By a teenage girl. In a fantasy novel. I want to do a quick breakdown of how unusual this all is. First, in fantasy novels, when a male character admits his feelings for a female character, it usually goes one of a few ways:
1. The female character immediately confesses her undying affection for the clever dominant male the minute he propositions her.
2. The female character plays coy; she’s attracted to the male character, but for reasons unspecified won’t admit it. It’s probably because she’s a wicked little minx! It’s probably because the author wants to create tension but has no good reason to do so.
3. The female character may have been attracted to the male character, but because of some terrible misunderstanding, she thinks that he’s a liar/murderer/traitor/engaged to someone else. If she only knew his true self, then she’d never turn him down.
4. The male character is too young/ugly/fat to ever win the attentions of such a bright, beautiful, curvy, vivacious lady. How could this ever be? But don’t feel too bad for him, he’ll get his burgeoning sexual experience in the next book, when he’s a little older – maybe from the same silly lady who’s rejecting him now. If only she knew what she was missing out on.
Sabetha does none of these things. Instead, she actually confronts the person she has feelings for with real criticism, placing her self-worth and her values above what she considers a school-girl crush. She has zero misconceptions about who Locke is. She doesn’t reject him because he’s ugly or a terrible person. Sabetha turns him down because he has absolutely no idea the kinds of privileges he’s been granted simply because he’s a male, and the ones that have been denied to her simply because she’s female. She doesn’t think she can be in a relationship with someone who doesn’t recognize this, because it means that he lacks the ability to ever truly know her, and thus lacks the ability to ever truly love her.
In addition, it’s not some side character who has committed the faux pas of being in the wrong. It’s Locke! The main dude! The one the reader aligns him or herself with! By having Sabetha question Locke, Lynch also has the readers questioning themselves and their own privilege, whether it be male, white, economic, or otherwise. This simple exchange could apply to any of those situations. Be still my heart! But let’s move on.
Before she begins her relationship with Locke, the poor teenage boy has to be smart enough to come up with this in response to her earlier allegations of privilege:
“Sabetha, I’m sorry. You told me that you wanted something important from me, and that it wasn’t a defense or a justification…so it has to be this. If I’ve pushed you aside, if I’ve taken you for granted, if I’ve been a bad friends and screwed up anything that you felt was rightfully yours, I apologize. I have no excuses, and I wish I could tell you how ashamed I am that you had to point that out to me.”
That last sentence. So great.
[This one’s a bit spoilery. Beware if you haven’t read the novel!] And then when Sabetha has made the choice to leave him, Locke really and truly respects her decision to do so.
“Gods, I can still smell her everywhere in this room. and gods, I want her back…But I…I promised to trust her. I promised to…respect her decisions, no matter how much it fucking cut me. If she has to run from this, if she has to be away from me, then for as long as she needs, I’ll…I’ll accept it.”
What’s really great about this part is that not only is a female character being strong and independent, but she is also being respected by the male characters in the book. Genuinely respected. This, in my experience as a reader, happens even more rarely than seeing a fully-fleshed out female character does…and not just in fantasy books. In pretty much all genres.
There are many more glowing things I could say about Sabetha, but I’ll refrain because this column is getting to be such a length that even my mother wouldn’t read the entire thing. Believe me, this list of positive things goes on and on. I’ve read many fantasy books that don’t treat women as objects or pawns, but considerably fewer that tackle gender issues as seriously RoT does, a feat that is made considerably more impressive by the fact that neither the main character nor the writer is a woman. More, please!