This is a really good book. Let's say that straight-up. But it isn't quite as good as the first two in the series, which I thought were phenomenal. So if I'm quibbling, remember that I did really like this. I just have such high expectations of Scott Lynch.
Locke and Jean are back. Locke is suffering from the ill effects of the poisoning he got at the end of the last book, in a heartbreaking but utterly satisfying battle over who got the antidote. One of the mages of Karthain offers to help, but at a cost. He has to come to their city and run one side of a political battle that occurs every five years. The opposition has employed a certain someone from Locke's past.
Yes, we finally get to meet Sabetha. And I am not disappointed. She's an intriguing character, as annoying as Locke, and almost as endearing. Although, having spent so much time with Locke, it's easier for the reader to empathize with him, and want her to give him more of the benefit of the doubt. But Lynch does a good job of creating issues between them that cannot be easily settled, and beyond the quick fix of an honest conversation.
In fact, one of these issues really caught me. It circles around how power is withheld from people in society, unconsciously, and how, as soon as you have to say indignantly "I should be the leader!," you've already lost authority. Even in a society where the gender roles are less strict than many fantasy worlds, Sabetha is not apart from her society, and neither are the men around her. It's a subtle point, but a really good one.
The flashbacks are also really great. I'm a theatre geek from way back, so I loved the whole plotline of the Gentlemen Bastards having to go to another city and rescue a theatre troupe and practice their acting skills - and then, get themselves out of a great deal of trouble when both the theatre impresario and his wealthy backer are more devious than they expect. Plus, it's great fun to have Calo and Galdo back, even if only in memories.
So why is this not quite as good? The stuff in Karthain is entertaining, but it feels slight. The real meat is in the past, and in the scenes we get between Locke and Sabetha. In other words, what's billed as the plot is the least interesting part of the book. (It's still interesting, it just feels like too much setup for the payoff.) The things around the plot are phenomenal. He's integrated these aspects so well in the first two books that to see them unravelling just the slightest bit here made the pacing feel off.
It's fun. It's always fun. And this one didn't entirely emotionally eviscerate me in the last act! I started to feel that dread, but the payoff to it was more setting up for the next book than deciding to make me cry now. It's probably good that he's not going to that well too often. But still, it's been so masterfully done in the previous two books.
I highly recommend this one, even though the balance of the storylines feels a tiny bit off. Not enough to ruin my enjoyment, certainly. Now I have to wait with everyone else for the next one. That's going to be tough.