The “mystery girl” is a recognizable archetype in fiction: a woman who flits in and out of the male protagonist’s life, her feelings toward him kept partly hidden, providing a will-they-won’t-they romantic dynamic. All of this can play into some problematic narratives about women. For one, it tends to play into the notion that the love of a woman is something men win by being good enough; her love is treated less as the feeling of a separate, independent person from the hero, and more as a product of his own hero’s journey — it’s all about him. Moreover, if the mystery girl is not characterized with sufficient depth, she tends to come off as an example of the irrational woman beyond male understanding. In case it needs to be spelled out, this is a pretty toxic stereotype.
In The Republic of Thieves, the third installment in Scott Lynch’s fantasy-crime fusion Gentlemen Bastards novels, we finally come face to face with protagonist Locke Lamora’s own elusive love interest, Sabetha. In both flashback and present sequences, Lynch takes a look at what troubles surround Locke and Sabetha’s romance. As a bit of context, the book interweaves a prequel arc, wherein the Gentlemen Bastards pull off one of their first big jobs as teenagers, with a present-day story that features Locke and Sabetha hired by opposing sides in a corrupt election. The scenes where we get Sabetha’s perspective serve not only to produce an atypically emotionally intelligent take on a mystery-girl narrative, but, moreover, a critique of other such narratives. In other words, the story knows the narrative fire with which it is playing, and seeks to show, through Locke himself, where a storyteller could go wrong.
To begin with, the artificiality of Locke’s and Sabetha’s coming together as comrades is shown to problematize the idea that they would end up as a couple. Sabetha points out to a young Locke that she is his only female peer. She is first one of the few girls in the Thiefmaker’s care, and afterward the only Gentlewoman Bastard. That they are comrades in thievery necessarily narrows their worlds. Neither Locke nor Sabetha can go out and meet people without having to lie about who they are. As such, any romantic or sexual interaction between the two is bounded by the fact that any yes from Sabetha would be colored by how truly stuck with one another these two thieves are. In Sabetha’s own words, “We sleep fifteen feet apart. We’ve known each other our whole lives. What have we ever seen of other men and women […] I don’t want to be loved because it’s inevitable.” And yet, in so many stories, the hero and the love interest come together precisely because it is inevitable, and this is treated as romantic as opposed to troubling.
Furthermore, she explicitly calls out Locke’s sense of entitlement. He’s been groomed to lead the Bastards, and to his adolescent mind, it seems implicit that, therefore, he is the hero of the story who gets the girl. He is, for example, genuinely shocked that fellow Bastards Calo and Galdo Sanza had made passes at her. On one level, it may be simple surprise due to the seeming buffoonery of the twins; shock that they think they are ‘in her league.’ On a metatextual level, however, Locke is the hero, the Garrista-in training, and Calo and Galdo are the comic relief sidekicks — the narrative entitles him and not them to a romantic subplot. And, as Sabetha points out, Locke steps into the leader role as “something natural and undeserving of reflection,” and she makes clear to Locke that Calo and Galdo, at least, accepted their rejection by her. Locke’s ego gives her pause, she says, and rightly so. Were Locke to ever not take no for an answer, he would have an unacceptable level of control over Sabetha due to both his station and the way in which the Bastards depend on one another to survive.
Locke’s ignorance of Sabetha’s experience even shows in small things. When he mentions her red hair, which she dyes, he does so in ignorance of the fact that it places something of a target on her head. She’s a poor orphan girl with a notable physical feature, and when Locke fixates on her “as [she] really is” he comes off as just another fetishist. When asked if he’s heard “the things they say about Therin redheads who haven’t had their petals plucked,” neither he nor the readers can answer. What’s clear is that for Locke to find Sabetha desirable does not make him special, and that he is presuming her as his before thinking of her own desires. While she does reciprocate his feelings, his utter incomprehension of her side of the story rightfully makes her reluctant to engage with him.
That these points are interwoven in flashback throughout the narrative serve to warm up the reader for the heavy feminist lifting of rejecting the adult Locke’s unfair conception of his absent lover.
At the core of that unfair conception is a double standard toward Sabetha’s work as a fellow thief: He expects her to be his old lover first and a fellow thief employed against him second, even though he does not intend to pull his own proverbial punches. As such, she is able to get the advantage over him, drugging him (with a kiss, of course) in order to send him harmlessly (to him and to her plans) out to sea for the duration of election season. In spite of this being a relatively merciful way of getting him out of her hair, Locke returns to Karthain convinced this constitutes betrayal.
In the conversation that precedes this drugging, the two have a long catching-up. Two things are notable. First, the thoroughness of Sabetha’s interest in his life cannot be nullified by her move against him — these were old lovers meeting as rivals, and the one does not cancel out the other. Second, Locke’s only question regarding their five years apart is, in essence, ‘why did you leave me for five years?’ He frames the whole thing in terms of himself, and at no point wants to know what Sabetha’s been through — they’re in the same profession, yet her adventures, many of which could be as harrowing as the past two volumes of the series, are irrelevant. In fact, her actions aren’t even that mysterious, probably. But Locke isn’t looking for answers; he’s looking for apology. On a metatextual level, he is treating her as a love-interest archetype, even though she has spent the past five years being the protagonist of some other story.
Let’s be clear, the book is not subtle about Locke’s doing wrong by Sabetha. It’s a book with a point to make about healthy versus unhealthy relationships, as well as about sexism. On some level, it has to be blunt, insofar as the protagonist is presumed to be the normative view — but the book makes clear that, in this case, Locke is very wrong; his actions frequently read as a ‘what not to say’ in dating. And in a genre populated by boys’ adventure stories, for a straightforward crime narrative to pack in such a true-ringing depiction of smitten-boy cluelessness and to not excuse it is worthy of commendation. It’s my genuine hope that some teenage boy will see himself in Locke, smack himself on the forehead and say ‘my god, I’ve been an ass!’ I know the book has stuff to teach me.
This character’s role in Locke and Sabetha’s upbringing is fairly self-explanatory, and in the story, he took them in at a prepubescent age — in a very real way, thievery is their life.
In-setting term for, basically, the head of the gang.