Thick As Thieves: The Gender Politics of Romantic Narrative in Republic of Thieves

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[1]  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.”[2] 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[3]-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,”[4] 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”[5] 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,”[6] 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.

******
[1]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.
[2]P. 411
[3]In-setting term for, basically, the  head of the gang.
[4]P. 284
[5]P. 412
[6]p. 413

About The Author

Alex Ehrhardt has a B.A. in Philosophy from the college of Wooster, which he graduated in 2012. He currently lives in Boston, where he is an aspiring poet. He is probably listening to Nick Cave and reading either comic books or dry ethical texts at this very moment.
  • Ishamaeli

    *standing ovation*

    To say something else than an endless stream of ‘yes, this’; the narrative analysis of their relationship is fascinating, and I especially liked that you point out that “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”. I think this applies to Lynch’s writing in general, meaning that most of his characters are both characters in the GBS story _and_ the protagonists of their own stories which we may or may not be privy to.

    But, yes, excellent analysis! Thank you for sharing it.

  • http://unitedfederationofcharles.blogspot.com/ C.T. Phipps

    Impressive write-up! I think you did an excellent job in describing Locke’s foolishness and Sabetha’s role as someone who is his equal. I hope Scott Lynch has the courage to make it clear Locke will NEVER get the girl and he just needs to move on with his life.