Stories within stories: It's a structure as old as, well, storytelling itself. In the Western canon alone, everything from The Canterbury Tales to Hamlet to Italo Calvino's Invisible Cities has played with the idea of nesting narratives within each other. Speculative fiction authors such as Margaret Atwood and Neil Gaiman have been just as apt to stuff stories into stories, often to marvelous effect.
Scott Lynch may not be ranked in that elite company quite yet, but it's not for a lack of either talent or ambition. His Gentleman Bastard series — 2006's The Lies of Locke Lamora, 2007's Red Seas Under Red Skies, and 2013's The Republic of Thieves, with four more planned — are each sprawling books, both in page-count and scope. In them, a con man named Locke Lamora and his best friend and grifting partner Jean Tannen live in the teeming fictional metropolis of Camorr, which strongly resembles a medieval Italian city-state. In this sense, it's not entirely different from other contemporary epic fantasies by George R. R. Martin or Joe Abercrombie. But Lynch, in The Republic of Thieves, brings another dimension to his witty, ribald, picaresque fantasy epic: A story within a story, pulled off with panache and complexity
If it seems strange to talk about the third installment in a series before the first two, well, it makes perfect sense when discussing the Gentleman Bastard books. Lynch jumps around a lot in each book, chronologically speaking, from the time Locke and Jean were boys studying under the master thief Father Chains to the slow unraveling of the ancient mystery that lies at the heart of Camorr's alien architecture. In The Republic of Thieves, there are plenty of parallel storylines, but there's also a play within a novel: Caellius Lucarno's theatrical classic, also titled The Republic of Thieves, is one of the Forty Corpses, a body of drama salvaged from a fallen empire, much in the way that the work of Greek playwrights fed into the real-world Renaissance.
The Republic of Thieves isn't the only Lucarno work mentioned in the Gentleman Bastard series. Lines from the play The Assassin's Wedding are quoted in Red Seas Under Red Skies; Jean is also revealed as a devoted fan of the man's collected works, ready to hold forth passionately at a moment's notice about Lucarno's rightful place in the thespian pantheon. In a sense, Jean is a Lucarno geek — much in the same way that scores of fantasy readers have become Lynch geeks over the past decade.
It's not hard to see why. Yes, Lynch is writing stories within stories, folding flashbacks within flashbacks, and creating mysteries within mysteries. But he's also creating one hell of a buddy series, and one hell of a heist thriller. All of his intricate framework aside, the Gentleman Bastard series zeroes in on the warm, combative, brilliantly scripted, and at times downright heart-touching relationship between Locke and Jean, two boyhood friends who have grown up to become two very different men, yet bound by camaraderie and the satisfaction of a con well done. In The Lies of Locke Lamora, they get caught up in a struggle for power within the criminal underbelly of Camorr that spawned them; in Red Seas Under Red Skies, they flee Camorr to seek their fortune in the far-off land of Tal Verrar, where Lynch mashes up Ocean's 11 with swashbuckling piracy — and, miraculously, makes it all mesh.
Lynch isn't the only current fantasy author unfolding stories within stories — the example that immediately leaps to mind being Patrick Rothfuss' exquisitely framed Kingkiller Chronicle series. Lynch, though, is asking even bigger questions about the nature of truth. What actually is true? Should veracity go to the most compelling version of events, rather than dull old reality? What about history, both cultural and personal? Is it just another way to delude ourselves? To fabricate our identities? If the sum of civilization — and of ourselves — is simply a puzzle of stories within stories, where does that leave us? It's a lot to tackle in a fantasy series, even one as broad and deep as this. But if Lynch has shown us anything so far, it's that Locke and Jean — lowly liars though they may be — are more than up to the task.
Jason Heller is a senior writer at The A.V. Club, a Hugo Award-winning editor and author of the novel Taft 2012.