Red Seas Under Red Skies is Scott Lynch’s follow-up to his debut fantasy The Lies of Locke Lamora, and the second in the planned Gentlemen Bastard sequence. The first book asked the question: what would happen if all the guys from Ocean 11 were teleported into the usual fantasy setting? Red Seas Under Red Skies asks: what would Brad Pitt and George Clooney do if the rest of Oceans 11 were killed off in movie one?
The answer, of course, is they’d continue to steal. And that’s what happens here. The analogs to Pitt and Clooney are Locke Lamora himself (the title character of book one) and his best friend/partner in crime Jean. The two of them, after suitable mourning of their friends from book one, are now involved in trying to rob the famed Sinspire, the greatest, grandest gambling house in Tel Verrar.
That caper is the main plotline of Red Seas Under Red Skies. But other main plots soon appear, along with a plethora of subplots. Tel Verrar is a city-state dominated by a triad power structure. The head of the Sinspire is one leader, the powerful Archon of Tel Verrar, leader of the army and navy, is another. The merchant’s council is the third. Locke and Jean soon find themselves caught in the power struggle between the Archon and the Sinspire head and, as a result, somehow find themselves becoming pirates for a large chunk of the book. Yes, pirates.
Red Seas Under Red Skies has many strengths. Characterization is one. The two main characters are interesting in their own rights but their individual interest is enhanced by their relationship as portrayed throughout the book. Most of the secondary characters are equally enjoyable and in different fashion. The dialog tends toward sharp banter and there are many laugh-out-loud lines tossed back and forth (the more serious dialog suffers somewhat in comparison, feeling a bit strained sometimes). The various subplots keep the reader hopping and they are nicely juggled, weaving in and out, diverging only to come back seamlessly at the end. The lightness of tone has a darker, more serious balance and while sometimes this is a bit clumsily handled via dialogue, in interior monologue and actual plotting it plays much more strongly and effectively. The structure is highly effective. The book begins with a bang of a scene, then flashes back at a pivotal moment. This shift back and forth continues throughout and is handled quite smoothly, effectively ratcheting up the tension and mystery.
There are a few weak points. Some of the more serious dialog, as mentioned. There is a definite pacing issue when the nautical section of the book begins. The book starts to drag at that point and one wishes Lynch had cut down the lead-in to the pirating adventures severely, but once one moves out of that section the pace picks up again and never flags after that point. The Bondsmagi, who play a major role in both books, are still a bit too abstract for my liking (mysterious is fine but I prefer a somewhat more tangible mystery), as is the greater world around the events. But these are relatively minor complaints, save for the pacing issue. In the end, Red Seas Under Red Skies delivers, as did The Lies of Locke Lamora. It’s a fun, mostly fast-paced, humorous read with some a few good caper puzzles at its core. The ending nicely wraps up the main plot while leaving several major questions unanswered, including some pretty urgent ones. Red Seas Under Red Skies leaves you happy and wanting more — what more could you ask for?
Blessed by the Crooked Warden, Locke and Jean continue their dedicated service to that Nameless Thirteenth, and being a priest and servant of the Thiefwatcher, the Benefactor, Father of Necessary Pretexts, definitely has its fringe benefits. These guys couldn’t go to church without snatching the offering plate. But don’t let their shenanigans fool you — cross these boys from Camorr, and you’ll get a lesson in what vengeance means.
This being only the second book by Scott Lynch, his writing can be just a tad clumsy at times. The story has its lulls but I’m not sure if it’s really that it has slow parts or just seems that way in between the parts of intense intrigue and action. Its not quite as good as the first book, The Lies of Locke Lamora, but still well-worth the read and I think Mr. Lynch has the potential for becoming one of the more successful and popular authors.
Red Seas Under Red Skies, by Scott Lynch, starts two years after The Lies of Locke Lamora ended. Jean Tannen and Locke Lamora have left Camorr and are planning a spectacular heist of the biggest “chance house” or casino in Tal Verrar, but, as is usually the case with the Gentlemen Bastards, things do not go as planned.
Red Seas Under Red Skies offers many of the same delights that the first book did. Lynch’s descriptions are rich, the banter between characters crackles with wit, energy and timing. Locke and Jean are well-developed characters with a solid history between then, but the secondary characters are good too, in particular pirate captain Zamira Drakasha and her second-in-command, Ezri, and the casino owner Requin. The conflicts between Locke and Jean are real conflicts, rooted in the different values of these two lifelong friends, and in this book much of the suspense comes from the arguments they have and the decisions they make.
Through narrative flashbacks we learn that after leaving Camorr, Locke tumbled into a deep well of self-pity; in fact, starting about page 60, Jean sets up the best intervention ever. Locke’s recovery includes the inspiration to steal from the richest casino owner in Tal Verrar, Requin. Jean and Locke believe that they are safe and anonymous in this city, but they are wrong; the bondmagi, powerful wizards, still pursue them, and another powerful person in Tal Verrar has become aware of their presence.
The city’s political structure pits a ruling council called the Priori against a military leader called the archon, not unlike a CEO and a board of directors. Theoretically, the archon answers to the Priori. Realistically, because he controls the navy, Stragos answers to no one. Fearing that his political power is waning, the archon abducts Locke and Jean and forces them to become part of a plot to frighten the city into ceding him more power. What is the one thing an ocean-based merchant society, who moves its good by ship, fears above everything else? That’s right; pirates. Soon Jean and Locke find themselves at sea.
From there, nothing goes as it is expected to. Things get worse and worse for Locke and Jean (which means better and better for the reader). Soon, though, our two heroes are able to turn the tables and come up with a scheme that keeps them safe (relatively), and allows them to follow through on their original heist, stealing from the invulnerable Requin.
Along the way, some real questions arise as to the future of the Gentlemen Bastards. Jean sees a new future available to him, both through piracy and his growing closeness to Ezri. Locke is still focused entirely on revenge against the archon, who has stolen Locke’s freedom, and also against a wealthy, decadent city-state called Salon Corbeau. Lynch understands that real conflict makes characters and novels interesting, and he explores it here. He also exploits the fact that it’s hard to have a serious conversation when people are shooting at you, when you are running for your life, or trying to cling to a ship’s rail in the middle of a pitched battle.
Structurally, I thought Red Seas Under Red Skies had some problems. The first book ran over seven hundred pages, but much of that developed the childhood educations of our principles. Lynch begins with the same structure here, using flashbacks to show us Jean and Locke preparing for the heist, but soon abandons that technique as un-needed. This book comes in at 760 pages, and I think it could have been one hundred pages shorter and still kept its richness and complexity. Lynch needs to trust his writing, and his readers. If he shortened every scene by a paragraph or two, he would have a leaner story and still share his wildly imaginative world view. Probably because of the length, the book’s tension sagged in the middle and the ending seemed very rushed, with characters and plot points abruptly introduced with little or no background. Lastly, the book opens with a prologue that is in fact a scene from the last quarter of the book. It is meant to create suspense; but it isn’t needed. The real tension that emerges as Jean explores other options is quite enough, and the opening scene feels gimmicky when we encounter it again. Lynch is a natural at drama and does not need to engage in this kind of showy trick to hold his reader’s attention.
Even with the long slow middle, the book held my interest and I enjoyed all the grace notes; pirate Drakasha as Mother of the Year, for instance, or the suite of custom chairs, or the lovely homage to The Three Musketeers and a carte blanche. The book ends on a powerfully suspenseful note, leaving me plenty to worry about as I wait for The Republic of Thieves.
This review contains spoilers for the first book, The Lies of Locke Lamora.
In Red Seas Under Red Skies, Scott Lynch revisits the lives of our favourite gentlemen and bastards, Locke Lamora and Jean Tannen, some two years after the first book left them destitute and heartbroken. Locke and Jean are on track for the biggest score of their career. They are going to become incredibly wealthy. They are going to die in some far off place as comfortable and rich men. They are going to make it big — that’s the plan, anyway. Having read the first book in THE GENTLEMAN BASTARD series it was no surprise that, once again, things didn’t go to plan for the Gentleman Bastards.
You aren’t supposed to judge a book by its cover, but THE GENTLEMAN BASTARD series have covers I can’t get over. When I saw that the second book had a gorgeous painting of a ship on a boiling sea, I knew I was in for a treat. The title, poetic in itself, does the art justice in my mind. But Lynch really had me at pirates.
I thoroughly enjoyed The Lies of Locke Lamora and so I was eager to begin the second installation. I was far from disappointed. Lynch once again presents a compelling yarn of a story with everything I could ask for: swashbuckling, betrayal, love, revenge, old foes, new foes, smooth talking thieves, cutthroat captains, and of course, pirates. Honest to goodness back-stabbing shanty-singing fear-mongering pirates. It was a story I couldn’t wait to sink into whenever I had time to spare.
Without spoiling too much of the plot, though readers of the first book (The Lies of Locke Lamora) can attest that it is devilishly complicated, Red Seas Under Red Skies finds Locke and Jean becoming pirates on the Sea of Brass — not at all the kind of bounty they were hoping for. Dragged away from what could be their largest heist by old enemies to sail the Sea, Locke and Jean use all of the ingenuity and wits to merely stay alive in the world of real live pirates. Like its predecessor, Red Seas centres on the thieves and their intricately complicated plans. I thoroughly enjoy the ingenuity of our main characters, both with regards to how they get into and then out of trouble. The complex nature of the story, in my mind, is its strength – it’s a sophisticatedly realized world with layers upon layers of intrigue to keep the reader entertained and always guessing at what the main duo will come up with next.
One thing I loved about The Lies of Locke Lamora that its sequel also delivered on is the scenery. Once again Lynch has created a world that is, in itself, a character. The history, culture, customs, magic, and strife are just as poignant in this volume as the last. The Gentleman Bastards have inserted themselves into the lives of the upper class and into lives of piracy (with varying success) in such a way that exemplifies the rich customs of those groups of people. The depth with which Lynch has imagined every aspect of this setting is something I can’t get enough of reading.
Red Seas Under Red Skies suspended my disbelief from start to finish. Like its predecessor it dives completely into a richly imagined world of high-class thieves and sophisticated heists, dragging the reader into the centre of a thousand intrigues — most of them caused by the Gentleman Bastards.