Pirates and Bastards of Land and Sea – A Review of Red Seas Under Red Skies by Scott Lynch

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One of the great things about having friends who share the same tastes in books as I do is that we get to pass books around. If I discover something that I absolutely enjoy, I can tell my friends about it (via Twitter, usually, or face-to-face whenever possible), and they’ll pick it up. If they, in their turn, have a book they think I’d enjoy and so recommend to me, I’ll go out of my way to pick up the book in question and read it ahead of anything else I might have planned to read (as was the case with Ender’s Game, which I wasn’t planning on reading at all until it was recommended to me – most insistently, at that). Sometimes they like it as much as I do, sometimes more, or sometimes less. The degree of liking doesn’t really bother me much; we’re different people, after all, and I don’t expect them to always agree with me. They treat me in the same way, as well – and for that I’m grateful, because I dread to imagine what would happen if liking or disliking a book was a deal-breaker for our friendship.

It was in this spirit of sharing and caring that I most vigorously recommended The Lies of Locke Lamora, the first of Scott Lynch’s Gentlemen Bastards series of fantasy novels. I’d already read and reviewed the novel, but had not begun the sequel, Red Seas Under Red Skies, since I have a policy of spacing out my reading when it comes to series. My friend Hope, though, practically devoured The Lies of Locke Lamora, having fallen in love with it, and went straight to Red Seas Under Red Skies, finishing three-fourths of it by the time I decided to pick it up. And another friend, Sian, who lives in Cebu, picked up the first novel just recently, and I could hear her heart break all the way here in Manila when certain events (which she – rightfully, now that I think about it – compared to the Red Wedding in George R.R. Martin’s Storm of Swords) occurred during the course of her reading. This has, naturally, caused a flurry of giggling, squealing, and shrieking over on Facebook and Twitter – the natural result when we all fall in love with a book or a series of books.

In my review of The Lies of Locke Lamora, I stated that the novel was one of those rare few that turned me into a shrieking, giggling fangirl, and there was good reason for that. As a pragmatist, however, I was somewhat concerned that Red Seas Under Red Skies would not quite be the same. I was worried that it would not have the same brilliance, the same shine, as the first book. It turns out that I was right – and I am quite happy that’s the case.

Red Seas Under Red Skies takes place after the events of The Lies of Locke Lamora. Having no choice but to flee Camorr after the events in the first novel, Locke Lamora and Jean Tannen, the sole survivors of the diaster that befell their gang, have escaped first to Vel Virazzo, and then to Tal Verrar. These events, of course, are not told in sequence: the prologue is actually an event that takes place in the middle portion of the novel. Vel Virazzo, though, is where Locke and Jean first make landfall, as it were, after fleeing from Camorr, and Locke is deep in depression and guilt over what happened there. He eventually snaps out of it, though (or rather, Jean snaps him out of it, both literally and metaphorically), and they lay down plans for their next big heist: to rob the notoriously impenetrable and well-guarded vault of the Sinspire of Tal Verrar – a place the reader would recognize as a very exclusive casino.

Unfortunately, things don’t quite go as they should for Locke and Jean, and after two years of carefully laying down their plans for the Sinspire heist, they are suddenly caught up in a plot involving the Archon of Tal Verrar, who has been informed by the Bondsmagi of Karthain (who have their own bone to pick with the two Camorri conmen) as to Locke and Jean’s true identities. Desperate to stay in power, the Archon decides to use Locke and Jean’s inimitable skills as conmen to stir up trouble amongst the pirates of the Ghostwinds in an attempt at power-play against the Priori, a group of merchants who control almost all the wealth of Tal Verrar. Locke and Jean have no choice in this matter (how is made clear in the novel), and so go off to sea, with Locke spinning plan after plan and scheme after scheme in the hopes that everything will turn out as he and Jean want it to.

When I mentioned earlier that this isn’t as brilliant as the first novel, that is quite true. It’s still quite witty, but not as much as Locke Lamora. Locke is still extremely clever with his schemes, but they do not show the same panache as the schemes he executed in the first book. There is an edge of desperation, almost, in the schemes he concocts. To be fair, they are still mind-bending in their scope: I sometimes wonder how it is that Scott Lynch can get away with Locke hatching all these ridiculous plans and still making the reader believe that Locke and Jean pull through somehow, but I suppose this is because the groundwork for belief (or the suspension of disbelief) has already been laid in the first book. No matter how insane the scheme, no matter how crazy the plan, the reader is reasonably confident that Locke and Jean will pull through because they’ve already done precisely that in the first book.

And now that I speak of Locke and Jean, their relationship is further explored in this novel. It has already been made clear in the first book that they are very close friends, but that relationship is put to the test even further in Red Seas. In Locke Lamora they have had everything taken away from them; there is nothing for them left in Camorr, which is why they have fled the city in the first place. They are all the other has left in the world, and they must either cling to each other in order to survive. Of course, given everything that’s happened, it should come as no surprise that a certain amount of strain would be put on their relationship, and Lynch does not shy away from it in the least. This further exploration of the relationship between Locke and Jean will please those who have been looking for a bit more characterization for Locke; the first one-third of the novel is pretty much about Locke and Jean strengthening their relationship in the face of everything that’s happened – and that includes learning to trust each other again.

That strengthened relationship, though, serves them well later on in the novel, as it’s their trust in each other that’s the only thing that sees them through some of the most insane plot events that I have ever read yet. To be sure, there was a lot going on in Locke Lamora, but it was easy to keep track of most of that. The layers in Red Seas however, are exceptionally thick, with Locke and Jean taking on multiple identities at the same time, managing not just one, but two cons at the same time. This should have been easier, one would think, but then one remembers that it would have been easier if the rest of the Gentlemen Bastards were there, and they are most assuredly not there anymore – not to mention the Bondsmagi are out to get Locke and Jean for what they did to the Falconer.

This means that in Red Seas, Locke and Jean both lose some of the polish they formerly had in Locke Lamora: they are grittier now, harder around the edges, and less flippant than they were in the first book. Given everything that’s happened so far, this really should come as no surprise. In fact, it’s only right.

Another thing that constrains Locke and Jean is the environment they’re operating in. Tal Verrar is nothing like Camorr; it’s essentially ruled by a military dictator, and military dictators imply the presence of military police – the Archon’s Eyes, as they’re called. Corruption still works, but not as effectively as it did in Camorr, and there is no Secret Peace and no Capa that controls the Right People of Tal Verrar. Without the same freedoms they are accustomed to, Locke and Jean have no choice but to operate very carefully indeed, because they do not have the support of “their kind of people.”

All of that changes, of course, when the Archon sends the two of them off to stir up trouble in the Ghostwinds, amongst the pirate fleet there. After a series of very odd events, what begins as a heist novel turns into a pirate novel when Locke and Jean find themselves on the Poison Orchid, captained by Zamira Drakasha, aided by her second, Ezri Delmastro. In the crew of the Poison Orchid Lynch has created a bunch of new characterst that are easy to love: from the cranky Scholar Treganne to the cleverly-named Mumchance, those of the crew that have a face and a name are given enough time to work their way into the reader’s heart.

Also, once more Lynch does the female of the species great credit in his world. There is no Sabetha yet, but the novel doesn’t want for fun female characters. There is Selendri, confidante (and lover) of Requin, master of the Sinspire. There is also Merrain, right-hand to the Archon. Both of these ladies are deadly in their own right, feared and respected by those around them.

And then there are the two most important people on the Poison Orchid: Zamira Drakasha and Ezri Delmastro. The first impression the reader gets of Drakasha is this quote of Jean describing the captain of the Orchid:

She had it. She wore it like a cloak. The same aura that he’d once seen in Capa Barsavi, something that slept inside until it was drawn out by anger or need, so sudden and so terrible. Death itself was beating a tread upon the ship’s planks.

This comparison to Capa Barsavi is crucial, and sums up in a few words the kind of authority that Drakasha wields on her ship. Further on in the story her characterization deepens, because then she is represented as a fair leader and a mother, especially since she has brought her two children aboard, despite all the dangers of the pirating life. The reasoning for this is a very solid one, and the fact that she is presented as a mother at all is something I thoroughly approve of.

As for Ezri, she is everything that the best of the Gentlemen Bastards were, before the destruction of their gang: pugnacious, fearless, and extremely loyal. As the reader gets to know her, it is easy to see her working alongside Jean and Locke on some heist, especially when the relationship between Jean and herself begins to deepen. But it will also do the reader well to remember that Lynch is no wishy-washy writer, and any wishy-washy desires really ought to get shunted to the side.

All in all, Red Seas Under Red Skies is a most worthy continuation to The Lies of Locke Lamora. The narration and dialogue are still as clever as they were in the last novel, and the world-building is still fantastic, but Red Seas is a little darker, a little edgier, with less of that easy cleverness that predominated in Locke Lamora. This, however, is to be expected, and will definitely leave the reader wanting to know more and read the third book (which comes out later this year).

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