Red Seas Under Red Skies: Scott Lynch

★★★★½

The Gentleman Bastards: Book II

A debut novel like The Lies of Locke Lamora sets an uncomfortably high standard for its sequel to follow. It was witty, complex and gritty, while still managing to be warm and engaging, and it was one of the most unexpectedly enjoyable books I’ve read this year. I half-dreaded picking up Red Seas Under Red Skies; but I needn’t have worried. Lynch has done it again. To be precise, he’s managed to come up with something even more fun and extravagant than the first book.

Red Seas is rather different in spirit and setting to Lies – and that’s as it should be, because there’s nothing duller than than a sequel which just regurgitates the first book – but the same flawed and flamboyant characters are still at the heart of the novel. And there are pirates. To be fair, the pirates are just the cherry on the top of a spun-sugar plot so intricate and complex that it feels as fragile as one of Locke and Jean’s confidence tricks: with bluffs and counter-bluffs everywhere, spies, disguises, dramatic escapes and an unforeseen obsession with kittens. The best thing to do is simply sit back and enjoy the ride. The Gentleman Bastards just keep getting better and better.

 We rejoin Locke and Jean two years after the events of the first book, in the sumptuous city of Tal Verrar, where they are close to pulling off yet another elaborate confidence trick. They are casually gambling their way up through the levels of the Sinspire, the most exclusive casino in the land, aiming to catch the attention of its reclusive proprietor Requin and his legendary, lethal assistant Selendri. Months of work and a painful number of solari have gone into this con and so, with the end in sight, Locke is particularly irritated when their plans are interrupted by another commission. The problem is that their would-be employer is immensely powerful and has… let’s say… very persuasive means of drawing them into his service. Now they must juggle their Sinspire job alongside an absurd mission to draw the fearsome Ghostwind pirates back into Verrari waters – a mission for which they are both manifestly unsuitable, as Locke’s traditional response to ship-travel is seasickness.

But their patron refuses to accept excuses, and Locke and Jean (or Leocanto Kosta and Jerome de Ferra as they presently call themselves) are sent off to naval boot-camp, to ready themselves for another dazzling deception, with their lives more than usually at stake. I don’t want to say any more – and there is plenty more to say, because the book has enough digressions, narrative side-streets and background colour that you can sink into it and lose all awareness of the word around you. At times you have to chew your way through it – but I loved every minute of doing so.

If the last book read like the Neapolitan love child of Oliver Twist and The Godfather, this one is probably better described as a steampunk version of Pirates of the Caribbean seasoned with dashes of James Bond and The Thomas Crown Affair. Lynch’s new setting, in the city of Tal Verrar, allows him to play with clockwork machinery, alchemy and artificers to a greater degree than in Camorr, and we see some facilities that feel rather modern for such a setting… such as a lift, for example. And this isn’t just a good setting; it’s well-written, too. The great clash between ships (I’m being vague so as not to give spoilers) was one of the most thrilling and tragic sea-battles I’ve read: I really sensed the growing fear and anticipation as the two vessels came swerving towards impact. And the drama is underpinned by more fine characterisation. Even in the first book I thought that Locke and Jean were very solid, rounded characters and in this sequel they come into their own as we see more of the strong bond between them, and see them forced to make some very difficult decisions. They are both gripping – particularly Locke; and I can already see that I’ll be reading the next book not so much for the plot as to spend more time in his brilliantly spontaneous mind.

Among the supporting characters, a special mention must be made of one Zamira Drakasha. Generally I don’t like the word ‘badass’ – I find it ugly and overused – but I genuinely can’t think of a better way to describe this deeply awesome pirate captain. Lynch gives us a woman who convincingly makes her crew tremble in their boots; who asks nothing of her men that she wouldn’t do herself if necessary; who is one of the most feared and respected captains in Port Prodigal; and who is doing all of this while bringing up two children on board ship. And she’s only the most impressive of a whole cohort of formidable women in this book.

Much of the nautical jargon went over my head, but that’s the point; and Lynch balances the rest of his writing between the reliably foul (the dialogue is still peppered with swearing) and some unexpectedly fetching similes, such as the clouds which ‘came and went like a tavern dancer’s favour’. The banter between Locke and Jean continues to be well-written and not irritating – the problem I have with banter is that often it just makes the author look as if they’re trying to be amusing, whereas here I genuinely believe that I’m listening to two men who’ve known each other most of their lives. Consequently we get wonderful conversations like this, about a stolen necklace:

‘That’s a sweet piece,’ said Jean … ‘You didn’t snatch that off a street’.
‘No,’ said Locke … ‘I got it from the neck of the governor’s mistress.’
‘You can’t be serious.’
‘In the governor’s manor.’
‘Of all the —‘
‘In the governor’s bed.’
‘Damned lunatic!’
‘With the governor sleeping next to her.’
The night quiet was broken by the high, distant trill of a whistle, the traditional swarming-noise of city watches everywhere. Several other whistles joined in a few moments later.
‘It is possible,’ said Locke with a sheepish grin, ‘that I have been slightly too bold.’

Moments like that, with their casually swaggering matinee-adventure flavour, left me practically gurgling with glee. The satisfaction of reading about Locke Lamora is comparable to reading about Lymond: he can be irritatingly clever and I haven’t a clue how he manages to pull off half his victories, but I’m content just to be swept along. And I’m very happy to know that there’s another book, The Republic of Thieves, waiting in the wings and due to be released this autumn. Frankly, there are times when I just want to be entertained and these books, bristling with chutzpah and daring, hit the spot exactly. If you’ve read and enjoyed The Kingkiller Chronicles by Patrick Rothfuss, you should give these a go. For me, they’re better than Rothfuss. You may not agree with me, but I thoroughly believe they’re worth a few days of anyone’s time. I shall be back with The Republic of Thieves as soon as I can; but in the meantime I leave you with a Thought For The Day from Locke himself:

Crooked Warden … men are stupid. Protect us from ourselves. If you can’t, let it be quick and painless.

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6 thoughts on “Red Seas Under Red Skies: Scott Lynch

  1. Heloise says:

    Lovely review, you really managed to convey the exuberance and sense of adventure this novel radiates. I never understood why so many who had liked the first novel in the series had issues with this second one – I agree that it is just as good, if not better. Very much looking forward to the next volume where we'll finally meet Sabetha…

  2. Leander says:

    Oh will we? I was beginning to wonder whether she would be kept offstage the entire time, which I wouldn't put past Lynch… I am now looking forward to the third novel wholeheartedly, though. If he can manage to make the second one just as good as the first, then I think we're in safe hands. Thanks for encouraging me to read on!

  3. Heloise says:

    Well, the blurb for the new book states so quite unambiguously, depends on how trustworthy you think it is. And there is also this plan of the series of a whole which at least hints at her appearance. Of course, this is from 2009 and might not be up to date anymore… I guess we'll know for sure in a couple of weeks. 😛

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