Red Seas Under Red Skies, the second in Scott Lynch’s Gentleman Bastards series, is a really interesting book. Partly for the content, partly for the structure, and partly for the responses it’s received.
Red Seas Under What Now?
This book continues the adventures of Locke Lamora and his friend Jean Tannen, a pair of expert thieves and conmen living in a rich fantasy world. Since the last book, they’ve spent two years recovering and setting up a massive heist. But as the time draws near complications arise. Soon they’re caught dangerously between political factions, a situation which will eventually lead them against their wills into a life of piracy.
Part of the joy of these books is the skill and cleverness of the characters, watching them apply their brains to impossible situations. The rich range of people they meet, especially aboard the pirate ships, adds to this. And there’s the world building – rich, deep, and never confusing.
These are characters and places worth spending time on.
Are We Nearly There Yet?
Structurally, this book is kind of weird. Like the second season of Daredevil, it switches emphasis from one plotline to another halfway through. Everything ties together neatly in the end – something Daredevil wasn’t so smooth about – but still, it feels odd. Knowing from the cover, the title, and the blurb that there was piracy to come, I had to read half the book before that plotline kicked in. And once it went full throttle, the other parts stayed relevant but very much off screen.
It’s an interesting structure. While I ultimately enjoyed the way it came together, there was still something a bit unsatisfying about having all the initial setup swept aside midway through. And then everything got tied up in a rush – a rush relative to a 600-page novel at least.
It’s still a satisfying read, but nowhere near as artfully structured as The Lies of Locke Lamora.
Responses to this book have shown a lot about how expectations shape our reading. The huge love many readers had for the first book fuelled negative reactions from some quarters about this sequel, which simply couldn’t live up to its predecessor. Is that fair? Maybe. After all, this is meant to be read after Lies. That context is something any sequel writer needs to bear in mind.
And then there’s the black middle-aged mother who’s the captain of a pirate ship. I thought this character was amazing. She’s become a small icon for more representative fantasy, as has Lynch’s sterling defence of her. Because some people have said “this isn’t realistic, how could she be the captain when she’s a woman and a parent and blagh blagh blagh liberal conspiracy?” This when reading about a world that has unbreakable glass and near-magical alchemy. Because it turns out that you’ll get stronger reactions from changing social rules in fantasy than from changing physical ones.
People, huh. What are you gonna do?
A Book Worth Knowing
Red Seas Under Red Skies isn’t perfect, because nothing is. It isn’t as close to perfection as Lies. But it’s still smart, fascinating fantasy with a good heart. It’s an important piece of fantasy that tells us a lot about reading, writing, and audiences. Above all else, it’s a fine story.
What more recommendation do you need?