Red Seas Under Red Skies by Scott Lynch

red-seasRed 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.

Reader Expectations

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?

Strength in Weakness – The Lies of Locke Lamora

One of the best feelings in the world is when a much-hyped book lives up to its reputation. That’s what I’m experiencing right now as, about a decade behind the rest of the reading world, I read Scott Lynch’s The Lies of Locke Lamora. And as of today, one fascinating theme in particular is leaping out at me from this wonderful fantasy novel – the idea of strength in weakness.

I’m nearly halfway through the book, and I just reached a scene where a the childhood Locke Lamora steals glasses for his new long-sighted friend Jean. Locke’s an incredibly smart kid, but in this he shows a weakness, a lack of knowledge about the world. He steals a whole bag full of spectacles, but none of them are the right sort for Jean. Locke didn’t even know that different people need different glasses.

I found this scene particularly touching because it shows the characters connecting through their weaknesses, whether poor eyesight or limited knowledge. That brings them closer together, and in that sense brings them strength. But it demonstrates their strength in another way as well. Understanding their limitations adds to their ability to grow, and to make the most of who they are.

This is a recurring motif in the book – weaknesses as strengths and strengths as weaknesses. Power and wealth make their holders vulnerable to the tricks of con artists. A pretence of blindness helps a criminal hide. Locke’s incredible smarts almost get him killed as a child, when he doesn’t understand the consequences of his clever schemes. Making a scam look flawed makes it all the more effective.

The Lies of Locke Lamora is a beautifully written and fascinating book, and based on the first half I heartily recommend it. As I’m writing this post in advance, hopefully I’ll have finished the book by the time you read this. So if you’ve read Locke Lamora, what did you think of it? And if you haven’t, you really should.