Red Seas Under Red Skies is the second entry in The Gentlemen Bastards Sequence by American author Scott Lynch. I’m going to address this point up front—it isn’t as strong as its predecessor, The Lies of Locke Lamora. Comparison is unavoidable. Yet this isn’t a major criticism, because The Lies of Locke Lamora is one of the most enjoyable fantasy novels that I have ever read. That’s a lot to live up to.
Red Seas Under Red Skies begins with surviving Gentlemen Bastards Locke and Jean running cons in Tal Verrar. Unsurprisingly they have set their sights on the unbreakable vault at the Sinspire, Tal Verrar’s major casino and entertainment venue. The events of The Lies of Locke Lamora (from which they are fleeing) still dog them, though the impact is felt more in character than in plot. Unfortunately Locke and Jean’s plans, literally years in the making, are interrupted by the Archon of Tal Verrar. The Archon would prefer the Gentlemen Bastards turn their talents to piracy in an effort to scare the citizens of Tal Verrar into renewing their support for the Archon’s navy.
(Re)building the world
As Lynch moves the narrative away from Locke and Jean’s home city of Camorr, more world building is required. While the setting is not quite as vivid as the lovingly constructed Camorr of The Lies of Locke Lamora, there is a certain believable quality to the new places Lynch presents to the reader. We see what it means for people to live in the ruins of an ancient civilization. It is intriguing to see how each city and culture is shaped by the surviving Elderglass structures on which it is built.
It isn’t simply the physical setting that Lynch has expanded and developed. The narrative sets aside much of the detached levity that characterised the first book. In some sections this works for the better, as the emotional weight of relationships is magnified. In others … well, suffice it to say that I’m glad Locke’s self-pitying, self-destructive phase didn’t last any longer. Frustrating as elements of this adjustment to the tone were, they were clearly made in favour of realistic character development. Locke shouldn’t skip merrily away from the death of his friends and life in Camorr. He doesn’t. Neither should Jean be satisfied to live his entire life in Locke’s shadow. He isn’t.
Redefining non-linear narrative
One of the most commendable aspects of Red Seas Under Red Skies is the development of Locke and Jean’s friendship. The Locke and Jean of The Lies and Locke Lamora shared an utterly unbreakable trust. Red Seas Under Red Skies opens with Locke betrayed and held at crossbow point by Jean. Neither Locke nor the reader can believe that Jean would turn on him. Lynch takes the story back in time to show us precisely how their friendship could be stretched to its limit.
The heavily layered, non-linear narrative can be initially confusing as the story jumps back and forth through time, but it allows Lynch to fill the story with the wonderful irony that delighted me in The Lies of Locke Lamora. Even as you laugh at the implausibility of Locke and Jean’s pratfalls, you recognize that it was all foreshadowed, and events that had you scratching your head return with tremendous significance. Perhaps the opening act is unnecessarily drawn out, taking longer than needed for the story to head out to sea, yet Lynch maintains the rollicking feel with witty (expletive-laden) dialogue and Venetian flair.
Those incorrigible rogues
In spite of their clashes, Locke and Jean are still very much Locke and Jean, and still tremendous, vividly drawn characters. Lynch takes the Gentlemen Bastards out of their comfort zone and makes the reader feel it, but their irrepressible charisma remains intact. They are hilariously relentless in their scheming even when faced with enormous odds, double and triple crosses, and the challenges of keeping their multiple identities in order. They are no longer ‘smarter and richer than everybody else,’ but they are still too smart for their own good.
Why should you read this book?
Red Seas Under Red Skies is a very enjoyable sequel to The Lies of Locke Lamora and is a no-brainer for fans of the original. The only reservation I feel in recommending the series is that Lynch’s difficult personal circumstances have put the next installment in the series on hold (much like another fantasy author who shall remain nameless). Red Seas Under Red Skies was released in mid-2007, and four years later there is no fixed release date for Republic of Thieves. However, at the very least there are two fantastic books available for you to read right now.