Review: Red Seas Under Red Skies by Scott Lynch

This novel is Scott Lynch’s second, the follow-up to the popular and celebrated The Lies of Locke Lamora. ( Red Seas Under Red Skies takes the Gentleman Bastards and shows them moving on to another city, where they are in the midst of a long con trying to steal from the Sinspire, a tower of gambling in all its odd implementations, including a card game where the loser of each hand spins a wheel and is forced to drink a shot of liqour — the game is played until one of the players cannot functionally play the game anymore.  Our leads are expert confidence artists and thieves of the first order, who would be at home running scams with the crew of Oceans’ Eleven or Robin Hood’s band of merry men.

The leads are first-class thieves, but the drama of the story comes from the fact that the universe has it in for them.  For all their plans, bad things keep happening, one on top of another.  This helps push the novel forward, which is good, because otherwise it would have been a sturctural mess.

It already has a problem — it’s basically one novel inside of another novel.   The title and cover suggest Pirates!, understandable considering The Pirates of the Carribean series and its re-popularization of the figure of the pirate.  And once the novel gets our heroes onto a ship and sends them off for nautical adventures, the book takes on a certain tone and we are introduced to a rich cast that strikes this reader as being designed in response to criticisms of Lynch’s first book — namely that there were hardly any women in the novel.  In Red Seas Under Red Skies, the famous pirate captain is a woman, as is her tiny-but-badass Leiutenant.  These two along with other characters balance out the gender disparity that Lynch suffered from in Lies, but it doesn’t account for the fact that the early part of the novel in the Sinspire and dealing with The Archon (think a shogun) don’t really have enough to do with the pirate bits and the fun thematics in putting Locke, a priest of the god of thieves, in with a society of pirates.

Lynch would probably have been better served in writing two novels, one about the Sinspire and the Archon, and then saving the next one for the pirates, or jumping straight to the pirates and filling in the Sinspire game.  As is, the novel is uneven, though enjoyable throughout.  The best characters aren’t introduced until more than halfway through the novel, and the dramatic climax of the novel is derived mostly from the pirate story, such that the Sinspire/Archon resolution is almost an afterthought, though it does lead to a strong cliffhanger/hook ending.

It’s a fun ride, and if you enjoyed The Lies of Locke Lamora, go ahead and pick up Red Seas Under Red Skies.  There are to be a total of seven books in the series (forget trilogies — septologies are the new hotness)  It’s a little less focused and polished than Lynch’s first, but that’s inevitable considering that Lynch spent the better part of a decade working on his first novel, and then had a breakout success demanding sequels as soon as possible.  The conclusion of Red Seas.. has me excited for the next novel, and I hope that it takes the initial hook and then attaches it to the rest of the novel’s plot in a way that is substantive and consistent.

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