Sunday, 13 October 2013

Review: 'Red Seas Under Red Skies' by Scott Lynch

Thief and con-man extraordinaire, Locke Lamora, and the ever lethal Jean Tannen have fled their home city and the wreckage of their lives. But they can’t run forever and when they stop they decide to head for the richest, and most difficult, target on the horizon. The city state of Tal Verarr. And the Sinspire.

The Sinspire is the ultimate gambling house. No-one has stolen so much as a single coin from it and lived. It’s the sort of challenge Locke simply can’t resist . . .
 . . . but Locke’s perfect crime is going to have to wait. Someone else in Tal Verarr wants the Gentlemen Bastards’ expertise and is quite prepared to kill them to get it. Before long, Locke and Jean find themselves engaged in piracy. Fine work for thieves who don’t know one end of a galley from another.

 So you’ve just finished reading The Lies of Locke Lamora. You loved the devilish characters, witty dialogue and clever plotting. You can’t wait to read the next instalment in the series, yet at the same time you’re thinking to yourself: it can’t be as good as Lies. Can it?
It can indeed. And it’s not only just as good: it’s better.

Red Seas under Red Skies, the second instalment in the Gentlemen Bastard Sequence, is everything that the first book is and more. The central characters are much more fleshed-out and complex, their interaction with each other is more diverse and entertaining, and the plot – involving the usual schemes within schemes within schemes – is unbelievably elaborate, and yet somehow never confusing. Lynch has an incredible knack for keeping details from the reader, feeding us just enough information to make us feel complicit with the grand plans of our favourite thieves, yet at the same time keeping us ignorant of their final twists of genius until the time comes for the great unveiling.
The book has a much closer focus than its predecessor on the relationship between Locke and Jean, which is being sorely tested by the fallout of the events from Lies. Their loyalty is heart-warming, their banter is (as always) natural and funny, and their disagreements, while hurtful, seem to make their friendship that much more realistic. Their schemes are also much more ambitious, this time involving card tricks, pirates, unbreakable vaults and the most powerful figures in the city of Tal Verarr, as well as a few hidden players to complicate matters. The plotting is nothing short of brilliant.

As with Lies, though, the payoff comes at an enormous cost. Lynch never lets our heroes simply walk off into the sunset unscathed, and there’s pain and heartbreak here that somehow feels more personal than the characters’ losses in Lies. The characters – all of them – are so well-written that it’s difficult not to empathise with them (or hate them).

Red Seas contains many of the same elements as Lies – daring cons, gallows humour, loveable rogues and complex opponents – and yet has a very different feel. This is largely to do with its setting. Choosing to set a large amount of the book at sea creates a completely new atmosphere and works as a brilliant mechanism to illustrate that our two thieves are perhaps, figuratively and literally, out of their depth. It allows for a novel source of humour, particularly Locke and Jean’s sea-training and the shambles of their fraudulent ‘captaincy’, and also endows the story with a fresh new feel rather than simply recycling the ideas of the first book and placing them in a different city.

I also take pleasure in noting that the author is very skilled at including certain ghoulish elements to his stories, elements that work to create an amazingly macabre backdrop for otherwise ordinary events. Some of these grim little touches are the Midden Deep (a bottomless hole into which prisoners are thrown, possibly to fall forever), the death-lanterns (boat-sized jellyfish that absorb your blood through your skin), and of course the eerie Ghostwind Isles (a pirates’ haven consisting of volcanoes, jungles, suicide-inducing fog and mysterious forces that can cause entire villages to disappear).
I first read this book around six years ago and remembered it as being very good; I’ve read it again now and realised that it’s actually brilliant. Now, onto the newly-released book #3 . . .

My rating: 5/5

Click here to buy Red Seas under Red Skies on Amazon.
Click here to read my review of The Lies of Locke Lamora (Gentlemen Bastard Sequence #1)


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