Red Seas Under Red Skies, by Scott Lynch, starts two years after The Lies of Locke Lamora ended. Jean Tannen and Locke Lamora have left Camorr and are planning a spectacular heist of the biggest “chance house” or casino in Tal Verrar, but, as is usually the case with the Gentlemen Bastards, things do not go as planned.
Red Seas Under Red Skies offers many of the same delights that the first book did. Lynch’s descriptions are rich, the banter between characters crackles with wit, energy and timing. Locke and Jean are well-developed characters with a solid history between then, but the secondary characters are good too, in particular pirate captain Zamira Drakasha and her second-in-command, Ezri, and the casino owner Requin. The conflicts between Locke and Jean are real conflicts, rooted in the different values of these two lifelong friends, and in this book much of the suspense comes from the arguments they have and the decisions they make.
Through narrative flashbacks we learn that after leaving Camorr, Locke tumbled into a deep well of self-pity; in fact, starting about page 60, Jean sets up the best intervention ever. Locke’s recovery includes the inspiration to steal from the richest casino owner in Tal Verrar, Requin. Jean and Locke believe that they are safe and anonymous in this city, but they are wrong; the bondmagi, powerful wizards, still pursue them, and another powerful person in Tal Verrar has become aware of their presence.
The city’s political structure pits a ruling council called the Priori against a military leader called the archon, not unlike a CEO and a board of directors. Theoretically, the archon answers to the Priori. Realistically, because he controls the navy, Stragos answers to no one. Fearing that his political power is waning, the archon abducts Locke and Jean and forces them to become part of a plot to frighten the city into ceding him more power. What is the one thing an ocean-based merchant society, who moves its good by ship, fears above everything else? That’s right; pirates. Soon Jean and Locke find themselves at sea.
From there, nothing goes as it is expected to. Things get worse and worse for Locke and Jean (which means better and better for the reader). Soon, though, our two heroes are able to turn the tables and come up with a scheme that keeps them safe (relatively), and allows them to follow through on their original heist, stealing from the invulnerable Requin.
Along the way, some real questions arise as to the future of the Gentlemen Bastards. Jean sees a new future available to him, both through piracy and his growing closeness to Ezri. Locke is still focused entirely on revenge against the archon, who has stolen Locke’s freedom, and also against a wealthy, decadent city-state called Salon Corbeau. Lynch understands that real conflict makes characters and novels interesting, and he explores it here. He also exploits the fact that it’s hard to have a serious conversation when people are shooting at you, when you are running for your life, or trying to cling to a ship’s rail in the middle of a pitched battle.
Structurally, I thought Red Seas Under Red Skies had some problems. The first book ran over seven hundred pages, but much of that developed the childhood educations of our principles. Lynch begins with the same structure here, using flashbacks to show us Jean and Locke preparing for the heist, but soon abandons that technique as un-needed. This book comes in at 760 pages, and I think it could have been one hundred pages shorter and still kept its richness and complexity. Lynch needs to trust his writing, and his readers. If he shortened every scene by a paragraph or two, he would have a leaner story and still share his wildly imaginative world view. Probably because of the length, the book’s tension sagged in the middle and the ending seemed very rushed, with characters and plot points abruptly introduced with little or no background. Lastly, the book opens with a prologue that is in fact a scene from the last quarter of the book. It is meant to create suspense; but it isn’t needed. The real tension that emerges as Jean explores other options is quite enough, and the opening scene feels gimmicky when we encounter it again. Lynch is a natural at drama and does not need to engage in this kind of showy trick to hold his reader’s attention.
Even with the long slow middle, the book held my interest and I enjoyed all the grace notes; pirate Drakasha as Mother of the Year, for instance, or the suite of custom chairs, or the lovely homage to The Three Musketeers and a carte blanche. The book ends on a powerfully suspenseful note, leaving me plenty to worry about as I wait for The Republic of Thieves.