Inverarity (inverarity) wrote,

Book Review: Red Seas Under Red Skies, by Scott Lynch

A fantasy Ocean's Eleven and Pirates of the Caribbean mash-up.

Red Seas Under Red Skies

Bantam Spectra, 2007, 558 pages

After a brutal battle with the underworld that nearly destroyed him, Locke Lamora and his trusted sidekick, Jean, fled the island city of their birth and landed on the exotic shores of Tal Verrar to nurse their wounds. But even at this westernmost edge of civilization, they can't rest for long---and they are soon back doing what they do best: stealing from the undeserving rich and pocketing the proceeds for themselves.

This time, however, they have targeted the grandest prize of all: the Sinspire, the most exclusive and heavily guarded gambling house in the world. Its nine floors attract the wealthiest clientele - and to rise to the top, one must impress with good credit, amusing behavior...and excruciatingly impeccable play. For there is one cardinal rule, enforced by Requin, the house's cold-blooded master: it is death to cheat at any game at the Sinspire. Brazenly undeterred, Locke and Jean have orchestrated an elaborate plan to lie, trick, and swindle their way up the nine floors...straight to Requin's teeming vault. Under the cloak of false identities, they meticulously make their climb - until they are closer to the spoils than ever.

But someone in Tal Verrar has uncovered the duo's secret. Someone from their past who has every intention of making the impudent criminals pay for their sins. Now it will take every ounce of cunning to save their mercenary souls. And even that may not be enough.

Okay, what is it about pirates? Everyone thinks pirates are so awesome. They just don't do that much for me.

Everyone knows robots are much more awesome than pirates.

I enjoyed The Lies of Locke Lamora, which had more polish than most debut novels and introduced the Gentleman Bastards, a gang of thieves with hearts of tarnished copper in a crapsack torture-happy fantasy world and a story with a Martin-esque body count.

The sequel, Red Seas Under Red Skies, is more of the same, plus pirates, though they don't show up until halfway through the book.

Locke Lamora is a fantasy thief of the sort that inspired the AD&D Thief class, like the Gray Mouser to Jean's Fafhrd. Locke can con, swindle, scale, pick, and steal anything, except when the plot requires him to be balked, and Lynch often has him pull off audacious stunts offscreen, like sneaking into a nobleman's heavily-guarded mansion and stealing a piece of jewelry from around his mistress's neck — while he's in bed with her.

Following the events of the first book, Locke and Jean flee Camorr to lick their wounds. Locke goes into an alcoholic depression while Jean starts building up a new gang of thieves in the small town they hole up in. In an effort to drag Locke out of his pity party, Jean provokes Locke into an overly audacious bit of thievery which forces them to flee town. The whole subplot with Jean's gang of apprentice thieves is dropped, never to be mentioned again. I have noticed that Lynch leaves lots of loose threads dangling, like the ancient race that left the Elderglass ruins, and the lost love that Locke has been moaning about for two books now. Either he's planning to wrap this all up spectacularly in a future volume, or he is just one of those authors who gets nifty ideas, doesn't know what to do with them, and forgets about them.

As with the first book, the plot driving this one is a caper. Locke and Jean don't just want a big score — it has to be big and dangerous and piss off powerful people. So they set up long cons against impossible targets, and naturally wind up crossing even more powerful people, getting screwed over every which way, and having to pull off a spectacular triple-cross to get out of it.

Jean and Locke travel to Tal Verrar and spend two years preparing to steal from the Sinspire, a grand casino with successively higher levels one can only ascend with a combination of wealth, status, and game play. The Sinspire's vaults are, of course, supposedly unbreachable, and the Sinspire is run by yet another evil bastard. In the process of executing their scheme, however, they come to the attention of the Archon of Tal Verrar, who commands Tal Verrar's military. The ruling council controls the purse strings, and the Archon needs a threat to materialize and convince them to start showering him with cash again. Another pirate attack like that one seven or eight years ago would do nicely. So he extorts Locke and Jean by administering them a slow-acting poison, and assigns them, improbably, to go recruit a bunch of pirates to attack Tal Verrar so the Archon can defeat them.

Locke and Jean have to satisfy both the Archon and the master of the Sinspire, convincing each that they are double-agents working against the other. Meanwhile, the omnipresent guild of mages they pissed off in the first book is after them, the Archon's scary female lieutenant is actually working for some unknown third party, and that's all before Locke and Jean even get out to sea and meet the pirates they have to convince to attack Tal Verrar so they can all be hunted down and killed.

Juggling so many knives, Lynch does a pretty good job of grounding them without cutting off too many fingers. The pirates are entertaining. This is a pleasingly PC crapsack fantasy world with female warriors, female assassins, female mages, and single mother pirate captains. I'm sure we'll see more of Zamira Drakasha in future volumes.

Scott Lynch's world remains almost unrelentingly grimdark. The upper classes are uniformly cruel, everyone with power is a sadist, and it's only the rare ordinary citizen or secondary character like Drakasha who's not a treacherous sociopath. Locke and Jean are relatively decent only by virtue of the fact that they only kill people who've crossed them, and Locke shows occasional outrage at particularly wanton displays of cruelty. Lynch also continues his habit of marking for death any woman who shows an interest in either of the main characters.

Despite following so many standard fantasy tropes, this was rollicking good fun, one of those books that is most entertaining not for the swashbuckling or the worldbuilding, but for the impossible "How the fuck are they going to get out of this?" situations the author puts the characters in.

Verdict: A page-turner that was, if anything, better than the first book (if a bit more meandering), Red Seas Under Red Skies elevated my desire to read the next book in the series, though I hope Lynch is going to eventually incorporate some larger meta-plot into the story, rather than just continuing to spin yarns about ever-greater heists. 9/10.

Also by Scott Lynch: My review of The Lies of Locke Lamora.

My complete list of book reviews.
Tags: books, fantasy, reviews, scott lynch

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