Red Seas Under Red Skies is what Swashbuckling Fantasy Sequels Are Made Of

We find the remnants of our band from The Lies of Locke Lamora stalking the pits of the Sinspire, patiently and calculatingly ascending lady luck’s ladder in Lynch’s Monte Carlo, the city-state Tal Verrar, marked on any map as the destination for the apex of high society and high stakes. The absurdity of the back in-saddle starting point exhibits the author’s greatest strength, his choices on how to pace a novel.

red seas under red skies scott lynch

The cut scenes to the recent past gives us the anatomy of the scheme that takes us to moments transpiring in the direct aftermath of The Lies of Locke Lamora are perfectly placed, functioning as a new door to open just before the occupied space stagnates. You seem to never be anywhere but where you want to be,

Lynch just doesn’t let you in on the fact until a chapter later, the reader neither sprinting or running a marathon as much as they are in a literary shuttle run. Our ‘hero’ is doing the only thing any reader should expect as an aftermath to the first book…

The Thorn of Camorr is grieving.

Reduced to a melancholic lush, burdened with the weight of  an adynamic soul the Gentleman Bastards have been reduced to a duo and it is Jean who takes on a gamgee role to make sure that number isn’t cut in half again. The bastard’s lifestyles are inherently risky but Locke is used to winning his gambits and the effect of the loss of members of his troupe is not given short shrift by Lynch.

While Locke chooses to rot we witness Jean exploring other avenues, other friendships, and destiny — paths that makes him at time vague, unreadable even to Locke. For Locke it was the dead end, for Jean it was a bit of crossroad, they always knew the stakes better than anyone but never had to pay-up, and the events in Camorr were shakedowns of the soul. When we finally see the charisma and vigor return to Locke   he is not unchanged.  He has doubt, not in himself or Jean, but in Jean’s faith in him.

There is an Ocean’s Eleven vibe but what drives the duo most is neither a faire sauter la banque goal nor vengeance, but it is passion for the art of the trade as Lynch cuts back to unveil steps to the heist at intervals even as they are being cast in multiple plots against other factions  simultaneously.

When I reviewed The Lies of Locke Lamora the single stumbling point for me were the Bondsmagi. Their presence as a nation of essentially unstoppable ace-in-the-hole-ass hole-boogiemen seemed more convenient plot device to me than a welcome in reading and even though Lynch memorably made sure to exhibit they could indeed be touched — and with extreme prejudice — it remains an element still that I wish we could be rid of.

It does, however, give that constant threat of reprisal in Locke’s and Jean’s lives and one they are fully aware that they are almost powerless to stop if the Bondsmagi want to collect but I just never shook their plot needed burden to deal with just to make the Grey King’s ploy in the first book plausible.

That aside, Red Seas Under Red Skies is not only a worthy sophomore effort, it is with little doubt the superior book. Too infrequent is our chance to read great pirate stories, such that we all have that similar shortlist in our head when asked to reference them: The Scar, On Stranger Tides, The Princess Bride (okay I’m stretching but it’s one of those inclusions you simply can’t be mad about), Pyrates, Captain Blood; some more dedicated readers may include recent stories by Wells Tower or Rhys Hughes and now Lynch supplies an addition to that list.

I like it more because it features our protagonists being used as puppets by both sides in a feud over control of Tal Verrar between a well informed Warlord and the master of the Sinspire, Requin, and his majordomo while learning the art of pirating with one eye always looking over their shoulder for Bondmagi and constantly amending their own scheme in play,

Lynch does all this and is yet still able to still make a brief excursion to Salon Corbeau the highlight and most decisive and gratifying chapter in the novel.

The Thorn of Camorr had been a mask he half- heartedly worn as a game. Now it is almost a separate entity, a hungry thing, and increasingly insistent ghost prying at his resolve to stand up for the mandate of his faith. Let me out, it whispered. Let me out. The rich must remember. By the gods I can make damn sure they never forget.

The glamorization of thieves and their exploits are hardly an untested formula in all mediums of fiction (and non-fiction)  and Lynch’s books have a manner about them that make them feel cool but not trendy. It’s more pool hall junkies than smokin’ aces and Locke’s healthy distrust for the wealthy is so blatant that it creates this anchor out of an aura of honesty around the character that creates a natural common ground with more than ninety-ninety percent of the people who could potentially pick up the book.

Chain’s words rattle in the back of his mind and brands Locke to be an instrument, not as a social equalizer, but to act as a living memory and to be the tool with arms long enough to hit the elite in the mouth — not so much for the joy of the literal punch, but to personify the figurative, permanent black eye.

While Lynch keeps his promise of offering the reader a complete, self-contained story in each book of the sequence, it is the chapters such as this sprinkled in both books that expose the roots of the Thorn, the foundation and origin of the persona and we are a witness to it as much in the displays of his commitment to perfection of his craft as we are when he later insures a family of master artisans be spared a settlement’s judgment.

It is really these chapters that supply that secondary, post-read pondering content and allows us to discuss Locke himself: peerlessly confident, a traveling — even if for one person audience — show, adrift, and guided by nothing but perhaps his own unique brand of avarice and the camaraderie of his partner, or is he that and still a child — looking to be guided by a higher authority, be it a father figure or deity.

Is he driven by purpose or constantly searching for it? I’m unsure if it was the author’s intent — perhaps it was my own projection — but Locke seemed to go into a darth-mode for a moment, as he was a spectator of game played in Salon Corbeau called The Amusement War. He showed what was more than mere disgust, it was pure, unbridled, hatred.

We know Locke is certainly capable of mischief from grand theft to killing, but the presence of this hate was almost disconcerting, and in the most positive of ways.

This is not a balanced individual and while capable of extreme concentration and control when necessary, as much as Locke is able to manipulate his surroundings — the world moves him, not the other way around, and thus a feeling of contrivance is avoided in a manner that sometimes is not true of larger than life characters where too often the world revolves around them. Locke plays but this isn’t his playground.

This is as much a Jean novel as it a Locke novel, and it Jean’s story that in some ways saves the novel as the secondary characters tend to be a bit uneventful and seem perhaps too bit of a clean fit.

There was no Chains, or characters of the like that were only limited by pages they were on, not what they brought to them. When we left Camorr we did so feeling we left some future stories whether they included the bastards or not, told or left untold where Red Seas Under Red Skies feels much more like just simply leaving a chapter behind us. Lynch has a talent for what amounts to multiple epilogues, and while actual roles may seem a bit less thoughtful or standout, the conclusions to various plot lines never do.

It’s probably true that Red Seas Under Red Skies ends up feeling more harmless than it’s predecessor and in end we are left much the same as we were in the beginning except the condition of the spirit and body change places, yet from the tone you feel there is a weary but playful composure — a game face — has returned to Locke and we wonder if these red seas will ever lead him to a home.

For even the most novice of fantasy enthusiast it is hard not to notice the Mieville similarity, not in the sense of adding to the tired modernization of the fantastic spiel, or at in any way implying a creative riff in regards to content, but in terms of general symmetry.

Like China Mieville in the The Scar Lynch abandons the confines of his urban center that not only served as the backbone of his introduction but also breathes as if alive — a constant presence without dialogue – and chooses to launch to the high seas, a decision that makes us as much reader and mystery tourist. It also creates a odd sensation that rather mimics and reinforces the point-of-view and continuity cuts from past to present — as readers we were not so much unlike Bellis in search of future opportunity but ran off from our immediate past enough to look back before every step forward and the subsequent trips were what made the story.

We still have that Camorr musk on us as readers and it takes awhile for us to appreciate the fresh sea air. In Red Seas Under Red Skies, no matter the location of the masquerade at hand, Camorr still plays an off-stage roll and we perhaps learn more of the city — and the mentality of her vagabond sons while being elsewhere. There is also an excursion in The Scar to a land of blood sucking horror mosquito people, and Lynch has his version of such a stopover and monsters only they are represented by man.

In the more the merrier era of ensembles and complexity weighed by large cast numbers Lynch chooses what is still not the path less taken but is one that is polluted with innumerable unmarked graves. Blank not due to a lack of information but to signify lack of relevance from one another.

Stories buried that don’t require a revisit, failed adventurers blurred together that fail to spark reasonable expectations for recognition and whose names die even if they themselves do not, where the Tristan of Eutracia’s will come to rest or be buried alive.

It is the path that has successfully been undertaken by few, these are characters that threaten to become part of the very fabric of fantasy’s conscious .  They are not necessarily characters that claim new territories and spill first blood on new ground but are those that come to define.

I like Neverwhere more than the next guy — but who was the protagonist again? Inevitably some replies will be “the guy who Vandermer and Croup were chasing”.

With Lynch, through just two books you feel as if the author perhaps has stumbled upon that multiverse-spanning, vellum-crossing, shadow walking, dream trail that ran through the Underdark that once revealed a lavender glint reflecting off dual scimitars, or was once trodden by a storm-bearing Albino, or where a blind prince of Amber sulked, or where stalked a ring-totting leper, and even once bore a fool wizard and his luggage, among others.

It is that connection with a single character that was once vogue that seems to a point admonished now thus the number of personalities that are still able to drive a series by their presence alone are rare.

The accomplishment includes and goes beyond being the topic of self-important small circles; it extends into daring to be large, indeed embracing it, but not at the same time fearing to achieve that state by accepting built in limitations more often simply the vices of minority aloofness.

These are characters that create absolute statements — to actually come to not like Locke Lamora seems near implausible, a sad, dark place, an opinion hell with baffling inhabitants and even stranger horizons who sadly run away from large crowds just to be noticed and seemingly always scratch their head when they miss the party wondering why. These are the characters that transcend book and series titles: they are the Elric, Conan, Covenant, and Drizzt books.

The vast majority of the time I would say the human element — I think — remains the most important facet of any piece of fiction but I think we often limit what we perceive as grand accomplishment to examinations of that state and tend to view simply the enjoyment of as something lesser. There are simply very few reads that just have that kick back and relax ambiance, that timeless fresh and jazzy ‘Summertime’ experience,

“Here it is the groove slightly transformed just a bit of a break from the norm just a little somethin’ to break the monotony of all that hardcore dance that has gotten to be a little bit out of control it’s cool to dance but what about the groove that soothes that moves romance give me a soft subtle mix and if ain’t broke then don’t try to fix it” 

— ahhh… good times!

That’s what Lynch brings to the shelf. When will Locke find what he searches for? Is it something even the greatest thief can steal? Does Locke Lamora fascinate me? Not in specific ways that some characters do. But the idea of more of his as of yet untold adventures do — and that’s an accomplishment.

The headstones don’t lie.

That was a very long way of saying this is just fun fucking caper fantasy. Read it.