Friday, January 22, 2010

Red Seas Under Red Skies by Scott Lynch

I was late discovering Scott Lynch's The Lies of Locke Lamora, which I read about a year ago. It's a brilliant book. I don't know why I took so long to read Red Seas Under Red Skies, its sequel. I liked it almost as much.

Red Seas Under Red Skies picks up a few years after the events from the first book, although the preceding time is filled in with flashbacks. Gentleman Bastards Locke and Jean have started a new game in Tal Verrar; they're intent on swindling everything they can from the Sinspire, an opulent gambling house. Their careful plans are coming along perfectly when the ruling Archon discovers them and decides he needs a couple of pawns. After that, as usual things go steeply downhill for Locke and Jean; Locke has to keep his considerable wit and Jean has to mop up with his brawn to keep them alive.

If these books were straightforward romps, they'd be good enough, but they're more than just that. The writing is excellent and the worldbuilding is among the best I've ever read. Some books you just want to step inside them and explore--but I must say, this is not one of them. The world Lynch has created is violent and casually cruel; Locke himself is a thief, a con artist, and sometimes (when he can't avoid it) a murderer. But somehow, it's fascinating rather than repellent, and Locke is a likable, very real, very flawed character. His relationship with Jean in this book is deeper and more nuanced. Really, every one of Lynch's characters--no matter how insignificant, no matter how brief a mention he or she gets on the page--seems surely to have a real existence independent of the plot's needs. And the plot--oh, gosh, the plot is sort of amazing.

I'll now stop gushing for a moment and point out a problem with Red Seas Under Red Skies. Its tone is distinctly uneven. The first half or so of the book feels very much like The Lies of Locke Lamora, but once Locke and Jean set out to sea, the tone changes considerably. It feels weird to say this because much of Lynch's plots hinge on people doing awful things to each other, which I read while cringing, but the second half of Red Seas feels, well, tame. They sail about. I mean, sure, a lot happens, none of which I can tell you without dropping massive spoilers, but the intensity of the portions of the book that take place on land just isn't there.

I also found the ending less than satisfying. The first book ends spectacularly, fiercely, and when I finished reading the last page I felt sort of cleansed after the hellish emotion I'd just gone through. This ending just doesn't pack the same punch (although I should point out that I went through a lot of Kleenex while reading it). When I finish a book I want to feel like I've finished, and this ending mostly just had me frantic to start the next book.

On the whole, though, I found Red Seas Under Red Skies brilliant and well worth reading. (Even if my cheap-ass paperback copy already has pages falling out from the crappy glue binding not holding, and some of the pages were printed wrong so that the words were almost cut off the page.) The next book comes out this year, and conveniently enough it's being released on my birthday. You know what I'm getting myself.

B&N link

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