Red Seas Under Red Skies is the second novel in the Gentlemen Bastard sequence by author Scott Lynch. The book was released in July 2007 after The Lies of Locke Lamora, one of the best fantasy debuts of the last years (2006). The Republic of Thieves could be out before the end of the year but I would wager for a 2012 release date. Lynch shared on his website that he suffered from depression, hence the delay between book two and book three. I don't think the delay is such a bad thing for me since it gave me ample time to catch up with the series!
Having barely escaped alive from Camorr after their encounter with the Grey King, Jean and Locke find themselves on the road without a gang. Their sight will eventually center on Tal Verrar, an archipelago on the Sea of Brass. For the Gentleman Bastard, the famous Sinspire of the reputably crooked Requin will present itself as an almost impossible target for a theft. That alone is reason enough for them to try it. However, they won't be able to stay incognito for long and will grab the attention of the Archon of Tal Verrar. Unwillingly under his control, they will have to postpone their work on the Sinspire to become notorious pirates roaming the seas from Tal Verrar to Port Prodigal.
Red Seas Under Red Skies starts as a somewhat straightforward story of thieves preparing themselves for a heist against a gambling house, the now recognizable signature of the Bastard. As the preparations go along, we get flashbacks of key moments in the grand plan from the past two years. I was glad Lynch could come up with an alternative sort of interludes, which was a nice aspect of the first novel that I was dubious on whether or not he could include again in his future novels. Those reminiscences were the best scenes for the time they were present. With Sabetha backstory coming up in RoT, the author will probably use that writing technique as one of his trademark. But then, Maxilan Stragos the Archon of Tal Verrar makes an apparition that will spice things up and render the storyline more complex.
If you're not a fan of boats or naval surroundings, a substantial part of the novel could irritate you. The moment Jean and Locke training on the water for the Archon begins, I felt a break in the build-up. Things will eventually be spiced up as I said but the cut from the main storyline with the Sinspire made me feel at first that I was reading another book with a slower pace. The whole pirate thing is progressively intermixed with the previous thread and everything hopefully converges together toward a great ending.
When I wrote my review for The Lies of Locke Lamora, I said that Locke was one of the most compelling protagonists I had read about in a while. His star still shines, more so with the presence of Jean at his side. Their discussions and the way they taunt each other and understand themselves reflect a splendid characterization. Their friendship is the heart of the novel, the body of the cake with all their con work as the icing. One criticism I would mention is a slight diminution in cleverness. There are moments when the Bastards really are at the top of their game but I was not always amazed at how they could pull out of tricky situations, can't hope for perfection at every turn. Still, there's a healthy dose of surprises, treachery, false trails and winks of complicity.
As in The Lies of Locke Lamora, Locke's opponents are a match for him. He has to surpass himself again and again. Sadly, the Bastards will pass quite some time away from them, but they are always scheming and they always have something else to chew on. However some of them are quite simply stereotypical, at least in the case of some of the pirates. Anyway, I would not really want the author to reinvent them since they are easy to love (but probably also easy to write badly which is not the case here). Zamira Drakasha is the exception and since the biggest part of the naval portion of the book is in her surrounding, I would say there was no fault in depicting the pirates that way. That whole 'expedition' permitted the author to expand the story from the sole city of Tal Verrar.
I could not discern a significant increase in maturity in Scott's writing in comparison with his previous work but the basic aspects of it are clearly spot on. The narrative is again set in the third person with a high quality of dialogues. The pace is uneven in the middle of the book but some arduous passages had to be written to make the ending worthwhile. Also, I may be a neophyte in term of navigation terminology and lore but I can appreciate the fact that Lynch made his homework. From the training of the boys to the naval battles, I felt everything was described as it should, or at least as an acting Captain would.
If you have a knack for pirates, fell in love with Locke and Jean in Lynch first novel and look forward to a Sword and Sorcery (should say Sword and Deception since there's not much sorcery) tale, you will get a blast again with Red Seas Under Red Skies. I felt various emotions while reading and was glad for several grins, some heartfelt scenes and a good dose of action. For the newcomers, I would strongly recommend to start with The Lies of Locke Lamora. It may not be a stupendous evolution for the author versus his debut but it's engaging enough to keep the appetite up for the Gentlemen Bastard sequence.
By the way, I found Lynch's naming pattern to be really inspired, what a great list of names. From the pirates Ravelle and Drakasha to Madam Corvaleur and the city of Salon-Corbeau (even better in audiobook). This may seem like a small detail but it's still a part of a strong world building holding itself thigh and in continuity with Lies.
Technically, the Gollancz cover art is not really impressing with a reddish glow kind of annoying to look at but the burning ship cover posted with the review is quite good looking (Spectra edition). No maps are included with the book but you can find them here (no glossary either). The paperback edition stands at 584 pages. As for the audiobook edition, its length is 25 hours and 38 minutes and the narrator was Michael Page. Great choice/voice and even better for the names Lynch came up with. I didn't think that Jean was pronounced 'à la française'!
Red Seas Under Red Skies review score :
Overall (not an average)