In the summer of 2006 one of the most praised fantasy début of the decade appeared. The Lies of Locke Lamora was a fresh wind through the genre, one that combined a more or less traditional epic fantasy setting with heist novel. It was a fast flowing, at time humorous novel that cleverly made use of flashbacks to give the story and the characters depth. Its success was overwhelming and it must have posed quite a problem for the author. How on earth do you live up to expectations created by The Lies of Locke Lamora? In Red Seas Under Red Skies, the second book in a planned series of seven, Lynch continues his story. Living up to expectations was nearly impossible for Lynch and I mostly agree with the people who say it is not quite as good as the previous book. That being said, it is still a very entertaining book and a worthy successor to The Lies of Locke Lamora.
After their dramatic confrontation with the Grey King in Camorr, life is no longer safe for Locke and Jean in the city of their birth. Having lost the entire fortune the Gentlemen Bastards acquired over the years, it is time to start over. Locke and Jean relocate to the city of Tal Verrar where they start a new confidence game. Posing as traders they work their way into one of the most exclusive gambling houses in the city: the Sinspire. The profits of the house are locked away in one of the most severely protected vaults the two have ever come across. The challenge is irresistible, soon Locke and Jean are working their way up to the most exclusive levels of the Sinspire.
The game is not without complications however. The Bondsmagi have not forgotten what Locke and Jean did to one of their own. They have a score to settle with both gentlemen and when it looks like Locke and Jean are ready for the deciding move in their game, the Bondsmagi step in. They are not satisfied with just killing Locke and Jean, soon they are entangled in a web of lies, deceit and blackmail that may very well cost them their lives. Juggling all these conflicting demands is hard enough already but Locke and Jean are determined to cut the strings attached as well. It will take all their skill to get out of this one alive.
Lynch creates an even more fascinating setting in this book. The city of Camorr, with it's Elderglass buildings, was a fantastic place already, Tal Verrar is even more spectacular. An series of Elderglass islands rising up form the sea. It is as much a vertical as a horizontal city, with each level the fortune and social status of the inhabitants rises. The author adds to this image by describing all manner of strange mechanical and alchemical devices that make life comfortable in the city. It's a lovely creation and a superb fantastical setting but it does come at a price. One of the things I noticed right away on this reread is the very descriptive writing in the first part of the novel. Although I was very taken with the setting I do feel it slows the opening of the story down a bit more than necessary.
In The Lies of Locke Lamora, Lynch writes very much out of chronological order. He mixes scenes from Locke's youth with chapters dealing with his more recent exploits but even within the chapters, the writing often goes back and froth in time. Red Seas Under Red Skies opens in that way, starting with a scene where Jean and Locke confront each other, backed up by crossbows. Chronologically it is in the final part of the novel. I guess you could see it as a way to make the reader aware of the strain the relationship between the two man will have to endure in this novel. Later on in the novel, Lynch makes much less use of this technique. In the first part of the novel, the chapters are interspersed with reminiscences, which cover the time form their departure from Camorr till the final moves in the Sinspire game. These stop a little way before the halfway mark, with the rest of the novel mostly chronological. This shift in the way the story is written is a bit odd. If you like your books a bit more symmetrical this will definitely be noticeable.
Although the novel contains a complete story arc of its own, Lynch is clearly laying some of the groundwork for later book. In The Lies of Locke Lamora he made a point of hiding certain facts about Locke's past for the reader. One of them is his mysterious lost love Sabetha. She's mentioned briefly in the first book but not nearly as much as in the second. Locke keeps his feelings about her carefully bottled up. Not until Jean finds someone to love is he really forced to examine his feelings more closely. There is no resolution for this story line in Red Seas Under Red Skies. Locke's love is expected to make an appearance in the third book, Republic of Thieves, however. It is one of the obviously missing parts in his history. It will be interesting to see why he doesn't go after her now that nothing binds him to the city of Camorr.
Red Seas Under Red Skies manages to capture quite a bit of what I liked about The Lies of Locke Lamora. It's perhaps slightly darker than the previous book but nonetheless a fun read. Locke and Jean's escapades are exciting, humorous and sometimes downright suicidal. I can't quite get over the structural flaws of the book though. It starts very slow and the pacing of the rest of the novel is somewhat uneven as well. Right up to the finale of the book that actually feels a bit rushed. They say you have a lifetime to write your first book and a year to write the second. Red Seas Under Red Skies may have been the victim of this little bit of publishing wisdom. It could have done with another round of straightening out some of the problems. Even with these problems it is still well above merely good though. For fans of the first book this one is a treat. I'm very much looking forward to reading the third part. There seems to be some confusion about when it is actually going to appear but some time in 2011 is still an option. Bring on The Republic of Thieves!
Title: Red Seas Under Red Skies
Author: Scott Lynch
Publisher: Bantam Spectra
First published: 2007