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Red Seas Under Red Skies, UK cover

Red Seas Under Red Skies, US cover

Once upon a time, not so long ago, Scott Lynch was the next big thing. Now, as he eases deeper into the Gentlemen Bastard sequence with this, the second of seven projected volumes, he is firmly ensconced in the Pantheon of fat fantasy royalty. Red Seas Under Red Skies shows every sign of being the work of an author who has rolled up his sleeves, put his feet up, and settled in for the long haul. When you turn the final page of the book there is nothing approaching closure; instead you get the impression you have just finished the opening gambit. Much as with the first book in the sequence, in fact, but without the same excuse.

Lynch's debut, The Lies Of Locke Lamora, received a lot of attention due to its author's young age, unknown status, and massive book deal. It also attracted an infamous review here at Strange Horizons, in which C. M. Morrison made the recklessly hyperbolic suggestion that those who were susceptible to such hype must have been bribed. Stupidly, this caused a storm in a teacup which became somewhat nastier than most genre internet spats. In fact what Morrison ascribed to corruption could more easily have been put down to the fact that for the majority of genre readers—and that includes reviewers—books are nothing more than entertainment. And The Lies Of Locke Lamora was certainly entertainment. It was just the sort of book that serves the core audience of the genre well: it was fat and so promised good value for money; it was fast so satisfied the page-turning thirst of all pleasure readers; it was exotic and so fulfilled the escapist urge of genre fans; it was told with simple prose that did not scare off or intimidate the reader; it had a semi-anti-hero for that mild counter-cultural thrill; and it had a strong puzzle element for this fandom of engineers and players of games.

It was also great stuff—Stainless Steel Rat by way of Fritz Leiber with inevitable nods to New Crobuzon—and Morrison's antipathy is a bit of a headscratcher. Red Seas Under Red Skies is more of the same, but with the terrible, inescapable problem that by its nature it is reduced to being merely an episode in a wider story. With his novel hamstrung before he has even begun, Lynch tries the best he can, but he is already into diminishing returns territory.

So anyway: loveable scammer Locke Lamora fled Camorr, the city of his birth, at the end of the previous novel and has now pitched up in new territory. He aims to rob the owner of a luxury casino of a vast fortune and settle down to a quiet life in the country. Appropriately enough this plot is something of a shell game, and the initial focus of the book turns out to be a piece of misdirection. The main plot turns out to be a sort of fantasy retread of Neuromancer: our hero is poisoned by a shadowy super-villain and then blackmailed with the antidote into carrying out a nefarious task. However whilst Gibson's Case is one of the most passive heroes in genre fiction, Lynch's Lamora is almost relentlessly pro-active. We are subjected to a barrage of implausible wheeler-dealering that sees Lamora using legerdemain, lateral thinking, and a silver tongue to get himself out of all manner of situations. Oh yeah, and he's not adverse to a bit of the old ultraviolence as well.

By foot, cart, and ship he tours the world from scrape to scrape. As I mentioned earlier, the genre has always had a penchant for the exotic—wonderous, other worlds—and Lynch has a good eye for this. Lengthy descriptions of food, drink, architecture, and personal extravagance abound. A nice example is a brief reference to intravenous drug use via scorpion: this combines the alien imagery and the modern sensibility of Lynch's writing.

It also has the modern, sassy dialogue—complete with requisite effing and blinding—we have come to expect from recent fantasy. At times it is slightly wearing but it's hard not to smile at some of the vulgarity, such as Lamora's frustrated prayer:

"Would that this city's entire population of lurking assholes shared just one set of balls, so I could kick it repeatedly." (p. 531)

So we have Lamora's cavalier charm, Lynch's colourful world, and a contemporary gloss for the reader. This is not enough to sustain a novel of this length, particular when we have already seen it once. The ersatz Venice of Camorr has been replaced by the layercake city of Tal Verrar but the game is the same. Like running on a treadmill, at first you don't mind that you aren't going anywhere because you enjoy the sensation but eventually you are just bored and exhausted. As the novelty fades, the modernity is revealed as superficial and the colour increasingly lends a cartoonish quality to the proceedings.

This is the third Gollancz novel I have reviewed in a row for Strange Horizons—following Richard Morgan's Black Man and Alastair Reynolds's The Prefect—and all three were first tier, heavily marketed novels that share certain characteristics. Superficially, they are each the size of a small bungalow—so even if in the U.S. book bloat is in retrenchment, in the U.K. bigger is still better. This fact is surely not unrelated to the almost absentminded approach all three authors take to the pace of their plots.

There are stranger similarities though. Just as in Black Man and The Prefect, in Red Seas Under Red Skies women make up a significant percentage of those in combat roles in military and paramilitary organisations. This is certainly plausible in the near-to-medium future, when Morgan and Reynolds set their stories, but it is enormously less so in a feudal society that doesn't even have male sufferage. In fact, all the powerful men in the novel have female bodyguards, which seems a bit of a stretch in a world without either any sort of conception of legal equal rights or that other great equaliser, gunpowder. The only explanation offered anywhere is that of superstition coupled with unlikely liberalism when Lamora is told:

"First, you're courting an awful fate if you take a ship to sea without at least one woman officer ... Plus, it's common sense. They're good officers. Decent plain sailors, but finer officers than you or I. Just the way the gods made 'em." (p. 246)

Whilst it is reassuring that gender imparity is so distasteful to the modern palette that this revisionist set-up is necessary, it reinforces the romanticised nature of Lynch's world with its lovable rogues, fairytale meritocracy, and airbrushed poor.

Locke Lamora himself is equally romanticised. He does not steal for money—because to do so would presumably be vulgar—but rather for the act itself. Sometimes Lynch pushes this even further to suggest Lamora is a force for social justice. In a flashback Lamora is told by his mentor, Chains, that thievery is a noble calling because it strikes a blow against the rich:

"We are the stone in their shoe, the thorn in their side, a little bit of reciprocity this side of divine judgement." (p. 188)

This is transparently a self-serving lie; the only question is whether it is one Lynch also believes. It is hard to say because generally the political sensibility of Red Seas Under Red Skies is noticeable by its absence. There is perhaps something inherently problematic about 21st Century adventure writers setting novels in pseudo-historical worlds when conditions for the vast majority of the population were extremely unpleasant. Lynch is clever enough to realise this, but does not seem to want the distraction. It's true you can go too far in addressing it: we can view China Miéville's Perdido Street Station as pulp adventure with politics and his Iron Council as politics with pulp adventure, and I know which I preferred. However, Miéville's overcompensation is preferable to Lynch's complete failure to engage with politics in any meaningful way.

The single episode of engagement with inequality sticks out like a sore thumb. In a foreign principality, Lamora is witness to a sort of bloodsport version of chess in which the destitute are humiliated and violated for the promise of reward in front of a cheering audience of the upper class. He is appalled and the reader can't help wondering if he's spent the rest of his life walking around with his eyes closed. For all the talk of him being a Robin Hood figure, Lamora is essentially a sort of criminal aristocrat, divorced from the reality of the world he inhabits because Lynch recoils from tackling it. Much (much) later in the novel, Lamora and a shipload of pirates sack the principality but the incident is almost lost in the many other subplots and is as simplistic and unlikely as much of the rest of the book. It feels more like Lamora is extracting a measure of revenge for being made to feel bad than striking a blow for the emancipation of the serfs.

In the end this is a book that was built to fail. Its narrative structure and intellectual foundations are undermined by the constraints of writing a fantasy serial. There is both too much plot and too little: Lynch spends the book tying what looks like an elaborate knot, but when he pulls the ends tight at the conclusion we find the string is completely straight. It has not so much unravelled as been completely illusory. Flaccid middle volumes are a well known design flaw in fantasy series, but no-one seems to care enough to do anything about it. Presumably because we keep buying them.

Martin Lewis lives in East London. His reviews have appeared in venues including Vector, SF Site, and The New York Review of SF.

Martin Petto has also reviewed for Vector, SF Site, and The New York Review of Science Fiction. He blogs at Everything Is Nice, and generally goes about his business.
17 comments on “Red Seas Under Red Skies by Scott Lynch”

It's "Miéville", not "Meiville".

Whoops, thanks -- now fixed.

And it's effing and blinding, not "effing and binding". (I would also have accepted effing and jeffing.)
Substantive comments also welcome!

Of course it is. Also fixed.

What exactly does "effing and blinding" mean, anyway? Or "effing and jeffing" for that matter? This American is unfamiliar with the term.


Rose: it's a euphemism for swearing.
Martin: Have not read the book, so I'm unable to make a substantive comment. Based on the two tiny extracts I had read out to me, I'm happy to leave it that way.

By the sounds of it I'd enjoy some of the turns of phrase, and not a lot else.
"Would that this city's entire population of lurking assholes shared just one set of balls, so I could kick it repeatedly."
That really is rather wonderful.
Having not read Lynch, I can't really say anything more, but this is a good review and made enjoyable & thoughtful reading. It's almost tempting to read the book just to see where I agree and disagree.
Oh, and I disagree with your position on Mieville's PSS / IC. I prefer the latter because of the politics. Of course, I'm broadly in agreement with Mieville's politics, which has to help rather a lot, and I rather /like/ that he's written SF&F that so overtly and uncompromisingly deals with the results of industrialisation and with revolution. Martin McGrath had a good post on SF revolutions over on his blog a month back, about how they're all too clean and simple and over so quickly. IC is one of the few contrary examples - although of course the revolution is a failure...

Martin McGrath had a good post on SF revolutions over on his blog a month back
Interesting piece.

I understand this is the second book of many. Is it setting up any sort of ongoing overarching plot, or is this just another entertaining adventure linked to the previous book only by characters?


Thank you for articulating a problem I had with this book but found difficult to put into words: Locke's essential disconnection from many of the people around him even as he's supposed to be their representative (or savior?). It makes the Robin Hood comparison rather odd when the reader realizes that he keeps most of his wealth for himself. I think the problem is better masked in the first book because there, Locke has not only more close friends but also a longer history of residence, so he seems to be a representative at least of the city, as much as anyone else who lives there.
Outside that, though, he's a bit too much of a unique individual. I was disappointed that what could have grown into a crisis of conscience is dealt with so quickly and effortlessly. I don't think Locke needs to become a revolutionary to make the series meaningful, but he needs to become more grounded and settled than he is right now. I just don't know what else will keep him from becoming a repetition of the rogue archetype, if Lynch intends to make him continually aloof from and considerably better (in skills) than other people.
And if it's true that the series has no overarching plot arc...that's depressing.

Well, I'm assuming there is going to be some overarching plot but then I assumed that after reading the first book as well and this is where I thought it would kick in. Maybe it has and all will become clear. However for the moment, although there are a few bits of foreshadowing and some further scene-setting, it does read very much like another adventure linked only by its characters.
I was reading Nick Gevers review of Red Seas in Locus yesterday and he identifies an element of glibness to the novel, a sort of Hollywood expediency. I would agree. This adds to the danger of Lamora being lost as a loveable rogue archetype.


My main problem with the first book was that while it was enjoyable, several of the more quotable phrases I recognized as being swiped from elsewhere including Buffy, the Miles Vorkosigian novels, and Pirates of the Caribbean.


Scott Lynch and his editors have said elsewhere a couple times that the third book should kick off a more ambitious story arc (see Pat's Fantasy Hotlist, recent Scott Lynch interview and the Changing of the Guard post).
I also take issue with the idea that it is entirely unthinkable for a non-technologically advanced secondary world to have capable women with equal rights. This is not medieval Earth, this is an imagined world where many things (not just gender relations, but religion, certain aspects of economics, etc) developed differently. And that is possible - our world's history is not the only conceivable one. In a culture where there was no stigmatization of women, no ingrained religious and political bias against them, what would prevent a woman from training, fighting, leading, and so on? You say there's no concept of equal rights in the book's world - no, it's only that there's no need to vocalize the concept, because it's obvious and omnipresent. Our world has the phrase because for so long rights were so very non-equal.
I was not astounded by Lies, and I haven't read Red Seas yet, but I enjoyed Lynch's writing. And I did just want to put that out there, because I do commend Mr. Lynch for not bringing our world's "naturalization" of injustice into his creation.

Amanda -- can you remember any specific examples? I don't remember spotting anything that was a direct lift, although Lynch is clearly influenced by that particular style of snap.

It's not our world, no, but it is a world populated by humans. As such it is reasonable to expect them to behave like humans. (I suppose you could argue that thecharacters aren't humans but I am unlikely to find that convincing.)
So we have a not-our-world populated by humans that is clearly modelled on feudal Western Europe. It is not radically different from our world. If you want to make a radical difference within this set up - which is what gender parity is - I think you do have to make some sort of justification rather than just blandly stated that that is the way it is, particularly this enlightened conception of equality is not replicated elsewhere (politically or economically.)
On the specific issue of female soldiers and bodyguards I don't think it is unreasonable to point out that men are generally larger and stronger than women. This is important in a time when protection probably wouldn't have been based on intelligence, fitnesses and marksmanship but rather the abilty to wield something large and pointy. The reason there are female members of the Secret Service and the Diplomatic Protection Service is because they can carry guns. Physical strength is no longer the determining factor. Celebrities, on the other hand, still tend to employ seven foot tall, five foot wide blokes to keep the crowds away.

Popping in here after being linked to this review from the torque_control blog.
I had very mixed feelings about this book when I read it. On the one hand I was very impatient with Locke's behavior, and found the resolution for it in act 1 similarly unsatisfying. It was a very LONG book, and dragged in many places -- but then, more than compensating for all of this, there were moments of thematic resonance and revelation of basic world mechanics and the overall societal statement Lynch was making (or at least that I read, whether intentional or not) that are among the most brilliant things I've ever seen done with fantasy. Unless I was reading something thematic out of whole cloth, he's engaging in some social commentary here that is both intricate and deeply moving. The sum total of all of this was that now, nearly six months after I've read the book for the first time, I want to go back and read both the first and the second to see if I'm entirely smoking crack on this.
I've thought about the gender issue quite a bit, too -- the alleged 'implausibility'. I tend to be in the camp of the realists, that sexist and racist or otherwise power-mongering and xenophobic behavior are basic keys in human nature and to simply ignore them is actually to subversively empower them in our own world. Long story short I don't like fantasy that simply changes the rules or glosses over them. But I wanted to say here that I don't think Lynch's world falls into that category.
He has an interlude in _Lies_ talking about the rebellion of a prostitute class that resulted in a fundamental shift in the way that business works in Camorr, at least. It was extraordinarily badass, and more than that, it actually felt very *right* to me. I realize I am strange for a woman -- I would bet a lot of women into spec fic are -- in that I do not put up with a lot of bullshit, and I know deep down that if it came down to extreme oppression or basic rights violations, I would be one of the ones who died stupidly fighting a totalitarian power. Most women wouldn't; it's not in their chemical nature. But if they *did*, what you'd have are incidences like Lynch's uprising. The women in his world are progesterone deficient. They do not value nurturing of all others above their basic welfare. They are still very much *women*, but they are ass-kicking, no-bullshit, *angry* women who largely lack the intense pacifying hormone that most real-world women have in their systems.
So I'm willing to accept it as a duly supported and interwoven element of Lynch's world that the women have evolved short of progesterone. If it were arbitrary, that would be one thing, but this fighting nature of his women is upheld in many other dimensions of the world culture. I did find it jarring at first, but consistent when thought through. I don't think gender equality requires guns -- it requires women who are willing to die to seize that equality. Lynch's women are, and I generally enjoy that about them.


After reading Erins comment i felt the need to respond to this. On the last few pages of RSuRS now and i feel totally disgusted by the way Scott was portraying the whole "strong woman" ideal. Every woman in this book is either an "elite assassin or some form of specialist swordswoman protecting a feeble power hungry male" or "beautiful strongly shaped woman with striking features with fire in her eyes that could destroy whole armies".
At no point was there an ordinary woman thats portayed like the average male in these books. When a character fails in any way, its a male. If anything heroic, cleaver or dangerous happens or someone needs to be saved from absolute certain death, its a female that does so. And in most cases Scott describes males to be inadequate and inept in any setting. Whilst i'm all for equality between genders (especially so in the books i read, since i do enjoy both male and female lead characters) it just smacked of a feminist rant in fantasy fiction form. At no point has Scott ever shown a woman in anything but glorious and heroic light and even the main characters are completely overshadowed at how "amazing" these woman are suppose to be.
I'm surprised he didn't make Locke and Jean female characters too and just take over the world. Completely overdone in my opinion.

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