Sunday, 13 January 2008

Book review: Red Seas Under Red Skies

Red Seas Under Red Skies

By Scott Lynch

(Gollancz 2007)

The problem with writing a much-hyped, highly popular and critically-acclaimed novel is that you then have to do it all over again. It’s a bit like the ‘second-album syndrome’ where a band releases an album that becomes an instant classic, struggles to write its successor and finally releases a turgid piece of shit before fading into obscurity.

So it was with some trepidation that I approached Red Seas Under Red Skies, the second novel in the Gentleman Bastard Sequence. If you’ve read my earlier review of The Lies of Locke Lamora, then you’ll know how great I think that book is. I was excited about reading its successor, but worried that it just wouldn’t live up to my (admittedly high) expectations. Then again, perhaps Lynch never stood any chance of writing a sequel that matched his first novel: the impact of Lies was that it was refreshingly different from most other fantasy on offer, not to mention hugely enjoyable. It was one of those rare occasions when the hype was justified. Red Seas subsequently had a lot to live up to.

The early signs weren’t good. I’d always had a lingering doubt about the idea of Locke and Jean, the main protagonists, going a-pirating on the high seas. They are sophisticated, highly-skilled conmen that plan and execute intricate scams, so to dump them on a ship and have them masquerading as pirates seemed completely at odds with their background. Furthermore, I had thoroughly enjoyed reading about their escapades in Camorr, and the notion of them gallivanting around on the ocean didn’t seem quite as appealing. Still, everyone likes pirates and so a swashbuckling yarn with liberal doses of Lynch’s witty one-liners surely couldn’t fail…could it?

Unfortunately, my early uncertainty turned out to be justified. The plot of Lies contained several twists and turns, with an overall effect that was both exciting and surprising. The plot for Red Seas is disappointingly pedestrian in comparison and labours over 550 pages to a rather predictable conclusion that is then swiftly achieved in the final 30 or so pages. There are still flashes of the familiar ingenuity that do not disappoint (Locke’s deck of cards spring to mind) but the plot seems clunky compared to that of its predecessor.

Locke and Jean’s exploits in the Sinspire (an interesting creation) and in and around Tal Verrar are entertaining, but their adventure on the high seas (which makes up the bulk of the book) is a fairly uninspiring pirate story. Without wanting to sound like an ego-surfer, I do know what I’m talking about here; I wrote my MA History thesis on Caribbean piracy from 1715 to 1723, and have to say that the real-life escapades of the historical pirates make for far more gripping reading. Still, many an average plot has been saved by the characters tangled up in it.

Not in Red Seas’ case however. To be blunt, the characterisation is another disappointment. Locke is annoyingly sulky at the start of the book and Jean’s aloofness seemed off-kilter with their relationship at the end of Lies. Sure, they both went through a hell of a lot in the previous book and some fall-out from the events in Lies was inevitable, yet both seemed almost like completely different characters at first.

The assembled cast list for Red Seas proved to be a disappointment as well, in that none of the characters really grabbed me in the same way as some from the first book did. The three main players in the plot, Requin, owner of the Sinspire, Stragos, Archon of Tal Verrar, and Captain Drakasha of the Poison Orchid, all play out their roles solidly but without being particularly engaging. None possess the menacing aura of the Falconer from the previous book, or the mystery of the Grey King or even the roguish charm of Father Chains. In short, they are just not as interesting as the main characters in Lies. This goes for most of the other characters as well, save for the odd exception such as the brass-handed Selendri, who live a little longer in the memory.

Arguably the best character in the first book was the city of Camorr itself, but the same is sadly not true of Red Seas. Tal Verarr just doesn’t seem as exotic or atmospheric, and fails to come alive as Camorr did. The Sinspire, as mentioned above, is an interesting idea and the scenes set in it tend to be among the best in the book. With Locke and Jean voyaging south to the Ghostwind Isles, there was a great opportunity for Lynch to include some intriguing locations, but Port Prodigal, the pirate stronghold, is a bit of a let-down. I was hoping for a settlement in the style of Port Royal (the so-called ‘Wickedest City on Earth’ in the 1700s) but Port Prodigal is tame in comparison.

One of the biggest disappointments was the lack of sea-life in the novel. We had a taste in Lies of the fearsome creatures that inhabit the seas of Locke’s world, but apart from the appearance of a few Death-Lanterns we see precious little of the oceanic wildlife, which feels like a missed opportunity.

I’ve probably made Red Seas sound like the worst book ever written, which of course it isn’t. Lynch’s writing is as witty as ever and there are some genuinely inventive creations in the novel, however it just has the hugely difficult job of following Lies, which as I mentioned earlier is almost an impossible task. If you take it on its own, Red Seas is a good, enjoyable book. Put it next to Lies however and it pales in comparison. By rights the book should be reviewed completely on its own merits, but this was something I found impossible to do. However, Red Seas’ final score tries to reflect the quality of the book and not the fact that it isn’t as good as its more illustrious predecessor.


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