Book Review | Red Seas Under Red Skies by Scott Lynch (Spoilers maybe)

Where do I even begin to describe this dumpster fire of a book? Red Seas under Red Skies is accurate in that it is flaming garbage set on a pirate ship. Ok, that may have come off as harsh. Let me explain.

The Lies of Locke Lamora

The second book in the Gentleman Bastard’s series had big shoes to fill, in my opinion. The first book was nothing short of fantastic. Sure, it meandered a bit, but the dialogue was hilarious, the characters memorable, and the Venetian, steampunk, anime feel of the first book stood out amongst other adult fantasy novels I’ve read. I had been yearning to read a book that encapsulated that atmosphere for my entire life. The experience was reminiscent to the feeling of playing Final Fantasy IX when I was younger. It was a little bit renaissance, a little bit fantasy, there were southern European influences felt throughout, even down to the etymology of the character names. One of my favorite parts of the first book was Chains, a character that immediately struck me as an anime archetype but who I considered to be one of the coolest characters in anything I’ve read. And who can forget the classic line, “Nice bird, asshole”. It was moments like that that truly made the first book a joy to read. The plot, although complex, made sense. The ending was spectacular and epic, just like the ending of a book should be. It left me feeling like cheering and crying all at once.

Red Seas Under Red Skies did none of the above.

Plot-Slogging

The book opens in the midst of some action. We find our anti-heroes Locke and Jean on the docks of Tal Verrar, and Jean has just turned his weapon on Locke, his best friend. Locke laments that there is no sign of joking, no hidden code to let Locke know Jean is just faking. The moment is tense. Has Jean really turned on his friend? What circumstances would cause such a betrayal. It draws you in…and then immediately loses you. From there, several plot lines unfurl; robbing the Sinspire, being captured by the archon and forced into servitude by drinking a latent poison, the pointless scene where Locke and Jean are robbed while hanging off the side of a cliff, whatever the hell was going on with Merrain and whatever-the-hell the other woman’s name was. The lady with the claw hand. Yeah, it just sort of took a turn.

The first half of the book seemed to be going okay, I was totally invested in the Sinspire storyline, but then we are suddenly reminded that the Bondsmagi is still after them. And then that plotpoint is never touched again in the entire book. The Bondsmagi just possesses a bunch of townspeople to vaguely threaten our protagonists before disappearing. From there, the archon storyline starts, and everything I had invested in this book so far (time, attention, curiosity) was squashed. It was like Scott Lynch decided he was sick of writing that storyline and wanted to take it in a new direction, so instead of writing a new book, he decides to just cram it into the Sinspire storyline. Do they mesh? No. Are the character motivations believable? No. Why would the archon need two thieves to start a war for him by poisoning them like it was the only option he had? He could have paid a sell-sword and gotten the same results. But better!

I still distinctly remember the scene that I decided the book was getting a one star from me. My attention in this book was officially severed when the boys were traveling through the archon’s alchemical and mechanical garden, while the archon explained to them exactly what he had in mind for his devious plan.

Technical Critique

The whole book just reads like a first draft. The characters themselves don’t even know what to do. There is a scene where Locke literally asks Jean what they should do next, not in a nice plot point kind of way, but in a way that felt like Scott Lynch had no idea what to write about but was hoping to find it along the way. Plots are described blatantly through dialogue, pushing along the story in the most boring way possible. The book discusses politics for a city that we as readers care nothing about. Locke and Jean had only just arrived in Tal Verarr two years ago. There was no world building that took place before everything went to shit, which leaves the readers with no emotional investment when city politics are discussed. I found myself saying “who cares” to a lot of the dialogue between characters. Things were described that had absolutely no reason to be described.

AND THEN the nautical training comes in. My god, by this point in the book I was seriously considering putting it down and leaving it forever, but part of me wanted to continue on because I knew I was going to be writing a roast review for this and I wanted all the ammunition I could carry. The rest of the book didn’t disappoint. It just gets worse from here. So the nautical training begins, and lasts for about three chapters. This is where I began skimming the book and felt that I had lost nothing from skipping those sections, which is never a good look for an author. Every word should be chosen specifically. I was not going to sit there and waste my time while they described every blessed part of a ship and how to stay safe at sea. Locke and Jean seemed two dimensional during this period of the story, offering no distinctive interaction or emotion to the circumstances.

Late-Stage Introductions

About 60% of the way into the book, we are introduced to a whole new cast of characters, which seems a little late in the game. Once again, the reader is forced to form emotional ties to these characters in order to feel anything towards any of them. For me, I didn’t get there, so all of the subsequent emotional action resulted in me thinking “who cares”.

I’m going to be honest. The only reason I stayed for the entirety of the book, the only reason, was because of Locke and Jean. I fell in love with those characters from book one, and loved seeing them interact with each other at certain points of the story. The banter between these two was comical and brilliant. Not often do I read a book with characters as lovable as this. Both fun and devilish, the trope of the trickster shines through in this duo. I just wish they had a better creator to give them the storyline they deserved.

At points their character development was great, at others, Locke and Jean felt like the same voice, the same character. At times I forgot who was talking. I don’t blame the characters for this. I blame a lazy author who created wonderful characters and then filled the majority of the book with uninspired plot-slogging.

Here’s a haiku about Red Seas Under Red Skies:

There was too much going on.

It was confusing.

Please let the third book not suck.

Should You Read It?

If you like action fantasy stories with a great emphasis on nautical terminology and pirate speak, read it, you’ll love it.

The atmosphere and creativity of the story are commendable, but lacking, and remind me greatly of Final Fantasy.

The characters are really what keeps this ship sailing. Locke and Jean are antiheroes that will capture your heart and have you rooting for them even amidst all of the plot changes.

Happy reading,
The Literary Kat

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