Red Seas Under Red Skies by Scott Lynch
Reviewed by Martin Lewis
22 August 2007
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.