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Red Seas Under Red Skies by Scott LynchUK cover4 stars
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That Scott Lynch’s sequel to his magisterial The Lies of Locke Lamora doesn’t quite hit its marks as consistently and effortlessly should not in any way be interpreted as a sign of the dreaded sophomore slump. To do so would be to give short shrift to the second novel’s many virtues. Red Seas Under Red Skies is in many ways quite a different book. It’s meticulous and deliberate where Lies reveled in offhanded whimsy. It is, perhaps, much too slow out of the gate, and overlong by about a hundred pages. But once this adventure gets under sail, its treasures are plentiful. Locke Lamora and his partner in crime Jean Tannen have a knack for getting into trouble that makes them seem like epic-fantasy grown-up versions of Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn. As one of this novel’s villains points out, they are addicted to trouble. There’s nothing they care to do that doesn’t involve levels of risk that would prompt most sensible people to stay home. It’s just that if you go out looking for trouble, don’t be upset if it finds you first.

There’s perhaps a little too much plot to go around this time. We meet Locke and Jean two years after the events in Lies. Locke is in an Achillean sulk over those events, and the tragic fates met by too many of their friends. Jean snaps him out of it, and the two make their way to Tel Varrar, a city perched upon a ring-shaped archipelago tensely governed by the Archon, who controls the navy, and the Priori, a council of wealthy merchants who have all the money. This money is kept in an impregnable vault at the Sinspire, a casino whose owner, Requin, runs it as if it were a country unto itself. Under intricately crafted false identities, Locke and Jean have been gambling their way into the Sinspire’s increasingly exclusive upper levels, with the impossible goal of robbing the place blind.

But they are still pursued by the vengeful Bondsmagi, one of whose number they left at the end of Lies in a condition you might fairly describe as “jacked up.” And they soon come to the attention of the Archon, Stragos, who has them spirited away to his stronghold where he makes them and offer they can’t refuse...and backs it up in a deviously villainous way.

Stragos’s idea is patently insane. He wants Locke and Jean, after a crash course in how to captain a ship, to raise a ruckus on the high seas just off Tal Varrar’s shores, looting merchant ships and driving the public into a panic thinking a new wave of piracy is underway. This will in turn, he thinks, shore up his power against the increasingly troublesome Priori by giving him the pretext to launch his navies against the real pirate stronghold, many miles to the south in the Ghostwind Isles. Voila, he gets to be a big hero. It’s an utterly stupid plan, that only a megalomaniac deluded as to the extent of his own power would dream up. But Stragos is just that kind of megalomaniac. His obsession with clockwork technology (a bit of the old steampunk here, but not too much), which he has used to create his own artificial forest on his palace grounds, has led him to think that even reality itself will easily bend to his whims. He will not find Locke and Jean so obliging.

For a while, it does feel as though Lynch is letting this one get away from him. At first blush it seems as if he started one novel — a kind of epic-fantasy Ocean’s 11 about the mother of all casino heists — only to change his mind halfway through and write a roaring high-seas pirate adventure instead. Also, while The Lies of Locke Lamora took its sweet time allowing its plot to unfold as well, Lynch spent the extra space establishing his characters, his world and its rules, and throwing in all kinds of rib-tickling hijinks. The hijinks are dialed way, way down here, as, in the first half, Locke first has to overcome heaps of self-pity and guilt before getting back into the grift. And then he and Jean are almost immediately in danger at every turn. 

But if you loved the first novel, that means you do care about Locke and Jean, and so the investment we have in these characters from Lies carries over to Red Seas. And while absent friends from Lies are sorely missed (after all, they provided much of the humor that’s missing here), once the second half of the novel is underway, Lynch introduces us to an entirely new cast in the pirate crew of the Poison Orchid, who quickly become as real and beloved to us as Locke and Jean themselves. The two thieves’ bromance is rather amusingly tensed up by Jean’s growing attachment to Ezri, the Orchid’s first mate. And Drakasha, the ship’s captain, is a pirate heroine for the ages, a powerful and memorable character who develops a mutual respect and trust with Locke over their shared realization of their similarities. Drakasha becomes the only character apart from Jean with whom Locke is honest. As the book barrels into its spectacular final hundred pages, it's only by their teamwork and trust that they have any hope of winning the day.

Red Seas does make you work a little, it’s true. But your appreciation will be fuller for the effort. Unlike Lies, this book doesn’t repeat the fast downward slide from whimsy to tragedy, but instead keeps its control over your emotions a bit more balanced, saving its sucker punches for fewer, critical moments. Scott Lynch’s willingness to move out of his safety zone and broaden his ambitions here shows that he’s maturing as a novelist with grace and a real thirst for the way great storytelling can transport you like no other experience. Long may he and his crooked pair of ne’er-do-wells sail. 

Followed by The Republic of Thieves.