Red Seas Under Red Skies by Scott Lynch

Red Seas Under Red SkiesTitle: Red Seas Under Red Skies
Scott Lynch
Gentleman Bastard #2
 20 June 2007
Gollancz (eBook)
Own copy

Like The Lies of Locke Lamora, Red Seas Under Red Skies uses narratives from different timelines. One picks up shortly after the events in Lies, with Jean tending to a grievously injured Locke as they escape Camorr and head for Tel Verrar by ship. Locke heals slowly, largely because his growing depression becomes a far greater problem than his wounds. Devastated by the deaths of Calo, Galdo and Bug, he wallows in self-pity and cheap wine, becoming so bitter and angry that even Jean is on the verge of just letting him die as he seems to want to.

But we know that Locke somehow recovers from his melancholy because the main narrative sees him and Jean in the middle of a casino heist that they’ve been working on for two years. The Sinspire is a high-class casino with a huge but impenetrable vault. It’s almost impossible to cheat on the gaming tables, and anyone who is caught trying will accidentally ‘fall’ from the ninth storey. Of course, Locke and Jean have been cheating there for months as part of their plan to steal a bigger fortune than the Gentleman Bastards have ever taken.

Everything runs smoothly until the Bondsmages start sending them eerie messages. The terrifyingly powerful sorcerers want revenge for the Falconer, who Locke mutilated in his attempt to stop the Grey King. The Bondsmages operate only through other people, eventually delivering Locke and Jean up to Maxilan Stragos, Tel Verrar’s military leader. Stragos uses them for his own political machinations, sending them to sea as undercover pirates.

Locke and Jean are faced with an impossible con – to pose as a pirate captain and first mate when they know next to nothing about sailing, and trick a group of people who could easily see through them and slit their throats. Refusing to do it, leads to an even more certain death. It makes for a story that’s quite different to Lies, but just as dangerous and thrilling. It also has what I have quickly come to think of as Lynch’s trademark world building (which is fabulously, overwhelmingly detailed) and fantastic characters (including my new favourite pirate captain).

I enjoyed Red Seas even more than I enjoyed Lies, for several reasons. Firstly, it’s more fun and adventurous. It starts out with a casino heist reminiscent of Ocean’s 11, and then turns into Pirates of the Caribbean if it was made by HBO instead of Disney.

I also approached Red Seas blind. Because it was part of a series I wanted to read, I just jumped in without knowing the plot. I knew only that it contained pirates, including a particularly interesting pirate captain named Zamira Drakasha (more on her later). I didn’t know much about Lies either, but its reputation preceded it: I saw a meme for Lies suggesting that Scott Lynch was more ruthless in killing off his major characters than J.K. Rowling or George R.R. Martin (although, in my opinion, Martin is far more brutal). Based on this, I knew Calo, Galdo and Bug were doomed, so from the beginning I saw them as sacrificial victims. They existed to die tragically, so I didn’t get attached, and missed out on key emotional impact.

Luckily I encountered no such spoilers for Red Seas, and except for one or two slow sections, I loved reading it. Lynch continues to explore the rich world he started creating in Lies, and although he still provides more detail you could possibly take in I’ve grown accustomed to just enjoying it without trying to learn it all. Tel Verrar is very different from Camorr; the world of the pirates even more so. Lynch just keeps unveiling one wonder after another and it all feels just as amazing as the wonders in book one. I could do a whole series of blog posts on the world building; instead I’ll just discuss my favourite points.

I particularly liked the fact that Lynch developed the thieves’ belief in the Thirteenth/The Crooked Warden. In Lies, Locke and the other Gentleman Bastards just seemed to be thieves who prayed to the god of thieves for protection and good fortune. Now, we get a deeper understanding of their belief as a religion. They live by the tenets that “thieves prosper” and “the rich remember”. This is why Chains taught the Gentleman Bastards to defy the Secret Peace and steal from the rich as a duty, not merely a preference:

Nara, Mistress of Ubiquitous Maladies, may Her hand be stayed, sends disease among men so that men will never forget that they are not gods. We’re sort of like that, for the rich and powerful. We’re the stone in their shoe, the thorn in their flesh, a little bit of reciprocity this side of divine judgement. That’s our second mandate, and it’s as important as the first. […] It’s my divine duty to see that the bluebloods with their pretty titles get a little bit of what life hands the rest of us as a matter of routine – a nice, sharp jab in the arse every now and again.

For Locke and Jean this also means sharing a sense of community with other thieves. An incident in the earlier part of the novel serves to illustrate this. Locke and Jean are nearly robbed and killed, but when the situation is turned around and the thief is at Locke and Jean’s mercy, they spare him and send him home with a purse full of coins. Because “thieves prosper” and the thief in question is very poor. This becomes part of an important debate in relation to the pirates, who are, of course, all thieves.

The pirates themselves worship another of the Thirteen gods, and I quite like their beliefs about ensuring good luck at sea:

‘When you go to sea, there’s two necessities, for luck. First, you’re courting an awful fate if you take a ship to sea without at least one woman officer. It’s the law of the Lord of the Grasping Waters. His mandate. He’s got a fixation for the daughters of the land; he’ll smash any ship that puts to sea without at least one aboard. Plus, it’s plain common sense. They’re good officers. Decent plain sailors, but finer officers than you or me. Just the way the gods made ’em.

‘Second, it’s powerful bad luck to put out without cats on board. Not only as they kill the rats, but as they’re the proudest creatures anywhere, wet or dry. Iono admires the little fuckers. Got a ship with women and cats aboard, you’ll have the finest luck you can hope for.

It’s a nice change from our world’s superstition that it’s bad luck to have a woman on board. But Locke’s world is also much more egalitarian than ours when it comes to gender. I noticed that in Lies, and it’s clearer here.

My favourite and most anticipated character was Zamira Drakasha, a black, female pirate captain with two young children. Zamira is pretty badass even when bouncing her two-year-old daughter on her knee, but she’s a much more rounded character that the girls and women who tend to be termed “feisty” or “strong” but have few other qualities. Drakasha feels real – stern, sometimes brutal, funny, curious, carefully affectionate towards a few select people, firm but generous in dealing with the crew, skilled in political negotiations, and every inch an exceptional and experienced pirate captain. She’s one of Lynch’s best characters.

And the absolute best thing about Drakasha? No one makes a big deal about the fact that she’s a black woman. She’s not the only woman on the ship, she’s not the only female pirate captain, and the world is so much more comfortable with its racial diversity than ours. So no one thinks of Drakasha as some kind of fluke, men don’t single her out for criticism or make crude jokes about wanting to sleep with her, she’s not the exceptional woman, or the token black character; she’s a person like everyone else. I really enjoyed seeing that as as a norm, for a change.

I also liked the sexual freedom among the pirates. With a mixed crew, lots of people are having fun casual sex and indulging a variety of preferences. Even Jean gets involved with one of the crew members, which came as something of a relief – it was nice to see a normal human being exists within the master thief.

I really like how Jean’s character develops too. In Lies, he was too much of a faithful sidekick, hovering on standby to assist Locke, who always took centre stage. Now we see Jean come to the fore. He drives the narrative in the early flashbacks, when Locke is too miserable to get out of bed or sober up. Jean loves him, but struggles to put up with his appalling behaviour, and I think most readers would empathise with Jean while distancing themselves from Locke. I certainly did. Similarly, when Jean begins sleeping with one of the pirates, he seems warmer and more human. Locke looks prudishly celibate in comparison, especially when he gets jealous of Jean’s new girlfriend.

Jean, understandably, is fed up with Locke’s emotional bullshit, especially when it comes to sexual relationships:

We carry your precious misery with us like a holy fucking relic. Don’t talk about Sabetha Belacoros. Don’t talk about the plays. Don’t talk about Jasmer, or Espara, or any of the schemes we ran. I lived with her for nine years, same as you, and I’ve pretended she doesn’t fucking exist to avoid upsetting you. Well, I’m not you. I’m not content to live like an oath-bound monk. I have a life outside your gods-damned shadow.

This gives a somewhat feeble excuse for why we learn so little about Sabetha, but more importantly this sort of tension is crucial plot-wise. The prologue takes a scene from late in the novel, where Jean supposedly betrays Locke. At the time I thought it was a stupid prologue, because such a betrayal would be simply impossible. As the novel progressed however, the cracks begin to show in Locke and Jean’s relationship, and in Locke’s reliability, leaving open the possibility that Jean could give up on him.

It’s nice to see Locke knocked off his pedestal like this. In Lies, he was so smart and slick – an awesome character, but an unreal one too. He could be defeated only through the absurdly powerful sorcery of the Falconer, but even then you knew he’d come out on top. Although he’s criticised for being arrogant, I felt that, ultimately his arrogance was justified.

Now, we see Locke’s character flaws when he allows the Grey-King disaster to cripple him emotionally. Then we see both him and Jean forced into dangerous, demanding situations that they often can’t handle or escape. And while Jean begins an exciting new relationship, Locke can’t get over Sabetha, and feels insecure about losing Jean’s attention. On the whole, it’s a more interesting character story than you find in Lies.

My only complaint about the book is that is drags in parts, particularly when it transitions from a casino heist to a pirate adventure. Locke and Jean are prevented from working on their Sinspire scheme and forced to spend their time learning how to sail a ship. The plot is unable to advance much under these conditions, and there’s little opportunity for action or cons, so it gets boring. I also found sailing as tedious as Locke and Jean did.

I got worried at this point, but the pace picked up again when Locke and Jean left the land, especially with all the tension that comes from them being crap sailors while pretending to be experts. It’s an exciting read, with lots of action, political intrigue, great characters, and a growing world. I also get a sense of the series expanding into something epic and overtly socio-political, with issues regarding the rich vs. the poor and the influence of divinely inspired thieves like Locke coming into play. Lynch leaves a lot of dangling threads to be picked up in the next book, which must have been agony for those who had to wait five years for the sequel. I’m rather pleased that I started reading this now, when I have book three waiting on my Kindle 🙂

Review of The Assassin’s Curse by Cassandra Rose Clarke

The Assassin's Curse by Cassandra Rose ClarkeTitle: The Assassin’s Curse
Series: The Assassin’s Curse #1
Author: Cassandra Rose Clarke
 02 October 2012
 Strange Chemistry
Genre: fantasy, YA, adventure
Source: eARC from the publisher via NetGalley
Rating: 5/10

Seventeen-year-old Ananna of the Tanarau is the pirate daughter of pirate parents, raised in the violent, seafaring lifestyle of a pirate. She dreams of one day captaining her own ship, although that seems unlikely now that her parents have arranged her marriage to the son of another pirate clan. Tarrin of the Hariri. Tarrin is “the most beautiful man [Ananna] ever saw” and looks like a god from a temple painting, but Ananna distrusts beautiful people and when Tarrin shows his disdain for her family name, she decides to run away. Ignoring Tarrin’s warnings that his family will send an assassin to kill her for this insult, Ananna steals a camel and disappears into the city.

She hides out for a short while, but the assassin comes after her as promised. They are fighting it out in the desert when a snake appears. It’s about to bite the assassin and save Ananna’s life, but she’s so shocked and scared when she sees it that she kills the snake, saving the assassin’s life instead and activating a curse. The good news is that Naji, the assassin, can no longer kill her – the curse forces him to protect her from harm because every time she gets hurt or even finds herself in danger, he experiences physical pain. So of course if she dies, he will too. Ananna is not obliged to hang around, but after seeing the suffering that she could cause by leaving Naji, she decides to travel with him and find a way of ending the curse.

Ananna and Naji’s world is rich with magic and bursting with the potential for adventure. Naji comes from an elite order of assassins who reside in The Mists, a mysterious Otherworld that exists in the same space as the normal one, but is invisible to it. Naji is skilled in the magic of blood and darkness and can move unseen by leaping from shadow to shadow. Ananna has always been untouched by magic, although her mother is a water witch and tried her best to teach her daughter the craft. Instead, Ananna takes after her father and frequently recalls his advice in times of trouble. She’s a quick-fingered thief, is deadly with a blade and perfectly at home when running a ship.

Her quest with Naji takes them across the desert, the ocean and to a magical floating island. They fight magical beings and cutthroat pirates, proving to be deadly young warriors. Although Naji has to protect Ananna in order to protect himself, she has to look after and save him a lot of the time as well, especially after he’s incapacitated from using too much magic or suffering the pain incurred by Ananna’s injuries. I was surprised but pleased to find that Clarke didn’t entirely romanticise the idea of Ananna as a pirate by glossing over the violence of her lifestyle for the sake of a YA audience. At seventeen, she’s familiar and comfortable with violence. She’s kills people, she’s used to being cut and bruised, and she doesn’t make a fuss about it. That’s not to say it’s a violent book – it still has a very gentle YA feel. The characters don’t make a big deal of the violence and none of it is very graphic, so the tone remains light.

There’s a delicate touch of romance to the story, but that doesn’t quite fulfill the promise of “growing romantic tension” advertised in the blurb. Any attraction between our two protagonists is completely one-sided. The story is narrated by Ananna, and she finds herself drawn to Naji in the same way that any seventeen-year-old girl would find herself attracted to a mysterious guy who she spends a lot of time alone with. He’s also perfect for her in terms of looks: Ananna distrusts very good-looking people, but although Naji is handsome, his face is marred by an ugly scar, so Ananna sort of gets the best of both worlds with him. Naji however, remains taciturn throughout the novel, and the only romance he acknowledges is the one that once existed between him and a river witch named Leila. He doesn’t smile, he barely speaks to Ananna unless he has to, and doesn’t show any interest in her beyond their quest. He’s not mean, but he’s more like an estranged brother than a potential boyfriend.

I was surprised that the feisty, garrulous Ananna didn’t make more of an effort to get Naji talking. Because Naji, for completely inexplicable reasons, flat out refuses to give Ananna any proper information about the curse that’s changed both their lives, where they’re going to end it, and what they’ll have to do to achieve that. And like Ananna, Naji is also being chased by people who want to kill him, but he doesn’t provide the details. In contrast to her tendency to be hot-headed and smart-mouthed, Ananna is willing to just follow Naji around and wait to see what happens, even though she could easily coerce him into telling all. I’m not sure why Clarke makes her characters act this way. Normally when authors make characters withhold information, it’s to force them to maintain a sense of mystery that could easily be lost. But this is not a mystery novel and it doesn’t need the suspense. When Naji does eventually reveal tiny bits of his plans and the details of how he was cursed, it makes no real difference to the story. So why hide these things in the first place? If anything, they could have given the story a greater sense of purpose.

This is one of many small problems that spoil the book. Ananna generally speaks well of her parents, so it’s unclear why they basically sold her off in marriage at the age of seventeen. After running away, Ananna expresses sadness at leaving her parents as well as frustration regarding the arranged marriage, but she never thinks about this extremely troubling issue for very long. After activating Naji’s curse, you’d think she’d be calculating enough to realise that having a skilled assassin to protect you is very useful when there’s a clan of pirates out to murder you, but she lets her pride and her temper get the better of her and almost leaves to fight her battles alone. The problem with the Hariri doesn’t end up being nearly as dire as expected though – after the fight with Naji and another battle out in the desert, they practically disappear from the plot. The story mostly concerns the quest to end Naji’s curse, but it moves very slowly. There’s plenty of action and adventure so it’s not boring, but this basically fills up the long spaces between the very brief pieces that actually move the main plot along.

Then the book ends without resolving anything. This didn’t bother me too much. The end approached without the characters having made any real progress in dealing with the curse, so I assumed the bulk of the story was being saved for the sequels. But mostly it didn’t bother me because this is one of those books that I don’t feel much of anything for.  It’s just a quick easy read to pass the time and, in my case, finish a reading challenge. I couldn’t help but notice the flaws, but they didn’t elicit more than a shrug. Naji and Ananna’s adventures were enjoyable and I liked them both, but I’m not particularly interested in finding out how they solve their problems, so I won’t be reading the sequel. But at least I didn’t hate it, and this review was a lot easier to write than most.