This time last year a certain buzz was building up around the debut novel by a new American fantasy author named Scott Lynch. The Lies of Locke Lamora was preceded by an enormous amount of pre-release publicity on both sides of the Atlantic and attracted glowing reviews (a notable exception being an irate critic who claimed that anyone who liked the book had been bribed, leading to a lengthy and somewhat amusing blog-war, but that's by the by). Red Seas Under Red Skies is the eagerly awaited sequel, and the second novel in The Gentleman Bastard sequence.
Two years have passed since the events of The Lies of Locke Lamora. Locke Lamora and Jean Tannen are now residents of the city-state of Tal Verrar where, as you may expect, they are running another extremely elaborate long con, this time designed to rid the wealthy owner of the Sinspire of his worldly goods. As in Lies, events beyond their control intervene and, after a long and complicated chain of events, they find themselves at sea commanding a pirate vessel, despite the fact they know next to nothing about sailing. As readers of Lies may be able to tell, the result is an extremely densely-plotted story of cons-within-cons, double crosses, reversals and betrayals, with Lynch adding some new strings to his bow by describing some of the finest fantasy naval action since Paul Kearney's excellent Monarchies of God series. Oh, and cat-lovers may find themselves enjoying this book quite a lot.
It would be very easy to simply do a 'flight sim expansion pack review', which essentially boils down to, "If you enjoyed the original, you'll enjoy this." Simply put, Red Seas contains pretty much the same type of storytelling, the same attitude and the same humour as Lies. However, the book is in many ways an improvement. The city-state of Tal Verrar, with its Elderglass reefs and sculpted islands, is a rival to Camorr in atmosphere and detail, although the book spends less time in its city than Lies does. The smaller towns that are visited in the book are similarly brought to life vividly, as is the pirate haven of Port Prodigal, and Lynch hits the right note in describing the ships in the book as miniature travelling societies, each with their own quirks and memorable characters. The biggest success in the novel, and a critical one for the continued success of the series overall, is the deepening of the friendship between Locke and Jean, moving from the simple, well-founded loyalty shown in Lies to a much more complex game of give-and-take between the two. However, Lynch also brings in some exquisitely-portrayed new characters, several of whom even manage to survive the carnage of the story; Lynch's George RR Martin-style ability to kill off characters just after he's made you deeply emotionally invested in them is somewhat more restrained this time around, but that just makes it hurt more when he does it. There's also a lot of pipe-laying going on for future books in the series. New enemies are made, old enemies are touched upon, new allies are acquired and new mysteries are introduced, but Red Seas remains at heart a resolutely stand-alone novel. Reading Lies is certainly recommended, but is not essential to enjoy the story.
Turning to the negative, there are a few niggles which did concern me whilst reading the book, although these are of a somewhat trivial nature. I must confess that whilst reading the novel I felt the first third or so of the story was essentially a retelling of Lies with the names changed: the Gentleman Bastards plan a con, things seem to be going their way, complications ensue (of a similar nature) and they have to use their ingenuity to win free. However, the second our heroes hit the sea the story transforms into a somewhat different tale, and fears that Lynch is repeating himself are eliminated. Still, some readers may feel that the start of the book is over-familiar. This is going to be even more of a problem for those who read Lies and Red Seas back to back. On the other hand, some may feel the opening of the book being similar to the first one is no more of a problem than, say, the start of each Bond movie following a similar formula. Also, as with Lies, Red Seas is based in part around the subversion of traditional fantasy tropes, which makes it slightly more noticeable when the book employs these tropes without any development of them (the extremely fortuitous escape of a character from certain death at the end of the novel may actually be bordering on cliche). Again, those seeking to enjoy the story for what it is will probably take little notice of this. Finally, a fairly mystifying subplot is resolved in a rather unsatisfactory manner at the end of the book, and the events in the finale are dependent on several characters we only meet a few chapters before the end, when they could have been established much earlier. Readers of Lies may also feel that the opening chapters do not deliver on their promise that the events of Lies will tie directly into the storyline of the novel. None of these problems are critical by any means, but they are slight irritations marring an otherwise superb story.
Elsewhere, Lynch improves on areas that in Lies were found wanting. Those who found the numerous flashbacks in Lies distracting will also be relieved to know that the flashbacks are much less numerous in Red Seas, are more directly tied to the main storyline and pretty much disappear about halfway in the volume. Thus Red Seas is much better paced than Lies and, despite being longer, actually feels like a shorter, faster-paced read. By the way, the page-counts on Amazon.co.uk seem to be way off on this novel: my advance copy is 650 pages of text of roughly the same size and spacing as the release trade paperback edition of Lies.
Red Seas Under Red Skies (****), despite a few rough edges, is a marked improvement on The Lies of Locke Lamora (itself a fine debut) and confirms Scott Lynch's place as one of the foremost new fantasy authors on the block. The novel will be published in the UK on 21 June by Gollancz in both hardcover and trade paperback editions. The US edition will by published by Bantam on 31 July in hardcover. Sandstorm Reviews have a typically less rambling review than mine at this location. The author also has a website here. Book 3 of The Gentleman Bastard sequence will be entitled The Republic of Thieves and should be out in mid-2008. I look forward to it immensely.