But no, this time I kept going. I kept going because I loved the characters -- well, the characters that survive the first novel.* And the memory of the characters who didn't was still poignant, and I wanted to see what the survivors would be like without them.
Red Seas Under Red Skies starts off the way a lot of quality television episodes and films like to start these days. We get dropped into the middle of an arresting and unusual scene, in which our beloved characters are behaving very strangely, clearly under duress, and we are overwhelmed with curiosity as to how things came to that pass. And then everything flashes way back by way of furnishing that information. Knowing from the first novel that Scott Lynch is a writer who is capable of quite intricate plotting, surprises, and character juggling, we relax from the initial shock and watch the story begin rather sedately to unfold.
Actually, scratch the "rather". It's actually very sedate, this sequel. Gone is the whip-smart banter, the hilarity, the infectious audacity of the Gentleman Bastards I fell in love with in the first book. As befits what became of most of the bastards; the survivors are mourning them. Locke is dissolving in self-pity and Jean is losing patience with him. It all threatens to become tedious, until Lynch reminds us that this pair tweaked the noses of perhaps the most powerful secret evil organization of all at the end of the last novel, and that's going to have consequences! But even then, this novel is a very slow burn, especially when contrasted with its predecessor.
This doesn't make it necessarily a bad novel, just a slower and more subtle one (a gambit involving ordering some very specific custom furniture left me scratching my head for a very long time and even now there's part of me saying "Really? That? Really?" It feels quite true to these surviving characters, sobered and made more somber by their huge setbacks last novel. They're sort of zombie versions of themselves for this one: still smart, still talented, still ambitious, but rather lifeless all the same.
Fortunately for us, even Zombie Locke and Zombie Jean are better fantasy heroes than the run of them. Zombie Locke could still go toe to toe with Tyrion Lannister in any battle of wits one cared to name, and Zombie Jean could probably wipe the floor with Westley or Aragorn in single combat. Maybe double combat. They're just not as fun.
But fun isn't the only reason to read a novel; this is a more mature work, less showing off (though there are still some bravura set pieces, like the Amusement War, a living chess game with some nasty consequences for the destitute human pieces who get captured) and more meditation on property and fairness, equality and justice, and the price individuals and societies pay when parties demand and take revenge.
"Here were the richest and freest people in the Therin world, those with positions and money but no political duties to constrict them, gathered together to do what law and custom forbade beyond Saljesca's private fiefdom -- to humiliate and brutalize their lessers however they saw fit, for their own gleeful amusement."Scenes like that make one long for Locke and Jean to go all kinds of Robin Hood on the upper class's asses, and to a degree we get that. The two mandates of the Thieves' God Locke and Jean are raised to serve are 1. Thieves Prosper and 2. The Rich Remember -- remember that they're vulnerable, that their possessions are just things of which they can be relieved and with the loss of possessions can come loss of power. Our boys did a great job of fulfilling both mandates in the first book, but were at a loss as to what to do with their accumulation of loot until someone else took it away from them. Here, the second mandate takes on a darker and more desperate edge. Once Locke witnesses the Amusement War, all of his careful schemes and cons with Jean are deformed by his righteous anger, something Jean, who did not see the decadent cruelty of unfettered wealth and power at play firsthand, never completely shares (just as earlier he did not entirely share Locke's despair). This tension between the friends, both when it's real and when it's feigned in service of a "job", is something new to the Bastards, and it's not pretty. But it's always, always believable.
All this is not to say that there is no fun to be had here. Locke's and DVD's adventures in sea are exciting as hell! Neither man knows a thing about sailing, and their attempts to fake such would be hilarious, if they didn't have such serious consequences. The new characters met on the Brass Sea are fascinating, unpredictable, and unforgettable. A fierce female sea captain/pirate queen, Zamira, who is as protective of her crew as of her two children who are also aboard, is worthy of her own novel. I would read the hell of a spinoff series about her.
Indeed, once our heroes are shipboard, Red Seas Under Red Skies becomes an entirely different novel -- still dark, but dark in the service of rollicking pirate adventure. And who doesn't like that? Especially rollicking pirate adventure that also passes the Bechdel Test!
But so, I didn't devour it in one or two sittings like I did its predecessor, but I never wanted to set it aside for a different book altogether, either. I just wasn't always in the mood for it, at least not until its glorious seabound second half. So if you take this one up and find yourself yawning, stick it out at least until they weigh anchor. You'll be glad you did.
*Lynch's is very much post-Nedd Stark work.