Review: Red Seas Under Red Skies

Title: Red Seas Under Red Skies

Author: Scott Lynch

Series: The Gentleman Bastard (#2)

Publisher: Gollancz

Genre: Brutal, Thieving Fantasy… with pirates!

Pages: 630

Rating: 9/10

The night quiet was broken by the high, distant trill of a whistle, the traditional swarming noise of city watches everywhere. Several other whistles joined in a few moments later.

“It is possible,” said Locke with a sheepish grin, “that I have been slightly too bold.”

Summary: With his sights set on the Sinspire, a gambling house no one’s ever stolen from and lived, Locke Lamora is in the city state of Tal Verarr. The game is proceeding as planned, and Locke and Jean are looking forward to their hard-earned windfall.

But the Bondsmagi of Karthain have a long memory, and soon someone else in Tal Verarr wants Locke and Jean’s expertise. Before long, Locke and Jean find themselves engaged in piracy, and are once again embroiled in a fight for their lives.

Review: Once again, wow.

I knew I’d like this book from the moment that Locke hopes Jean gets his cock sucked by a shark. Yes, that is a thing.

I have to admit, I wasn’t expecting as much from this book as from the first one. Second books tend to have a bit of a stigma surrounding them. I take back any hesitation I had.

Okay, some people might not like the fact that there’s more than one plot thread going on (though they tie up neatly in the end), and the fact that the piracy plotline doesn’t start until you’re a fair chunk into the book. But, you know, I liked that. Locke’s life, with its layers upon layers of deception, isn’t going to be straightforward. There’s going to be complications. Just as his Sinspire game looks to be going well, BAM. Something HUGE comes along and messes up all his plans and he has to do major damage control.

Kind of like the first book.

Poor Locke. I believe that he had some major character growth going on in this book. The events in the last book have taken their toll on him and his relationship with Jean, and I feel like he’s growing up. He seems to think more about consequences (well, sometimes), and isn’t quite as cocksure and reckless as he was in the first book.

And we see the aftermath of the first book, even though this first one is set two years after the end. For the first part of the book, we get reminiscences of the previous two years, bringing us up to date on Locke and Jean’s adventures to the starting point of the novel. I liked this feature. Not only was it in keeping with Lynch’s style (like the flashbacks in book one), I’m glad we got to see what happened in the missing two years of time. Locke and Jean’s relationship was strained to the breaking point, and we got to see that, and see the ramifications of that even two years later.

We also get to see the beginnings of the Sinspire game, which, in the main plot, is coming to a close. All in all, I really enjoyed the flashbacks. I always enjoy when an author is clever with time, and with their narrative structure. Especially when it’s not confusing at all.

The prologue was and is, I admit, a dirty trick. Prologues that are a scene from somewhere near the end of the novel always put me in two minds as a reader. Firstly, I don’t want to know what’s going to happen. I don’t want to spend the entire book waiting for this scene, or feeling anxious because it hasn’t happened yet. No, thank you. On the other hand, I admire the ballsy hook.

Jean got some character development too! I appreciated the scenes from his point of view – I know there were a few in Lies, but not nearly as many. Jean is the source of MANY FEELS in this novel, just to warn you. I was SO HAPPY and then I was DISTRAUGHT. That aside, you really get to see what a damn good friend he is to Locke. Locke puts him through so much crap sometimes, and yet he is still always there. Always looking out for him.

I love their friendship. They would die for each other. Just die. And we get to see evidence for this over and over again. It’s not just words for them. It was never just words.

Let’s talk about some of the other characters in this book. I LOVE the badass women pirates. I love the fact that Scott Lynch’s world is so totally different than our own when it comes to gender roles. Being a woman doesn’t stop any of his characters doing anything. His women are as real and vibrant as his men, with as many nuances and shades of grey and badass awesome moments.

Like Zamira. She’s a middle-aged pirate woman, a captain of one of the most feared pirate ships in the Brass Sea. She also is the single mum of two kids, and is raising them right out there on the high seas. She’s a great character. She oozes authority, and courage, and you definitely do not want to get on her bad side.

There are, of course, other great characters. I particularly liked the antagonists in this one. I felt that they had a lot of depth to them, rather than just being assholes for the sake of assholes. There are loads of other characters I could mention – Ezri, for instance – but you really need to experience them for yourself.

There is no map at the beginning of this one, which was a grievance I had in the last book. Once again, I feel that the novel would have benefitted from the inclusion of one.

The writing, though. I love the way Scott Lynch can turn a phrase. I really, really do. Amongst beautiful descriptions and plenty of atmosphere building, there are moments of pure humour and snark and wondrous narration.

For example:

“Mew,” the kitten retorted, locking gazes with him. It had the expression common to all kittens, that of a tyrant in the becoming. ‘I was comfortable, and you dared to move,’ those jade eyes said. ‘For that you must die.’ When it became apparent to the cat that its two or three pounds of mass were insufficient to break Locke’s neck with one mighty snap, it put its paws on his shoulders and began sharing its drool-covered nose with his lips. He recoiled.

I am in love with his writing. Pure, unadulterated love. *swoons like a maiden*

Whilst The Lies of Locke Lamora can stand alone as a novel, the same isn’t entirely true of this one. Sure, the main plotlines are all wrapped up at the end, but there is a massive great question mark left hanging over the characters. Technically, you can read this one as a standalone too, but I, for one, am very glad to have the next book sitting right next to me.

If you like cons and thieves and brutal fantasy and enjoyed The Lies of Locke Lamora, read this book. If you haven’t read The Lies of Locke Lamora, read that first, then come and read this book. I don’t think you’ll be disappointed.

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Review: The Lies of Locke Lamora

Title: The Lies of Locke Lamora

Author: Scott Lynch

Series: The Gentleman Bastard (#1)

Publisher: Gollancz

Genre: Brutal, Thieving Fantasy

Pages: 531

Rating: 9.5/10

 

Some day, Locke Lamora,” he said, “some day, you’re going to fuck up so magnificently, so ambitiously, so overwhelmingly that the sky will light up and the moons will spin and the gods themselves will shit comets with glee. And I just hope that I’m still around to see it.

Warning: If you hate expletives, perhaps this book is not for you. But damn, do they add to the atmosphere.

Summary: Locke Lamora is, much to his annoyance, the fabled Thorn of Camorr. Far from being an unbeatable swordsman and friend to the poor, however, Locke is skinny, terrible with a sword and keeps all the riches for himself and his Gentleman Bastards (though they don’t know what to do with it). What Locke Lamora does have, however, is brains and the balls to go through with complicated schemes.

But when the Gentleman Bastards begin the Don Salvara game, they get caught up in another, more murderous game. Suddenly, they’re not in control, and they’re struggling to stay alive.

Review: Wow. Just wow. I feel as though I’ve been hit across the face with a sledgehammer after reading this book. I was blown away by how good it is.

Firstly, the worldbuilding is amazing. You can really tell that Lynch’s world is lovingly crafted, and that he’s really thought about the cultures and religions, as well as the history of the city. I particularly liked the fact that Camorr was built on the ruins of an old alien culture, the Eldren, and that no one really knows what happened to them. All that’s left behind of them are structures made of Elderglass, a substance unable to be destroyed by human hands and that generates its own light. Very interesting, really.

The only thing I would say about the worldbuilding is that I really wished there was a map included at the beginning of the book. I sometimes felt a little bit lost when Lynch was describing one of the districts of Camorr, and a map would greatly have helped with that. Also, Lynch tends to describe the city a lot, so if that’s not your kind of thing be prepared for it. It was noticeable, but not too distracting; it did, however, occasionally jolt me out of the story when I was trying to get everything straightened up in my head. Like I said, a map of Camorr would do wonders (and this is the main reason why I knocked off 0.5 of a point).

I felt that Scott Lynch’s narrative structure was very brave. The main story is interspersed with flashbacks into the past, when Locke and the other Gentleman Bastards were receiving their education. On top of that, sometimes the main action is presented out of chronological order, so the reader believes one thing has happened, and then we are shown the events leading up to it and so learn what truly happened. If you are not prepared for it, it can be a little confusing. The prologue, for example, threw me off a little because I wasn’t expecting the timeline jumping. When I got used to it, however, I really appreciated how clever it was. Scott Lynch isn’t spoon-feeding his readers. You have to work your brain and pay attention to this book, and I revelled in the challenge.

I also liked that sometimes there were little mini-chapters describing bits of the culture, especially as those little mini-chapters became relevent in the main story more often than not. Even if they hadn’t become all that relevant, I enjoyed them for what they were: another piece of the fabric of the world Lynch has created. It is kind of like watching a tapestry unfurl in front of you, piece by bloody, fantastical piece.

On top of that, the writing style was wonderful to read. There were beautiful, gritty, vivid descriptions of the city, but there were moments of witty humour and deft wordsmithing too. The wittiness came through in the narrative, not just through Locke’s mouth, which I liked a lot. I liked feeling Lynch’s personality infused in the narrative of the story, as though I was being told a tale, a tale of an extraordinary man.

And Locke is an extraordinary man. Sure, he has a lot of failings. He’s terrible in a fight, he doesn’t quite think through the consequences of his actions (though it’s a lesson many people try to beat into him), and he doesn’t know when to shut his mouth. (He really doesn’t know when to shut his mouth.) You know those protagonists that taunt the villain when they’re in pretty deep trouble? Yeah. Locke puts all those protagonists to shame. However, despite his failings, he has some pretty good virtues too. Loyalty to his friends. An extraordinary brain. Some of the schemes he comes up with are so ludicrous, so complex and so damn ballsy, that you can’t help watching them unfold with your jaw dropped open.

It’s not just Locke that’s an amazing character, though. Jean Tannen. Calo and Galdo. Bug. Father Chains. Don and Dona Salvara. Capa Barsavi. The Grey King. The Falconer. The whole cast of characters are memorable, three-dimensional and unforgettable.

And another thing. No one’s safe. This book ripped my heart out, stomped all over it, and then sewed it back into my chest so it could do it all over again. And I loved it.

This is the first book in a projected series of seven books, but it also works as a standalone. This is a rare quality in a book that is part of a longer series, and a refreshing one. Loose ends are tied up. We’re not left hanging. The story is pretty much bundled up in one neat package. But there is potential for more and, trust me, by the end of this first book, you’ll want to spend another book with the Gentleman Bastards.

This is a debut novel that I was truly blown away by. If this is what Scott Lynch can do as a first effort, I can’t wait to see what he does with the gift of more experience

Writing the Taboo

Disclaimer: This post is pure opinion, and I make no claims at any authority on the subject.

Little back story here: I’ve been writing fantasy for about ten years now and have, on and off, been writing in the same world. However, I’ve actually not really made any attempt to cohesively world-build before. Sure, I’ve had ideas for cultures and things, and mostly have been consistent in the rules of magic and what-have-you, but my world-building is nowhere near complete.

One of my resolutions for 2014? World-build my heart out.

So, I was thinking about one of the religions in the country where my story is set, and came to the realisation that they eat their dead. In a very much reverant kind of way, you understand.

And that got me to thinking about how these characters would be perceived by readers. I mean, cannibalism is a pretty huge taboo in our society.

Can cannibalism – and other taboos, such as incest, beastiality and paedophilia – be written in a way where a reader may sympathise with the characters commiting them? (See? The word ‘committing’ already paints the act in a negative light.) Not necessarily empathise, but sympathise. Understand them. Like them.

There are two ways to go about this, I think.

The first way is to, as a writer, take a physical step back from these characters, so we as a reader view them through another layer of consciousness. The trouble with this approach, I think, is it is all too easy to paint the character committing the taboo as a villain.

For example, in A Game of Thrones, the first book in George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series, we know from the first few chapters that Jaime and Cersei Lannister, who are twins, are involved in a sexual relationship. We see them purely through the eyes of characters who don’t like them. When viewpoint characters discover this information about them (with the exception of Bran, the child who we as readers learn the information through), it’s treated as another layer of their villainy. In the ‘of course they’re having sex, Lannisters are horrible people’ kind of way.

(This changes somewhat when we get both Jaime and Cersei’s viewpoint characters in later books, making them much more sympathetic, but more on that in a minute.)

The only other example I can think of right now is Hannibal Lecter, but sadly I haven’t read any of Thomas Harris’s books so I can’t give much of an insight. I have seen the films, however, and Lecter is a very compelling character. Clarice Starling is definitely the protagonist, but Lecter is very much an overarching presence. He can’t be called a hero, not by a long shot, but I don’t think he’s entirely a villain either.

And considering the amount of fangirling I’ve seen over the recent tv series, I’m pretty sure that’s not just the film maker’s decision.

The other way of doing it, and the way I’m probably going to do it, is putting the reader inside the characters’ heads. This is an entirely different experience to having your opinion of them filtered through another character, as you’re experiencing the world of the story with them. They are not just a sightseeing stop along the way.

Jaime Lannister (and to a lesser extent, Cersei) is an example of this. Once you read a couple of chapters from his point of view, it is hard not to change your opinion of him. The incest (no spoilers here, honest) is a much bigger part of him than it first seems. In A Game of Thrones, it’s a) what sets the wheels of the plot in motion and b) a way to make the Lannisters seem that tiiiny bit more despicable. When you read from Jaime’s point of view, you see that it is his powerful love for Cersei that is the driving force behind him, and the thing that keeps him going when times are hard. You can’t help but fall for him, in that sense. In that way, I think that Martin handled the taboo incredibly well. He went along with readers’ gut reactions in the first book, and then turned it around when Jaime gets a voice.

Another author that handles the taboo of incest well is Tabitha Suzuma in her book, Forbidden. This novel is told from the alternating first-person viewpoints of Maya and her brother, Lochan. As a reader, you experience along with them the joy and agony of falling in love with a sibling. The whole book is very interior, with not much to distract you from the rising sexual tension and the fear of being discovered. You want it to work out for them, even if that want makes you feel rather conflicted.

Then, there is Vladimir Nabakov’s Lolita, told from the point of view of Humbert Humbert, a man with a rather unsettling obsession with young girls. If you look at the reviews on Goodreads, they’re divided between people who found Humbert Humbert disquietingly sympathetic, and people who are shocked and/or disgusted to be reading about paedophilia. I think there is a fine line between eliciting those two reactions from your readers, and Nabokov has found the balance.

It’s interesting to note that Lolita ended up on the banned books list for obscenity here in England for a while.

What does everyone think? Would you prefer to be distanced from a taboo, or to face it head on when reading fiction? Do you have any other examples of books that you believe have handled taboo subjects well, either from a distance or up close? Or do you believe there are certain subjects writers just shouldn’t tackle? Let me know your thoughts! :)

My Year in Books: 2013

My goal for 2013 was to read 100 books, and I made it by the skin of my teeth.

And, for future reference, graphic novels totally count as real books. Shut up.

By the way, if you’re looking for a post about books released in 2013, this isn’t it. This is all about the books I personally read in 2013, most of which were published before that.

If you’re interested, click on the book links for my reviews. :)

Here are my stats for the year according to Goodreads:

Total Number of Books Read: 100
Total Number of Pages Read: 26449
Longest Book: The Eye of the World by Robert Jordan (810 pages)
Shortest Book: King Arthur’s Knight Quest by Andy Dixon (32 pages)

And here are some personal highlights from my year of reading:

Favourite Book: The Lost Hero by Rick Riordan

Least Favourite Book: This Beautiful Thing by Amanda Heath

Most Anticipated: If Only by Cherise Sinclair or The House of Hades by Rick Riordan

Biggest Disappointment: Will You Love Me? by Cathy Glass

Pleasant Surprise: Unbreakable by Kami Garcia

Guilty Pleasure: The Look of Love by Bella Andre

Book I Wouldn’t Share with My Mother: Club Mephisto by Annabel Joseph

Favourite Male Character: Jason Grace from The Lost Hero by Rick Riordan

Favourite Female Character: Gemma from Stolen by Lucy Christopher

Best Author Dedication: The House of Hades by Rick Riordan

Favourite Graphic Novel Series: Ouran High School Host Club by Bisco Hatori

Keep Tissues Handy: The Fault in Our Stars by John Green

Darkest Book: Prince of Thorns by Mark Lawrence

Most Shocking Scene: A Storm of Swords: Blood and Gold by George R.R. Martin

Best Handling of a Taboo Subject: Stolen by Lucy Christopher or Forbidden by Tabitha Suzuma

Doesn’t Get Out Of Your Head: The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood or Bran’s Story by Sabrina ‘Maculategiraffe’ Dean

Sexiest Erotica: The Good Boy by Lisa Henry and J.A. Rock

I Need The Sequel Now: Unbreakable by Kami Garcia

Favourite Writing Style: A Thread of Deepest Black by Finn Marlowe

Favourite Cover: Beautiful Music for Ugly Children by Kristin Cronn-Mills

So there you have it – my 2013 in books. I’ve made a Goodreads goal to read at least 50 books this year, around studying for my PhD. I’m hoping to make this post an annual thing, so it’ll be exciting to see what makes the list next for 2014!