Red Seas Under Red Skies

by Wardog

Wardog praises with faint damnation
I was nosing about Scott Lynch's LJ (which is endearingly titled The Dork Lord, on His Dork Throne) not so long ago and I came across this:
I was not a fan of the Wheel of Time books, probably because I came to them in my twenties with my tastes already fairly developed. I was never able to get past the opening of the second book, and those of you who've known me for ages I'm sure absorbed my criticism and invective years ago. I once wrote at excruciating length upon the weaknesses of the books as I perceived them, and while I thought it was extremely clever and somehow necessary at the time, the years since have drastically mellowed my taste for mocking the work of other authors who aren't huge assholes in person or pushing a distasteful agenda with their work. About the best I can say for my mosquito bites is that I sincerely hope Jordan himself never had them called to his attention. Something tells me he would have given them the eye roll they deserved.

And the sheer decency of it has sort of shamed me to such an extent (especially since I am a non-achiever who hangs about on the internet criticising other people's work) that I can hardly bring myself to review Red Seas Under Red Skies, especially since my attempt to write about The Lies of Locke Lamora degenerated into a (semi-harmless) mock-fest of Scott Lynch's hair. By the way the important word in that sentence was "hardly." With this mind and all due humility, here are some thoughts on Red Thingies Over/Under Red Other Thingies, which I shall hereafter refer to as RSURS for the sake of my sanity. It's the second book in the Gentleman Bastard sequence which will, I understand, eventually form a septet. I have to say, this idea distresses me. Not only has Harry Potter soured me on the number seven for life but, given the fact the fantasy genre generally can't cope with trilogies, the idea of a septet seems utterly ludicrous to me. I mean, what do you have to say that takes seven books? Seriously?

For the moment, however, Scott Lynch seems to have something to say. Ultimately there's no point in reading RSURS if you haven't read The Lies of Locke Lamora not because it doesn't almost stand alone but because familiarity with the background, the setting and the characters deepens the experience of reading. To give it due credit: RSURS is reasonably satisfying on its own terms. You can feel the slow gathering of plot upon the horizon like distant clouds (and fear the coming storm) and there are some massive danglers just left hanging in a deliberately taunting and irritating fashion but, hey, thems the breaks with this kind of thing. And, as in Lies, the mysterious Sabetha, the apparent love of Locke's life, is alluded to but remains absent: for fuck's sake, Lynch, stop it. You know she's just going to be a total let down after a build up like this.

The problems evident in Lies are evident in RSURS, only slightly moreso because you don't have the novelty factor of being a first book to distract you from them. If you didn't like Locke the first time round, you won't like him here because he's exactly the same and still, some might argue, something of a Mary Sue or the male equivalent thereof. Although I don't personally object to the love affair Scott Lynch is tenderly enacting with his (anti)hero, I do struggle somewhat with the character. As I think I said in my review of Lies, he's absolutely the nicest bastard you could ever hope to meet: he never harms or kills anybody who doesn't thoroughly deserve it, his supposedly long-dead conscience miraculously reappears whenever he's confronted by any sort of cruelty or injustice and his unswerving and self-sacrificing loyalty to his friends is a virtue of such magnitude that it eclipses everything remotely unsympathetic about him. It shouldn't, but that's the way fiction works: if your character cares about the same people as the reader, it doesn't really matter how that character behaves, they're always going to garner a degree of support and approval.

I wouldn't mind this so much if I didn't have the feeling that Locke is supposed to be a shady character for a dark world. Perhaps I have the wrong end of the stick and Locke was never meant to be anything but a big bleeding heart beneath a thin veneer of survivalist criminality but I don't think so. I think the problem with Locke Lamora is that he's neither enough of one thing nor its opposite: he's neither selfish enough to be a convincing anti-hero nor virtuous enough to be a convincing hero. I know part of his shtick is his shifting sense of self and I'm not averse to complicated, contradictory characters but I find Locke incoherent rather than complex. I'm genuinely uncertain as to what Lynch is trying to do with the character or what we're meant to think. I'm not saying he doesn't do terrible things - he mutilates someone (who, admittedly, deserves it) in the first book - but everything he does that's vile and shocking is excusable whereas everything he does that's compassionate is extraordinary. For example, in RSURS, he and Jean, hanging out a decadent casino called the Sinspire, witness an entertainment in which a young nobleman, unable to pay his debts, has to survive in cage of stiletto wasps. Needless to say he doesn't and Locke secretly makes a blessing over the young man's forgotten corpse:
"Crooked Warden," Locke muttered under his breath, speaking quickly, "a glass poured on the ground for a stranger without friends. Lord of gallants and fools, ease this man's passage to the Lady of the Long Silence. This was a hell of a way to die. Do this for me and I'll try not to ask for anything for a while. I really do mean that this time."

There is no reason for this scene to be in the book (not that it isn't cool) - there are plenty examples of the upper classes being cruel and bloodthirsty to make the point and if the stiletto wasps are at all relevant beyond providing atmosphere they're certainly not to this book. In fact, its only purpose is to remind us that Locke Lamora is great and to show him, thief and conman that he is, being humane in the face of the world's inhumanity.

Unlike some of the reviews I've read, I've never had a problem with the snappy, modern dialogue and the very modern obscenity. In fact, I genuinely relish it. Unfortunately, it was during RSURS that I realised something that had passed me by in the first book: it's the only kind of dialogue Lynch can write. Everyone sounds the same. Pirates, noblemen, thieves, priests Locke, Jean: they're interchangeable. Witty but interchangeable.
"And now, my dear professional pessimist," said Locke... "my worry merchant, my tireless font of doubt and derision ... what do you have to say to that?
"Oh very little to be sure... it's so hard to think, overawed as I am with the sublime genius of your plan."
"That bears some resemblance to sarcasm."
"Gods, forefend," said Jean. "You wound me! Your inexpressible criminal virtues have triumphed again, as inevitably as the tides comes and go. I cast myself at your feet and beg for absolution. Yours is the genius that nourishes the heart of the world."
"And now you're-"
"If only there was a leper handy," interrupted Jean, "so you could lay your hands on him and magically heal him-"
"Oh you're just farting out of your mouth because you're jealous."

And so on. And here we have Jean talking to his ladylove:
"Have you really been practicing on barrels Jerome?"
"Barrels. Yes. They never laugh, they never ridicule you and they offer no distractions."
"Barrels don't have breasts."
"Ah. So what have you been telling these barrels?"
"This bottle of brandy," said Jean, "is still too full for me to begin embarrassing myself like that."
"Pretend I'm a barrel then."
"Barrels don't have br-"
"So I've heard. Find the nerve, Valora."
"You want me to pretend that you're a barrel, so I can tell you what I was telling barrels back when I was pretending they were you."
"Well ... you have ... you have such hoops as I have never seen in any cask on any ship, such shiny and well-fit hoops-"
"And your staves! Your staves ... so well planned, so tightly fit. You are as fine a cask as I ever seen, you marvellous little barrel. To say nothing of your bung-."

See what I mean?

I think in my review of Lies I commented on the deftness and subtlety of the world building - well, in RSURS, the action has moved from a city made of elderglass to a city consisting of islands made of elderglass. Astonishing. And sadly the delicacy of touch seems to have been replaced by the typical fantasy fiction obsession with geographic detail. It's nowhere near Perdido Street Station but, as much as I enjoy Lynch's world, there's a bit too much of this sort of thing:
Tal Verrar, the Rose of the Gods, at the westernmost edge of what the Therin people call the civilised world.
If you could stand in thin air a thousand yards above Tal Verrar's tallest towers, or float in lazy circles there like the nations of gulls that infest the city's crevices and rooftops, you would see how its vast, dark islands have given this place its ancient nickname. They whirl outward from the city's heart, a series of crescents steadily increasing in size, like the stylised petals of a rose in an artist's mosaic.

And so on for two or more pages at a time. A bit like this review really.

Also it has to be said, the plot makes no sense whatsoever. It attempts to follow the embedded narrative format of the first book but it feels strained: Lynch occasionally plays with chronology, explaining how events came about after they occur, and offers a few reminiscences but it's noticeably a device now, rather than the most natural vehicle to tell the story. And, like the first book, it begins with Locke and Jean mid-heist only to drag them - reluctant and swearing as ever - into much bigger events, allowing the plot to twist, turn, double back on itself and eventually come full circle in a strangely satisfying manner. Except this time, it turns out that the Archon of Tal Verrar wants them to become ... wait for it ... pirates. Yes. Pirates. Two conmen from the streets of Camorr. Pirates. Now, I know that pirates are just inherently cool and you can't go wrong with them but still, come on. What's next? Locke Lamora and some ninjas? Locke Lamora and zombies? I don't know whether to respect the sheer brass bollocks ludicrousness of it or complain bitterly because it has to be the most spurious excuse for a plot I've ever encountered. And the fact that even main characters complain about the stupidity doesn't actually counteract that stupidity:
"Send us out to sea to find an excuse for you, that's what you said," said Locke. "Send us out to sea. Has your brain swelled against the inside of skull? How the screaming fucking hell do you expect the two of us to raise a bloody pirate armada in a place we've never been and convince it to come merrily die at the hands of the navy that bent it over the table and fucked it in the arse last time."

This is Lynch's latest technique, by the way, one I think he might have borrowed from JK Rowling. He seems have developed a tendency to address the inevitable plot holes of his novels by having his characters draw attention to it. To be honest, fridge logic doesn't bother me - I don't care how Buffy the Vampire slayer pays the mortgage on her dead mother's house or how Sydney Bristow circles the globe in half an episode - but attempting to pass it off as anything other than what it is offends me. Having the Archon blackmail Locke and Jean into mustering a pirate armada for political reasons is little more than a blatant excuse for the author to have them messing about with pirates, which is in itself fair enough. However, having Locke and Jean constantly bitching about the insanity of the plan even as they enact it only serves to induce bouts of fridge logic before you're even anywhere near the fridge. It also leads to odd little moments like this:
"Why not?" [said Jean] "Why not? 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-bond monk. I have a life outside your gods-damned shadow."

Err...actually Jean, you're a sidekick. Haven't you noticed? You actually do not have a life outside Locke Lamora's gods-damned shadow. The more Lynch tries to demonstrate to the reader that Jean is a person in his own right the less convincing it becomes. All it does is illustrate the fact that whatever Jean does on his own account is completely meaningless because his only relevance is tied to his supporting role, a role to which he will always return. His short-lived relationship - although actually moderately engaging, while it lasts - is only further evidence of this. You can see its inevitably tragic conclusion approaching on the horizon like the sails of the good ship Obvious.

The other thing I'm feeling a little bit peeved is Lynch's reliance on a technique he seems to have ganked from Alias. Now, I'm not sure if it continues in the later seasons but the early episodes of Alias always end with a cliff-hanger. And at first I used to get tremendously caught up in them. Oh no, I'd cry, Sydney is hanging from a cliff with only her suspender belt between her and certain death. Oh no, Sydney's rival has locked her in the poison-gas filled vault. Oh no, Sydney is being held at gunpoint by the bad guys. And then I'd insist that we watched another episode to find out what was going to happen, only to be faintly disappointed when the desperate, deadly situation resolved itself harmlessly in about two minutes of screen time. RSURS opens with Locke and Jean caught at crossbow-point on the docks and then, gasp, ever-faithful Jean turns on Locke. The novel then spools backwards in time to show you how they got themselves into this mess and, yes, it's arresting except that it's basically just like Alias, a cliff-hanger critical on the surface but ultimately completely meaningless and wrapped up quicker than a streaker at a tennis match. A couple of similar situations happen over the course of the book and, despite the satisfactory resolution of the plot, there's one left right at the end. I suspect I'd be more interested/frustrated by this Tense and Terrible State Of Affairs if the experience of the rest of the novel hadn't led me to the conviction that it's merely there for affect.

Okay, so I've just written four pages of bitching about RSURS but the fact remains that, despite its flaws, despite everything in it that doesn't quite work for me, I still heartily enjoyed it and very nearly loved it. Pirates, for God's sake, pirates! It's not quite as taut as the first book but once Locke and Jean hit the high seas the pace really picks up and the book becomes wonderful fun, sweeping you along on sheer exuberance and panache. And, damn it all, that's good enough for me. Roll on book three.

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Comments (go to latest)
Arthur B at 01:09 on 2008-02-02
It strikes me that the Gentleman Bastard series embodies a problem I have with lots of fantasy series, namely that one book is really enough. I've felt absolutely no urge to go and read RSURS, and most of the things you point out in the review cement that; sure, it seems to be more of the same, and that's well and good - at least it's not a serious decline. On the other hand, one Lies of Locke Lamora is enough for me - having read one book, I don't feel as though anything the other books say can really add anything. (I'm also utterly unconvinced that there's enough juice in the Gentleman Bastards concepts to fill 7 books. I mean, for goodness' sake, he's only on the second book in the series and already he's resorted to pirates.)
empink at 02:49 on 2008-02-02
@ ArthurB: Forsooth, he *will* go to ninjas next.

You know, I had more faith in this guy. I thought he'd at least 'fess up about Sabetha whatshername, or tie the book back to the first one, or do something other than send Jean and Locke to cavort with pirates for no good reason. It made for fantastic cavorting and rather dull and simplistic reading, though-- I won't be buying any more sequels in hardback, or holding on to them out of guilt either.

Oh, and Kyra, the DIALOGUE. Everyone does sound the same, it's so boring. No one is allowed to be stupid, or say frightening things without twisting themselves into witty shapes and cursing fit to kill themselves. It was all right in the first book, but in RSURS, it starts to look like lack of imagination on Lynch's part.
Arthur B at 12:04 on 2008-02-02
Yeah, I can think of several points in the first book where I had to start reading a conversation again from the beginning because I lost track of who was who. It's this really weird blind spot in Lynch's writing; he can, when he tries, differentiate between characters in terms of disposition, personality, and so forth, and you can tell that by looking at their actions. (To pick the most obvious example, Jean is far more inclined to charge headlong into a fight like a raging bull than Locke is.) But he's chronically incapable of differentiating them when they're speaking.

I can only assume that he finds dialogue difficult (and to be fair, dialogue is difficult), and is trying to compensate by finding a style of dialogue he's quite good at and applying it to everyone.
Wardog at 14:23 on 2008-02-04
I'm glad the dialogue thing isn't only me ... it's the main problem I have with the series to be honest, despite all my trivial bitching above. After a while, it gets really wearing and the characters all start blurring into each other because I find that it's language rather than behaviour that distinguishes people in books - heh, she says, massively generalising.

I think I must be less bothered by "more of the same" than Arthur is - I genuinely enjoyed both books and I'll happily read more (although I've never splashed out a hardback of either, so the cost of my good will is significantly cheaper than Empink's!) as long as they stay on this kind of level (or get better!). I do find them a nice antidote to ponderous, serious fantasy. I genuinely dig the exuberance and the irreverence.

Also I've been poking about Scott Lynch's personal sites and he seems like a pretty decent, charmingly humble guy...
Cheriola at 16:16 on 2014-07-26
You know, oddly most of the things you mention didn't bother me at all. Except the utter pointlessness of the opening cliffhanger.

The only thing I did have a problem with is the way Jean shames Locke out of his depression, and Locke keeps apologising for "letting Jean down" in those few weeks for literally the next two years. I mean, in this book, it still reads like he's just mourning/recuperating a little too self-indulgently and maybe like he has a really short bout of alcoholism - but since the next book starts pretty much the same (except Locke has even more good reason to be depressed), and Jean then actually makes a reference to some kind of mental disorder (more something like Freud's innate death wish than depression, but still), it becomes problematic in hindsight. Especially since, either intentionally or not, Locke pretty much reads like a textbook case for bipolar disorder (spending most of each book in a manic phase), if you read all 3 books right after another. So for largely-neurotypical Jean to go "If I can handle our losses, why can't you?" and being sucessful at shaming/angering Locke out of suicidal depressive phases, that's rather problematic in my eyes. I know it fits with the setting that nobody has a clue about modern psychology and how Locke's mood issues are a disease, not willful misbehaviour, but Lynch should find a way to make at least narratively clear that Jean isn't right to do this. Besides, that kind of shaming would just make things worse with a real depressive person.

By the way, I'm fairly sure Locke is supposed to be a straight up trickster hero. Like Robin Hood, or the characters of the show "Leverage". He's not just a crook, he's also a priest and he really does believe in his duty to the dead and that holy mission for class revenge that Father Chains put them all on. (Even if this was retconned into this book and not in the first.) If anything he gets ever kinder from book to book. I think the third one literally points out that Camorr culture is particularly brutal, macho and homophobic compared to all the other city states, and much of Locke's initial darkness is part of his culture (like for example an extreme belief in having to take personal, blood-feud style vengeance) and that this is supposed to be a character flaw. But as he spends time in other cultures, he grows out of some of it. For example, in the first book, he calls the villain homophobic slurs several times. After encountering the queer-positive pirates in the second novel and that little discussion with "I'll try anything once - or 5 or 6 times" guy, he never does that again. And by book 3, when encountering a random pair of gay lovers making out in a garden and being tempted to go through their discarded clothing for their wallets, he stops his kleptomaniac impulse by reminding himself that doing malice to happy lovers would be bad karma.
Also, the losses of his friends, the brush with alcoholism and several with death have seemed to have made him a lot more sympathetic with other people's failings and tragedies. I actually really liked this character development. Yeah, he starts out as a bit of a cock-sure, obnoxious ass, but he does grow up and mellow out over the years, as one should expect.

Heh, but one character actually goes into a rant in the 3rd book about how Father Chains ruined them all for life as hardened, greed-motivated criminals by saddling them with a conscience. So I guess Lynch sees your problem.

By the way, can you really call a character a Mary Sue if literally none of his grand plans for cons ever work out, sometimes because of his own sheer stupidity (e.g. forgetting the cats), sometimes because his mark is just plain cleverer than him (e.g. the paintings), and the author takes an almost perverse delight in beating the crap out of him on a regular basis?

And, as in Lies, the mysterious Sabetha, the apparent love of Locke's life, is alluded to but remains absent: for fuck's sake, Lynch, stop it. You know she's just going to be a total let down after a build up like this.

I thought so, too, and got annoyed at the on-the-pedestal-putting. But now that I've read book 3, which features Sabetha both at about age 30 and when they were both teenagers: She's not. She's really, truly not. In fact, I was genuinely amazed at Sabetha - she's the best feminist (NOT straw-feminist!) character I've ever seen a male author write. And even if half of her discussions with Locke function mainly to introduce the male part of the audience to concepts like male entitlement to female sexuality, Nice Guy behaviour, Shroedinger's Rapist, victim blaming, the general frustration inherent in being an ambitious, highly talented woman in a patriarchal society and the frustration of being in love a with patriarchally socialised guy (who messes up occasionally even if he tries very, very hard not to, and who can't help the unfair male privilege that said society gives him), and that what feminists most want in a man is the ability to listen and learn - even if she's a bit of a mouthpiece in that regard: It's for a good and noble cause, and the author's heart is in the right place. And besides, there still is a clever, head-strong, angry, conflicted, and of course snarky character behind all the Issues. Her characterisation and reasons for leaving are thoroughly believeable, and also function as an Author's Saving Throw by actually pointing out in-text that the worldbuilding in the first book was problematic. Locke and Sabetha are still in love when they meet again, and they are surprisingly mature about their falling out and their attempts to fix it (if not in their professional rivalry...)
And Locke's adoring pedestal-putting, claiming her to be the love of his life, and his whole fixation on her are just that, quite literally - and the text seems aware that it is creepy, and the only thing that saves it is the fact that Locke is absolutely respectful of Sabetha's wishes and never, ever would force so much as a kiss on her. (I found the retconned-in reason for the fixation a bit sad, though: Until book 3, Locke could be read as demisexual for only ever being romantically/sexually attracted to one person. Then it's retconned as having creepy magical reasons that I don't want to spoil.)

The only thing about Sabetha I found a little... amusing, was that teenage Locke was almost too understanding and willing to accept anything feminism-related that she says and to change accordingly. Like I bet the author wishes he was at the age of 16, now that he finally gets it. Still, again, if it serves as a positive role model for male teenage readers, I'm fine with that kind of Mary-Sue-ism. Maybe it's a little preachy, especially since Lynch tries to cover so many topics, but I was just smiling through the whole thing. We do need more books like this.

The con plot of book 3 is a bit meh (basically it's a satire about 'democratic' elections, where Sabetha and Locke are press-ganged into controlling the campaign of one rivaling but politically indistinguishable party each, with all methods allowed short of murder, all ostensibly just for the entertainment of the people who really control the power in this 'republic' - their lives are being threatened to keep them in line, but it just doesn't have the personal stakes and sense of danger that the previous books had), and the teenage flashback is largely about the gang having to stage an annoyingly faux-Shakespearean play while conning a noble into paying for the production. So the relationship between Locke and Sabetha and the object lesson in how to make feminism 101 easily digestible in a fantasy novel, really are the main draws of the book. The meta plot for the series gets going right at the end, though. Which to me felt a bit like jumping the shark, but YMMV.

But I really do recommend the 3rd book, even if the plot is a little weak. Just for the sheer surrealness of reading a male author who manages to get practically everything right with regards to feminism. I mean, I've just read Elizabeth Bear's "Carnival" thinking she must have been the one to teach Lynch - but even she had like two dozen points in that ecofeminist polemic that made me headdesk.

(That book also needs a Ferret review, by the way. It's not thoroughly bad, as such, but the social philosophising made me uncomfortable and I wasn't always sure if I was supposed to be, and the worldbuilding has huge holes at least from my biologist/ecologist point of view. Still, queer protagonists are rare and deserve a mention.)
Robinson L at 20:15 on 2016-12-21
Cheriola: You know, oddly most of the things you mention didn't bother me at all. Except the utter pointlessness of the opening cliffhanger.

That pretty much sums up my feelings about the book, too. I guess I just think of this series as running on Rule of Cool and nothing else. Locke and Jean become pirates? Sure, why not? Doesn’t make sense? Who cares? And of course they’re going to complain about how ridiculous the Archon’s plan for them is, but that’s part of the fun.

Dialogue’s all the same? Ehn, so what? It’s all fun. And like you, I relish the modern snappiness/obscenity.

I mean, I don’t blame Wardog or Empink or anyone else who is bothered by this stuff, but just for myself, it seemed fine.

Wardog: I genuinely dig the exuberance and the irreverence.

That’s me, all the way (well, more like ~90% …)

I think the series is of two minds about whether Locke is actually supposed to be kind of an awful person or a stand up guy who happens to be a criminal—but as explained in my comment to the Lies review, I’ve chosen not to engage with those aspects and treat the whole thing as a rollicking adventure yarn. I will, however, once again point out a couple instances from this book of Character We’re Supposed to Root For Acts Like a Shitheel and Is In No Way Critiqued For It By the Text presently.

Re: description
And sadly the delicacy of touch seems to have been replaced by the typical fantasy fiction obsession with geographic detail.

Okay, here we come to a criticism I wholeheartedly agree with. Ye GODS but the description got tedious at times. It got tedious on audiobook; I shudder to think of trying to slog through it in text format.

I didn’t so much resent the book ending on a cliffhanger – although by the time I got to it, <Republic of Thieveslt/i> was already out, so I knew I’d be reading the next installment in a few months. Mostly, though, I was just relieved the cliffhanger revolved around Locke’s survival rather than Jean’s, because there’s a chance, however slight, of the series killing off Locke’s sidekick before the final book, whereas there’s absolutely none with Locke. So I appreciate the book making it absolutely clear that it’s not really a question of if the poisoned character will survive, but how.

His [Jean’s] short-lived relationship - although actually moderately engaging, while it lasts - is only further evidence of this. You can see its inevitably tragic conclusion approaching on the horizon like the sails of the good ship Obvious.

I think you undersell the extent to which the tragic conclusion was telegraphed beforehand. We’re talking a MegaBrooks at the very least. And I don’t think it would be humanly possible for the way it played out to have been any more cliché. Not to mention the whole fridging angle. Easily the lowest point of the series so far for me.

I thought RSURS handled the aftermath of said inevitable tragic conclusion a heck of a lot less annoyingly than most other books with similar big deaths I’ve encountered, though (lookin’ at you, Harry Potter). Jean is, of course, grief-stricken, and the book portrays the depth of his unhappiness while mostly avoiding an Epic Angst Sequence (seriously, there are few things in fiction less engaging than characters sitting around moping), and even sets up some genuinely touching moments, such as in the immediate aftermath of Ezri’s death, when Locke talks Jean down by threatening to throw himself at Jean, forcing the latter to beat the crap out of him (Locke), “and then you’ll feel terrible.”

Yes, pretending Jean is anything more than Locke’s sidekick is on par with “suddenly, Harry realized Dumbledore had actually been a fully-fleshed, three-dimensional character the entire time.” (Book 3 confirms this, when, after Locke is all patched up, Jean slips happily back into his role as Locke’s Number 2 without a hint of lingering grief over Ezri’s death, even as he’s helping out his best buddy romance Sabetha.) However, I thought the conflict between Locke and Jean set off by this outburst of Jean’s you quote in the article was actually pretty decent in terms of a “tensions between the series’ Main Pairing” subplot, which are usually of the eye-bleedingly terrible variety.

And what’s this guff about “moderately engaging?” I found it one of the two most engrossing parts of the story, along with some of Locke and Jean’s interactions. Jean and Ezri are adorable in every single scene they’re together: they bond over martial arts (with Jean being impressed that tiny Ezri actually managed to take him down at first), and their mutual affection for the Gentleman Bastardverse’s Shakespeare analogue. And then there’s the celebration scene where the two of them officially get together, soon after Jean has had his argument with Locke. And he’s keeping his distance from Ezri and it seems like at first he’s heeding Locke’s “you need to stay away from her, bro” bullshit, but it turns out, no, he’s craning away because he’s near-blind and he’s trying to see her properly and it’s incredibly cute you guys, like seriously.

Another thing I really like about the Jean / Ezri relationship is that the presentation feels balanced. I instantly get why Ezri is attracted to Jean as much as why Jean is attracted to Ezri, and in that scene during the celebration where, of course, Jean is being all shy and awkward, there’s a part where we suddenly see Ezri being shy and awkward as well. I’ve read a lot of similar romance arcs—especially those told from the male perspective—where the viewpoint character is vulnerable and complex while their love interest is all strong and confident and basically put on a pedestal.

I actually found it more engaging than Locke’s relationship with Sabetha in Republic of Thieves. While I agree with Cheriola that Sabetha is a great character, we don’t get much sense of her interior life, and the only times she displays vulnerability are when it directly relates to Locke. Also, it takes a long time into the story for her to tell Locke and the reader why she’s attracted to him, and I don’t feel the text really shows her being attracted the way RSRUS does with Ezri.

RSURS opens with Locke and Jean caught at crossbow-point on the docks and then, gasp, ever-faithful Jean turns on Locke. The novel then spools backwards in time to show you how they got themselves into this mess and, yes, it's arresting except that it's basically just like Alias, a cliff-hanger critical on the surface but ultimately completely meaningless and wrapped up quicker than a streaker at a tennis match.

Oh my god, that was the worst; maybe even worse than Ezri’s death.

I detest flash-forward openings as a general rule. I feel like there may have been one or two I’ve encountered which actually worked okay, but if so I can’t remember them now. Those possible examples aside, at best, flash-forward openings contribute f***-all of substance to the story, and at worst they undermine immersion by distracting the reader from the current action with questions which aren’t going to be answered for another 200-400 pages.

To be fair, some flash-forward openings, while still crap, sometimes do something clever with the reader’s expectations (I remember one where a guy wakes up and wonders what the heck is going on, and when we get to that part of the book in turns out the original guy died, and this is a clone, so that waking up sequence is technically his birth). RSURS is not one of those stories, though. The sequence takes on no new significance or added meaning for having read the rest of the book up to that point.

But wait, it gets better! Jean turning on Locke is in itself not terribly surprising: they are master con artists, after all. The linchpin (no pun intended) of the tension to this scene is that Jean fails to give the hand signals which mean “this is a scam, play along,” leaving Locke, and the readers, to wonder if this is a real betrayal, after all. Then, after Jean has dispatched the two assassins he says: “Oh, yeah, didn’t you see me giving the hand signal which means ‘this is a scam, play along’?” and Locke is all like, “Gosh, man, I must’ve missed it.” And that’s an end to it. Are you f**king kidding me?

Granted, this sort of stuff happens all the time in real life, but narratively speaking, it’s the worst kind of cheap trick for creating false tension. It might have been forgivable if there were some long-term consequences to the whole business. Locke and Jean have both been dosed with a slow-acting poison at this point in the story, and I thought maybe Locke’s failure to notice the hand signal was an early warning sign that the poison is beginning to effect his perception. But no. Or maybe Jean really was considering turning on Locke for some reason or other and then had a change of heart, and made up the part about the hand signal. No sign of that, either.

Look, I’m glad Jean doesn’t actually betray Locke, because as story turns go, that would have been at least as irritating as Ezri’s death, probably worse. But first you hit me with this bullshit flash-forward, then you double down on the bullshit by revealing the whole thing was just a trifling misunderstanding with no effing consequences whatsoever? What a waste of time.

… So yeah, on balance, I was not well pleased or amused by this sequence, especially as our hook into the main story.
Robinson L at 20:30 on 2016-12-21
And now it’s time for another installment of Robinson Dissects the Ethics of the Gentleman Bastard Books. This week’s episode: Captain Zamira Drakasha Edition.

So yeah, Zamira is all kinds of awesome, but like with the other main characters, it’s best to turn one’s critical thinking off when thinking about her actions, or it becomes very hard to think of her as any kind of hero.

Case in point: she takes Locke, Jean, and the rest of their sorry crew onto her ship as probationary pirates. You do good, you play by the rules, you become full crew members; you step out of line, you die. All pretty standard stuff, except it turns out when she says she will kill you for breaking the rules, she means it.

One of the guys who originally signed on with Locke and Jean now despises the two of them intensely and is kind of an asshole in general, so the reader is primed to dislike him. He’s getting picked on by some of Zamira’s crew members, and finally he gets pushed too far and grabs a weapon to defend himself with. But laying hands on a weapon is against Zamira’s rules, so she has him executed on the spot. For the kind of mistake that anybody could make. And the reader is supposed to be okay with this because the guy was made to be unlikable. It could just as easily have been someone like Jean or Locke making a similar mistake, prompting Zamira to execute them, and the reader to hate her, in turn. We’re not invited to judge her character based on her actions, but on how we feel about the characters she acts against.

Later, there’s the time when we first see Zamira’s Poison Orchid attack a merchant ship, which involves pretending to be in peril themselves. As the pirates are preparing to board the ship, one of Zamira’s lieutenants tells the new recruits “if any of you are feeling moral qualms about attacking these merchants, just remember that they thought we were in distress, and only came to help us when we signaled we were willing to give them unconditional salvage rights.” Which, if you stop to think about it, is a really clever rationalization to psych people up to potentially commit an atrocity. I mean, if that were the point of the sequence—which it isn’t—I would’ve said it was brilliant. For all they know, the captain of the merchant ship was just a huge asshole, and literally everyone else aboard was clamoring to help the Poison Orchid right from the beginning.

It also seemed like, in the three way struggle between the Archon, Stragos; the proprietor of the big gambling den, Requin; and the members of the Priori; Stragos winds up being the Designated Villain of the book, not because his actions are worse than those of Requin or the Priori (we’ve already established they can be equally vicious), but because it happens to be Stragos’ actions which got Jean’s girlfriend killed. He gets punished, whereas Requin and the Priori members get happy endings, only because Stragos hurt someone the reader is supposed to care about.

Locke and Jean are quick to forgive the Priori member who was sending assassins after them because the Bondsmages told him the two Gentleman Bastards were going to cause him trouble. Which, okay, the assassins all failed, and all got killed, but by the logic of this story they were probably all Bad Men who deserved what they got, so no harm, no foul, right? Except, no, there was harm. One of the attempts to kill Locke and Jean was a really convoluted scheme to give them free drinks which were laced with poison. And the thing about convoluted schemes is that they’re full of holes, as in this one where Locke and Jean weren’t interested in the drink in question, and passed theirs on to the dockworker at the next table, who proceeded to die in their stead. No one in the story ever gets any kind of comeuppance for this murder, ‘cause I guess we’re not supposed to care about red shirts.

So basically, what I’m trying to say here is that the ethics of this series are all kinds of messed up if you look closely.
Robinson L at 00:00 on 2016-12-22
Cheriola: book 3, when encountering a random pair of gay lovers making out in a garden and being tempted to go through their discarded clothing for their wallets, he stops his kleptomaniac impulse by reminding himself that doing malice to happy lovers would be bad karma.

That was cute. Another very minor point I appreciated from that book was in a scene where Locke has to hold Sabetha as part of this play they’re performing and the narrator (speaking broadly from Locke’s perspective) talks about what it’s like for someone to hold another person whom they’re attracted to. It would have been so easy to gender the subject of attraction in that sentence as female, or to say something like “a person of the opposite sex whom they’re attracted to.” But no, it’s a general statement, and so the book sticks with generalities, not making stereotypes about the genders or orientations involved. Again, a minor point, but one I’ve seen even a lot of nominally well-intentioned works fail at, so I was mildly impressed.

I was genuinely amazed at Sabetha - she's the best feminist (NOT straw-feminist!) character I've ever seen a male author write.

I think it was this part which finally clinched it for me to read the series. As a male author myself, I can’t help but take it as a challenge.

As mentioned earlier, though, I feel like we didn’t get much sense of Sabetha’s internal life, except as it relates to Locke, and she has to tell Locke (and the reader) what particularly attracts her to Locke, rather than the book showing us.

It probably was implausible to have 16-year-old Locke be so receptive to Sabetha’s Feminism 101 lectures, but for me it was preferable to the second hand embarrassment of having Locke throw out insipid, MRA-apologist arguments for Sabetha to shoot down.

Since I’m not seeing a Republic of Thieves review on the horizon, I suppose I might as well give my thoughts on the book in general. Overall, I liked it, and Sabetha is a fine addition to the series’ cast.

I also kind of dug the way the main caper of the book was not a high stakes life or death game of taking on some brutal, affluent, entitled snot or other, but rather fixing an upcoming election. It shows you can have all the same drama and intrigue without putting countless lives on the line, which comes as a nice change of pace. (Granted, it turns out there are countless lives on the line in the Bondsmagi’s larger game, but that only comes up after the whole thing is over, so in my view it still counts.)

My political sensibilities being what they are, I particularly liked the election angle to the plot because the book depicts it as 1) an aristocratic exercise with no pretense of populist input (only a small fraction of the city’s residents have the franchise), and 2) a complete farce in any case, because who gets elected has f**k all to do with who’s better leadership material or has the best policies – the book dispenses with such preposterous fig leaves and dives straight into the real heart of electoral politics: naked corruption, double dealing, and general chicanery. There’s also the implication that who gets elected is ultimately trivial in terms of how Karthain is actually run, because the real ruling elite (in this case, the Bondsmagi), make damn sure that in practice, it gets run exactly the way they believe produces the greatest benefit for the city’s inhabitants. (The book seems to suggest that what they think is best for Karthain really is, which is where its views and mine diverge, but other than that, I’m completely on board with the book’s representation.)

Locke’s backstory seemed … really out of place. Given how magic has always taken such a tertiary role in the books up to that point, I didn’t expect it to play such a huge part in Locke’s past. This felt like the backstory to a character in a very different type of story, honestly. But other than that it’s just kind of, “whatever.”
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