Monday, 7 May 2012

Red Seas Under Red Skies by Scott Lynch

The biggest problem I have with Fantasy novels is working out when to read them. Most Epic Fantasy these days runs to about ten volumes and usually takes about twenty years to be written, so if I read the first book in a series as soon as it comes out, many years of waiting lie ahead along with an increasing strain on my memory. A good example of this is George RR Martin's series. I read Game of Thrones when it first came out in the mid-90s, leaving me in a bemused state now that A Song of Ice and Fire has suddenly taken off as I can’t remember enough about the early novels to join in any debates with the new fans. Then there's the fact that the last two books in the series have been so brain-numbingly awful I've lost all the enthusiasm that I had for the characters about 17 years ago.

On the other hand waiting until the series is over could take a lifetime. I read Katherine Kurtz's first Deryni novel in the early 70s and that series is still ongoing. Even the middle line is fraught with danger as after massive acclaim for the first book, later books often come out to derision leaving you wondering if you should bother embarking on a journey that'll eventually fall flat on its face. There is no answer to this conundrum, and so I take every series that interests me on its own merits and Scott Lynch's Gentleman Bastards series gave me particular angst.

The Lies of Locke Lamora was one of the most promising books I've read in a long time, except when I read it, it was a one-off book and only later did the author announce there would be further books in the series. At the time this delighted me as I reckoned I'd finally found the author of my dreams. Locke featured a fascinating fantasy world in which the author never data dumped an explanation of the rules of the world and instead let us learn about it through the eyes of the hero. It had a twisty plot that to my delight surprised and fooled me every time, and it had bucket loads of action, humour, appealing characters along with brilliantly staged and original scenes. In short it had everything, including plenty of forgivable faults in what was clearly a first novel, leading to the feeling that the series would get even better. If Locke ever gets filmed, I should imagine the pitch would say it's Ocean's 11 meets Lord of the Rings meets Oliver Twist.

With the promise that the series would expand to seven books, I therefore put off reading book two until I was reasonably sure that book three wasn't far off, which now appears to be the case. But after the utter joy that was Locke, Red Seas under Red Skies, despite a good start, is one of the most disappointing tales I've ever read. The book picks up where the last one ended, which in itself is a big problem as the first book ends in a conclusive way. But any feeling that a sequel is a bad idea quickly disappears as the story establishes another twisty plot that lands the hero in another impossible dilemma in which his only chance of survival is to complete an impossible task that is sure to get him killed. Except he has a cunning plan to double-cross the bad guys, except the bad guys know he plans to double-cross them, which the hero has worked out and so his bluff is to call their bluff…

A quarter of the way into the book everything is building nicely into another action-packed twist-laden heist story, but then all the plot pieces that have been put in place are suddenly dumped in favour of a far less interesting story that has nothing to do with the set-up. I like tales that wrong-foot me, and Locke did that numerous times, but the misdirection has to integrate into a complete narrative. In Red Skies, there is no misdirection. After a hundred and fifty pages the story just restarts. The hero leaves an interesting town filled with fascinating characters and goes to sea, where he pretends to be a pirate for obscure reasons that I didn’t understand. Then he spends the rest of the novel having a whole heap of unrelated adventures with various friendly and unconvincing pirates. Every time something interesting starts to develop a new danger is dumped on him that has nothing to do with the previous problems and the story lurches off in another direction while the developing conflicts are forgotten about never to be mentioned again.

This structure of a new danger followed by a resolution every chapter drags on until the author appears to realize that the whole point of the novel has been forgotten about for about 400 pages and the last chapter is looming. So a main character is killed off in a seriously underwhelming fashion, seemingly because the author was as bored as I was with all the 'Ha-ha-ha, me hearties' stuff and the hero hurries back to dry land to face all the unresolvable problems where, in a few pages, with a single bound everyone is free and everything is resolved, and the book ends. I'm used to fantasy series going astray after a few books, but I've never come across a series that started so superbly and descended so quickly. Despite that disappointment, I still hope to read later books in the series, but I'll need to read a lot of glowing reviews first before I risk delving into book 3: The Republic of Thieves.

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