Review: Red Seas Under Red Skies by Scott Lynch

887877Title: Red Seas Under Red Skies (Gentlemen Bastard #2)

Author: Scott Lynch

Rating: 5 star

Publisher: Bantam Spectra

Review:

Aarggh!

Don’t confuse my exclamation for a bad pirate imitation. Despite the novel’s swashbuckling theme, my utterance is for having finished a book on a cliff hanger with the sequel yet to be published.

Even though he has published only two novels, I can say without hesitation that Scott Lynch’s writing is something I treasure. He breaks many rules of writing — withholding information, letting side characters drive large parts of the action, and he introduces these ever-intriguing bondsmagi to his world and fails to enlighten us any further into their abilities and culture.

But there ends my complaining — Red Seas Under Red Skies, while not quite living up to the high bar that was set by The Lies of Locke Lamora, was a truly enjoyable read. Locke Lamora and his brawler buddy Jean return with new schemes planned. The story begins at the Sinspire, a popular casino with a supposedly impenetrable vault with a great sum of money that will put Locke and Jean back on the map. For two years, the gentlemen bastards pull sleights of hand and various tricks to build up a hoard of cash. Of course, nickel and diming (or is it Solari chit and silvering?) of suckers at the casino is too amateurish for two master thieves — they have a bigger plan at stake.

Per Locke’s usual method of engagement, nothing goes as planned and the two thieves find themselves sidetracked on the high seas, having to swindle a group of pirates to do their bidding. It doesn’t take long for them to be completely over their heads, trying desperately to stay alive and perhaps make some money in the process.

There are many things to love about this novel despite its inconsistencies. Ezri Delmastro and Zamira Drakasha serve as fearsome pirates that take Jean and Locke aboard when they are stranded aboard an oarless row boat. After risking their lives, Jean and Locke later earn Ezri and Zamira’s respect and a romantic interest later develops between Ezri and Jean. The interaction between Jean and Locke is as witty as ever, with snappy dialog and lurid descriptions of the world around.

Scott Lynch also has a talent for innovation, designing things such as playing cards that turn into a paste when in contact with alcohol, later hardening into a material harder than steel. The world and the buildings are so intricately crafted that one has the feeling that we are seeing but the tip of an iceberg when reading the novel. While I felt that Jean and Locke were often just along for the ride at parts, the novel was never dull or slow-moving. With most authors, I wouldn’t have faith that the protagonists knew what they were doing. With Locke and Jean, one can never doubt what tricks they have up their sleeves.

Red Seas Under Red Skies is not quite as good as the first novel, but is a stellar read nonetheless. The writing is fantastic and the characters are as likable and clever as ever. I eagerly await the third book in series.

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Review: The Hammer and the Blade by Paul S. Kemp

Title: The Hammer and the Blade

Author: Paul S. Kemp

Rating:

Publisher: Angry Robot

Format: Kindle eBook

Review:

I must admit my shallow reasons for first turning to this book. After listening to Mr. Kemp on The Functional Nerds, I learned that like me, he is a father of twins and is also a fellow Michigander. Additionally he is the author of three Star Wars novels (none of which I have read, but consider myself a closet fan). Bearing these facts in mind, I decided to give his new series a chance.

The Hammer and the Blade is a novel about two thieves, Egil and Nix. Nix is the leader of the two, a witty, smart-assed treasure hunter with questionable skills in sorcery. Egil is the priest to a dead god with unquestionable skills using his twin hammers. Each knows the other like a brother and they play off of each other’s talents as they invade booby-trapped tombs to collect their prizes.

The novel starts out in similar fashion to Raiders of the Lost Ark. The two men are in a tomb, heavily guarded with enchantments. With strength and magic, they are able to overcome a pool of acid and an attack by a ferocious demon. With their treasure in hand, they return home to a run-down tavern they had recently purchased, contemplating their retirement from the grave-robbing business. But it seems that the demon they killed had made a pact with the House of Norristru. Rakon, the House’s male heir, reacts to the news by forcibly employing the two thieves to rob a hidden tomb with greater dangers than they have ever faced.

If I were to describe my reaction to the novel with one word, it would be “fun.” It is not a particularly complex novel and it makes no claims to try and be serious literature. It is a traditional Sword and Sorcery tale with smart writing, good humor (on occasion I laughed out loud), interesting characters, and great action. There are no prevailing themes or obscure references to ponder upon after reading the book, but it was a true pleasure to read.

Nix’s character is an archetype seen often in fantasy literature. His confidence overflows the brim of his talents and when facing death, he often resorts to chiding his enemy. One particularly humorous moment occurred around a campfire when one of the “doltish” guards asked Nix to tell a story of one of his past adventures. Nix, not wanting to make small talk with a man holding him prisoner, responded,

Once, Egil and I were forced to travel the Demon Wastes with some guards of a doltish cast. One of these, a young whoreson who couldn’t grow a respectable beard, insisted on hearing stories from me. I strangled him while he slept.

Nix is a jack-of-all trades, using his mind, his blade, and a little magic to get them out of the hairiest of situations. In the thieving profession, having a broad blend of talents is a prerequisite.

Egil, on the other hand, is more contemplative and peaceable in his dealings with their enemies. He is the stronger and more intimidating of the two (I know if I crossed a burly priest with the tattoo of an eye on his forehead, I’d be scared), but is also a sort of moral compass, alerting Nix when they are straying too far off the beaten path. He provides unconditional loyalty to both Nix and often to strangers, even when it is to his own detriment. Egil’s physical prowess is his greatest attribute. When facing enemies, he is merciless with his hammers and can fight off multiple foes at a time.

The strength of the novel is in the richness of these two characters. In contrast, I longed for more depth in the antagonists. I never truly came to grips with Rakon’s motivations and his two sorceress sisters remain a mystery (perhaps with more to follow in subsequent books?). The sisters were drugged throughout much of the novel, but we were given hints about their telepathic and coercive powers.

Despite my quibbles, The Hammer and the Blade reminded me once again why I enjoy reading fantasy — it is pure, escapist fun. Even though the novel was not particularly deep, it was far from shallow and the writing was excellent. For anyone looking for a fast-paced adventure with a little of magic and mayhem, this is the novel for you.

Review: The Killing Moon by N.K. Jemisin

Title: The Killing Moon

Author: N.K. Jemisin

Rating:

Publisher: Orbit

Format: Trade Paperback

Review:

The Killing Moon is my introduction to N.K. Jemisin and given the accolades it has received by reviewers, it became quickly apparent that I had to read this book. The novel takes place in the city-state of Gujaareh, where peace reigns. A religious order serves as the lawkeepers, sending out priestly Gatherers in the night to bring a dreaming death to corrupted citizens. In exchange for a peaceful death, the dreamers give up Dreamblood, a source of magic and power given to the goddess Hananja.

The story is told through three characters: Elihu, a faithful Gatherer; Nijiri, his apprentice; and Sinandi, a non-believing spy from a neighboring city-state who suspicious of the activities in Gujaareh. Elihu and Sinandi act with allegiance in their priestly duties, but their faith comes into question when suspicions of corruption within their order arises. Unfortunately, the only person to believe them is Nijiri, a woman who does not practice or believe in their ways.

Many of the previous reviews I saw were just in giving this book the praise it has received. First of all, the premise is entirely unique. Religion in speculative fiction is typically given a bad rap, but in Jemisin’s novel, the corruption is independent of the religious tenets and does not represent the body of its followers. It makes no claims to be moral or amoral, but serves as a cultural way of life for the people in Gujaareh. The result is peace and healing to its adherents.

The prose is gentle and descriptive — the reader sees a vivid world, lush with detail and  imagery. The characters depart from the typical casting in fantasy. Elihu and Nijiri are products of their culture and their morals are formed through it. Sinandi is a stronger character, a woman who advances her goals without compromise. She is independent, but not destitute and cold, like the gritty prostitute-turned-hero archetype that has become an almost humorous trope in modern fantasy.

As a reviewer, I like to provide tangible feedback on books, but I am really struggling to define what it is that prohibits me from giving The Killing Moon a perfect mark. While I found the premise, setting, and characters to be innovative and the writing to be stylistically well-written, I didn’t feel connected to the characters. Perhaps their departure from the typical archetypes left me with nothing to identify with. Jemisin writes with a lot of description and minimal dialog, which slows the pace of the book down slightly (although this is still a quick read). For those who find fantastical names and places a lot to grasp, a glossary was added to the back of the book (a discovery I made after reading it).

Overall, this is a quality, well-written novel with a unique plot and world. I don’t think it is a book for everyone and it isn’t my typical choice. I think readers who enjoy authors such as Elizabeth Bear (specifically her recent novel, Range of Ghosts), will find Jemisin’s work to be wholly satisfying.

Review: The Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch

Title: The Lies of Locke Lamora

Author: Scott Lynch

Rating:

Publisher: Gollancz

Format: Hardcover

Review:

I have been reluctant in reading The Gentlemen Bastard Sequence. Lynch’s recent personal struggles have made it difficult for him to meet deadlines and the third book in the series has now been postponed until Autumn of this year. Furthermore, there is no indication that the predicted release date has more integrity than the words of Locke Lamora. Scott Lynch reiterated this point in his new blog, saying “not to take any date as valid until you see [him] posting it online [him]self.”

Despite the uncertainty in future releases, I couldn’t help myself. I heard Scott Lynch on the Sword and Laser podcast and he seemed to have a knowledge of the genre and craft that surpassed many of his peers. He is smart and thoughtful and in the end of the interview, he recommended Dan Simmon’s Hyperion for the S&L book club pick. Given the high esteem I hold for that novel (what can I say — Lynch has good taste), I figured it was about time I acquiesce and begin Scott Lynch’s first novel.

So here I am, reviewing The Lies of Locke Lamora.

In the city of Camorr, there are two classes of people: nobles and gangs of thieves (hundreds of them). There is a secret peace between the two classes — a general understanding, if you will — that the thieves do not steal from nobility and in return, Camorr’s law enforcement turns a blind eye to the unlawful gangs’ profession.

So here comes a six or seven-year-old boy by the name of Locke Lamora, a meager-sized orphan whose ambition and cunning far outweigh his fellow thieves. After breaking the Secret Peace and nearly giving himself a death sentence, Locke is sold to a so-believed priest named Father Chains who embraces the youth’s lofty aspirations and teaches him how to be a gentleman thief.

After several years of training, Locke conspires a grand scheme to steal half of the fortune from a notable duke. To assist him in this fraud are Jean Tannen, a broad-shouldered tough man with a violent temper and a master of hatchets (particularly, his “wicked sisters”); Calo and Galdo Sansa, jack-of-all-trades twins with a love for gambling; and Bug, the cadre’s youngest member.

The Lies of Locke Lamora reads like a caper, but I will not be one of the many reviewers who likens the novel to Oceans Eleven. In fact, if you want to compare it to a movie, I think Catch Me If You Can is a much better comparison. This is not a story of one great heist against a wealthy enterprise, but rather a story of Locke and a collection of lives he invents in order to gather a vault full of money. He is a complete commoner who passes himself of as one of society’s elite in several different circumstances.

Locke’s biggest obstacle is not the nobility, the law, or Capa Barsavi (ruler of the gangs of thieves). There is a much bigger threat — a man who calls himself the Gray King. With the help of a bondsmage (a for-hire sorcerer), the Gray King systematically assassinates the garristas (gang leaders) in an effort to replace Capa Barsavi as the thieving-class leader of Camorr. Locke is thrust into the center of the Gray King’s plans and soon the Gentlemen Bastards find themselves in the direst of circumstances.

The nature of Locke Lamora’s profession leads him to always be on his toes. He is perpetually in disguise and forced to react quickly. With a protagonist/anti-hero such as Locke, I found myself hanging on every page and every word wondering what would happen next. The book does not unfold like a grand mystery and at times wanders with multiple timelines. But the overall impact was truly satisfying. It was a pleasure to experience Locke battle wits with the nobles and to cringe when Jean pummeled the faces of rival gang members. Jean and Locke share a brotherly bond that most men can relate to, united not through their common interests, but through their dependence on one another as if they were born of the same blood.

The Lies of Locke Lamora was a truly enjoyable read. It has elements of mystery, magic, and swashbuckling adventure that appeal to diverse interests. I look with eager anticipation to read the next novel and hopefully the rest of the series in the near future.