The Problem with Pirates; an analysis of books one and two in the Gentlemen Bastard Sequence

Warning: this analysis will contain spoilers for both Lies of Locke Lamora and Red Seas Under Red Skies. Viewer discretion is advised. [dun dun]

I consider The Lies of Locke Lamora a near perfect book. A third of the way into its pages and my heart was already stolen by the Gentlemen Bastards, swindled away like the prize in so many of their schemes. Halfway through the book I had begun harassing everyone I knew who read fantasy novels, demanding they read it. By the time it was nearly over, my mind was entirely filled by its world and nearly every conversation I had with my fiance devolved into an incoherent babble of “you don’t understand, you HAVE to read this. Stop what you’re doing and read it. I promise it will be your new favorite book JUST READ IT.”

There was no way any follow up could ever be as good. At the same time, there was no way I could read Red Seas Under Red Skies without the memories of Lies at the forefront of my brain. I could not separate the two. Logically, I knew my love of the first book was setting my expectations too high, setting me up for disappointment when I eventually read Red Seas Under Red Skies. Emotionally, though, I NEEDED MORE OF THE GENTLEMEN BASTARDS YOU DON’T UNDERSTAND. Red Seas Under Red Skies was fighting an uphill battle; it had to be similar enough to Lies to continue on the story and appease the fans desire for more Gentlemen Bastards, but couldn’t conceivably capture the snark and enthusiasm we experienced when we were first introduced to this world and inevitably was going to be compared to the first book.

And yet compare Seas to Lies is what I’ve set out to do. Seas was by no means a bad book, I consider it a solid B/B+ that fixes what few problems I had with Lies and sets up a fun new cast of characters for me to grow attached to. At the same time, though, it does many similar things that Lies does but isn’t as successful as its older sibling. I want to make this perfectly clear: I’m not here to denounce Seas as a failure, as a disappointment, or to say that I know how to write a novel better than Scott Lynch does. Instead, I want to analyze structurally what Seas did well and what it wasn’t successful at in comparison to Lies, from my own personal perspective. Everyone on the same page? Great.

Firstly we must look at the expectations I had going into Seas. After finishing Lies, I felt Lynch as an author had made 3 primary promises to his readers of plot events the subsequent novels would cover.

  1. We will have more fun swindling schemes with Jean and Locke
  2. The bondsmagi are pissed and as such will be enacting their revenge
  3. We will learn more hints about Locke’s name at some point although a full reveal won’t happen till much later in final books

These 3 promises set my expectations for what I wanted out of a follow-up to Lies, or at least what I thought I’d be getting in a follow-up. And for the most part, we addressed these promises …sort of. We don’t touch on point 3 at all but no real loss there. I know an overarching plot point that won’t be fulfilled until the last book when I see one. But points 1 and 2 were what I was really looking for and what, in my opinion, made the book fall short.

Seas and Lies follow the same basic plot set up and structure. The Gentlemen Bastards/Jean & Locke are pulling a scheme against [the Don and Donia/Requin] in order to get ALL OF THE MONEY $$$. [The Grey King/the Archon] find out about their true skills and force them into serving his own machinations. If they don’t serve him they will die because [the Grey King has the Falconer who is a bondsmagi and has literally all the power/the Archon has poisoned Jean and Locke and they need the antidote from him.] Meanwhile, [the agents of The Spider/the agents of the Priori] also have been made aware of the presence of the Bastards and are trying to stop/kill them. The Bastards must balance [the Lukas Fairwhite/Sin Spire] scheme while also obeying the wishes of [the Grey King/the Archon], with all the plotlines eventually converging to one climatic confrontation.

So if the plot structure is so similar to one another, why did I have an overwhelming sense that Seas was not as successful as Lies? I liken this mostly to two things: a lack of perceivable threat and the setting.

Let’s talk about threats. Let’s talk about the Grey King and Falconer vs. the Archon and why I’m terrified of one and annoyed by the other.

Both Seas and Lies begin (more or less) in the middle of one of the Bastard’s schemes. This structurally is meant to show us as readers how capable our protagonists are, to establish a level of skill within everyone involved. And the Bastards, be them only Jean and Locke or the entire crew from Lies, are quite skilled at thieving. But on top of that skill level, these establishing scenes also endear us to our protagonists. They are highly skilled thieves who are snarky and loyal to each other and likable. We as readers now want to see them overcome any obstacles put in their way. That’s where our villains enter into the picture and disrupt everything.

When first introduced, the Grey King and the Archon exhibited the same reaction out of me: that of annoyance. Not that they were Jar Jar Binks-ing around and being obnoxious, but they were roadblocks to watching the Bastards being awesome and kicking ass. Both the Grey King and the Archon enter into the plot in the middle of our primary scheme and effectively tell the Bastards “Stop what you’re doing, you now work for me.” And like the Bastards reactions, I too as a reader viewed the villains with skepticism. Uh huh. Sure. You are going to tell Locke Lamora and his friends what to do. Just who do you think you are? The key difference is that throughout the book the Grey King proves his dominance over the Bastards. The Archon, on the other hand, tries to do so, but only in a very limpid fashion.

Throughout all of Lies, The Grey King and the Falconer hold all the cards and render the Bastards seemingly powerless to do anything about it. We witness the lengths to which they’ll go and the power that they wield multiple times, first with Capa Barsavi’s daughter and then with the killing of the twins and Bug in the place they thought themselves most protected. With his power as a bondsmagi, the Falconer even turns Jean against Locke, a scene which filled me with genuine dread over what was going to happen. The two of them were threatening adversaries and I legitimately never felt that Jean and Locke were safe or able to get out of this alive. Every scene with them and threat they uttered had weight.

The Archon, however, holds none of the cards that the Grey King and Falconer did. He did not find Jean and Locke through his own methods, he was told about them by the bondsmagi. If he hadn’t been told, I am not certain he’d ever have the upper hand against Jean and Locke. He renders them powerless through a latent poison, a poison which we never get full confirmation was ever real. Caldris claimed to be poisoned and later had a sudden heart attack but was that the poison or the fact that he was old? I have no idea. The poison threat is intangible whereas the actions of The Grey King and Falconer proved in a very tangible sense the danger the Bastards were in if they disobeyed. Jean blames the Archon for Ezri’s death, but he’s only tangentially responsible since he was the reason they were on the boat engaging in this pseudo pirate war. He didn’t know who Ezri was, didn’t single her out to hurt Jean in a show of power, she just happened to die while dealing with the Archon’s plans. Every death done by the Grey King was intentional, either for his own plans or as a show of power over the Bastards.

So as we delved further and further into Seas, I never really got the sense that the odds were stacked against Jean and Locke or that the stakes were particularly high. Given the amount of competence shown earlier, I believed (and still believe given the ending) that if Jean and Locke actually were poisoned and did fail to ever receive an antidote, they’d come up with some sort of solution to the problem, regardless of the failure to find an antidote. The threat of the Archon’s poison just isn’t something I took particularly seriously. Perhaps if we had seen without any spectre of a doubt the effect the poison has when in its lethal stages I’d be concerned, but as long as the Bastards have time to work with, I believed they could find solutions to this poison problem.

So our villain isn’t particularly menacing, but villains are only one piece of a much larger puzzle. We have our protagonists, their own subplots and wants, side characters and their own desires along with further plot set up for later books in the series. And in this hastily and somewhat ill conceived metaphor, all these pieces sit upon the board that is the setting.

Similarly to before, the settings of Tel Varra and Camorr are not that different, at least in terms of progression of the plot. City large enough for Jean and Locke to hide out in their various identities without notice, check. A socio-economic divide wide enough to prey upon the wealthy while still following the core beliefs of the unnamed 13th, check. And a government system just corrupt enough to allow for a power struggle between the Archon and the Priori, check. But whereas Camorr was pretty much the sole setting for the Bastards struggles against the Grey King, Seas has to share its setting between that of Tel Varra and, well, the seas.

Many complaints have been made across the internet about Lynch’s decision to, about halfway through the book, suddenly turn Jean and Locke into would-be pirates. I myself am of two minds of this rather abrupt change. On the plus side, Jean and Locke’s pirate excursion fixes the primary issue I had with Lies: the fact that we had only a few female characters and they were both quite minor. Now, I did love the Spider and the Donia was kinda neat, but the grand majority of the players in Lies were male and these two characters left me wanting more ladies. Seas, on the other hand, introduces Zamira, pirate captian and swashbuckling badass and Ezri, the most adorable and terrifying pirate love interest I could ever grow attached to. These two characters alone were awesome. Whatever other criticisms I have regarding the sudden pirate switch, I’ll gladly put up with them in order to have these marvelous pirate ladies swashbuckling around and taking zero shits.

Here’s the problem, though, that I believe most people have regarding the pirate switch: by changing our setting from Tel Varra to being on the seas, we remove Jean and Locke from the place where they could exercise their skills as thieves and con men and force them into a situation they have zero skill in. One of the primary reasons I loved Lies so much was that even when under threat from the Grey King, the Bastards were so much fun to be around. I loved watching them swindle and scheme and steal away well-earned sovereigns from the dons of Camorr. Part of what made them such enjoyable characters was their competency when it came to their skills. If you put them in a situation where they not only are being controlled by someone else (and in this case someone who I find annoying and non threatening) but also in a setting that removes any chance they have to exercise their primary skills, that situation is not an enjoyable read for me.

If you couple these two elements with my expectations going into the book, you’ll see how they were instrumental in my, for lack of a better word, disappointment with Seas. The bondsmagi barely play a role in this book, having a show of power in the beginning and then doing nothing but whispering to the Archon and the Priori as a way to mess with Jean and Locke. Am I supposed to be concerned about them? In Lies we saw the immense power bondsmagi wield. Now they seem nothing more than Regina George manipulating others by passing notes in class. If they had played a more active role in Jean and Locke’s struggles, reintroducing the threat of Jean’s control via his name, for example, my problem with the lack of villainous threat would be solved. It wouldn’t matter that the Archon isn’t that threatening, he’s nothing but a puppet for the real villains, the bondsmagi, who are still actively trying to destroy Jean and Locke. But as it stands, the bondsmagi are barely mentioned in this book after the opening chapters. They exist, they are in theory pissed, they aren’t doing much about it. And all we’re left with for a villain is an annoying smarmy head of navy who wants more power.

Concurrently, because we spend so many times on the open sea pretending (and failing) to be pirates, we don’t get a lot of Jean and Locke scheming fun times. The Sin Spire scheme falls apart fairly quickly, and the only time we get to watch Jean and Locke effectively transform into someone else with the pirates is when they fool the ship breaker. Yes, they’re technically pretending to be Jerome and Leo Canto when on the ship, but they’re not playing other people. They’re playing themselves with different names trying to survive as pirates. I miss the scenes of Locke pretending to be an important inspector paying an unexpected visit so that he could steal the clothes of a lowly waiter so that he eventually can steal fancy enough garb to infiltrate another place. I miss Jean and Locke working together in a scheme, engaging in battles of wits with their mark. I want to see them tricking people and changing their appearance and leaving them none the wiser as to what happened and we can’t do that when stuck on a pirate ship worrying about poison antidotes.

It is for these reasons that I believe Red Seas Under Red Skies did not feel as successful when compared to The Lies of Locke Lamora. When I finally was able to come to terms with the fact that what I wanted out of a follow up to one of my favorite books simply wasn’t happening, I found myself appreciating what Seas did a lot more than originally. Was it as good as Lies? No. But there are a lot of things it did really well. We established new characters that weren’t trying to be replacements of the Sanza twins and Bug. We had realistic character growth of Jean and Locke given the events of the preceding book. We opened up the world of the Gentlemen Bastards by showing Tel Varra and the Copper Seas, which opens up our options in further books. Lynch didn’t simply try to copy Lies in a new city, he tried something new. And unfortunately, it’s near impossible to write a perfect book two times in a row. But Red Seas Under Red Skies did what it needed to do: it kept me interested in the world and what would happen to Jean and Locke, and pretty much immediately after finishing it I was placing book three on hold at my library.

I still don’t understand who the blazes Sabatha is, though.

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