Review: Scott Lynch’s Red Seas Under Red Skies

I love pirates. Maybe it’s the frustration in H.L. Mencken’s quotation (“Every normal man must be tempted, at times, to spit on his hands, hoist the black flag, and begin slitting throats.”). Maybe it’s the rawness of men living by their own ideals (however misguided) and skill and cunning. Maybe it is the more idealistic aspects of piracy–a good scholarly argument exists that American democracy has more in common with how pirate vessels voted on their leaders and courses of action than with ancient Athens. I can’t put my finger on it, but I just love pirates, whether historical or fantastic.

If you read my review of the previous novel in this series, The Lies of Locke Lamora, you know that I had many good things to say about it. The characters, the tightness of the plot, the fantasy heist–all of these worked in concert to create a story I very much enjoyed.

The sequel, more or less, picks up where the first novel lets us off. I don’t want to go to far into the details lest I give too much away, but Red Seas Under Red Skies takes what works in the first novel and throws in some maritime hijinx and semi-fantastic pirates. I must admit that I had my doubts about this at first; it seems a strange turn for the novel to take after its opening (and in light of the substance of the first novel). By novel’s end, my reservations were allayed; the story and its nautical elements manage to work their way in while preserving the atmosphere and mystique created in the first book.

Again, Lynch proves a master of “narrative circles,” those precognitions and slight references that turn out to have great significance before all is done. I’m not sure that I can remember any “loose ends” left at the end of the novel that proved unsatisfactory.

What really interested me about this novel was its focus on the relationship between Locke and Jean. Their brotherhood drives the plot, the complexities of their emotions toward one another and their interactions ring true of familial relationships, and the story ultimately turns on the extent of their willingness to sacrifice for one another. That’s a strong–and effective–message for a fantasy novel.

Perhaps that’s the best compliment I can give Mr. Lynch. If stories ought to entertain, educate and inspire, the fantasy genre manages to reach its highest art when it manages to effectively do these things with style. As more writers like Lynch are able to do this, the fantasy genre gains legitimacy, legitimacy it greatly deserves, as the fantasy genre allows us to address all manner of existential and philosophical questions with creativity and relative safety (compared to the cost of exploring these questions in “real life”).

Don’t start with this book; I don’t think it stands alone without the extensive character background for Locke and Jean in The Lies of Locke Lamora. But if you’ve read the first novel, I highly recommend that you proceed to the second.

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Review: The Lies of Locke Lamora

The Lies of Locke Lamora is the first book in the “Gentlemen Bastards” series by Scott Lynch (first published in 2006). Go read this book now. I can’t stress that enough; go read the book. For those of you who are by now used to ignoring my advice (don’t worry, you’re in good company), by all means continue to read.

As is my wont, I listened to this book on Audible. The narration of Michael Page truly brings the text to life—his voices, accents and narrational panache accentuate the style of the writing in a powerful synchrony. That said, you do not need to listen to Mr. Page read the book to you to enjoy the pleasure of this novel.

I love a good fantasy heist novel, and that motivated me to pick up this book to give it a try. The story begins with a focus on a fantasy con with all the cleverness of anything that’s been done in our own world. If, like me, you’re interested in the schemes and stratagems of con artists (fully knowing that I’ll never put such knowledge to use), you can follow along with the realistic moves made as Locke Lamora masterfully strings along Don Lorenzo Salvara and his wife Sofia by appealing to their egos, their greed, and their credulity by turns.

But this is not a heist story, or even a con story. Yes, the Gentlemen Bastards at the heart of the story are thieves and con artists of the highest level, but the story quickly takes a turn. Where the tale begins as somewhat light-hearted and jaunty, with the unpleasant aspects of the criminal underworld only appearing at our peripheral vision, it soon becomes a grim and gritty tale of survival, revenge and underworld power plays. This only made me love it more.

There are four major compliments I can give to Mr. Lynch to help establish his bona fides as a talented author:

First, his style is simply a pleasure to follow, accentuating the tone of the story and shifting ever so slightly to fit the mood—he just plain writes well.

Second, Lynch gracefully steps back and forth in time in telling the story. Intermixed with the present struggles of the Gentlemen Bastards are stories of their upbringing. They were raised together from their tender youth by a master thief and priest of the Crooked Warden known as “Father Chains” or “Old Chains” to be exactly the kind of expert thieves and conmen that they presently are when the book begins. This reminded me somewhat of the TV show Lost, where every episode would reveal something about the past of one or more characters that gives us insight into their present motivations and behavior. But Lynch goes even beyond this—each childhood story told not only reveals something about one of the Bastards, it directly relates thematically to the present-day scenes that follow it. Which leads me to my third point:

Mr. Lynch is a master of firing Chekov’s gun. I like to think of this tactic as a “literary circle,” where something in the early text returns to add significance to a later event. Most published authors whose advice for writers I’ve read strongly suggest that the culmination of a story needs to create some level of both surprise and a sense of inevitability in the reader when confronted with the story’s climax. This is, I think, exactly what Chekov’s gun is about, and Lynch liberally distributes them throughout the work, some subtle and some not so much.

Fourth, his worldbuilding is excellent and hits that unicorn of a middle-ground such that the setting amplifies the story without overwhelming it. To be fair, Lynch has taken the shortcut of basing the City of Camorr, where the action takes place, on late-medieval or early-Renaissance Venice. But he does so in a way that shows that an author can use a historical backdrop as an influence in a way that gives the reader quick insight—as a Renaissance scholar and lover of early-modern Italian history, I readily recognized the inspiration for the setting and this allowed me to make assumptions about how the world of Camorr works without Lynch having to say much about it. At the same time, the Venetian inspiration does not prohibit Camorr from standing on its own, from being different enough from a historical place and time (this is a fantasy novel, after all) that the reader finds herself satisfied with the setting and not turned away from the story by it. If this had been a real-world story, early-modern Venice would have been the perfect setting for it. As it is a fantasy work, Camorr serves in the same role.

I ought to admit some personal bias here. There are a number of aspects of Lynch’s world that are close to some of the setting choices I have made (or will make) in writing some of the Avar Narn novels. While the settings are ultimately vastly different in many ways, the feel of the setting and story matches what I hope to capture in my own works and it seems that Mr. Lynch and I share similar positions on certain meta-approaches to “modern fantasy.” So, take with a grain of salt my glowing review of his choices—I may be lauding him in the hopes that my agreement with him means that I may, too, be successful as a fantasy author. That very much remains to be seen. Very much.

And let me leave you with my greatest criticism of this work. The antagonist is well, meh. He’s two-dimensional and unfortunately just not very interesting. He exists mainly as an obstacle for the Bastards to overcome, as a threat to their existence, rather than as a fully-realized and believable character. In a novel with so many interesting characters, written by an author with such talent, this is a grave oversight. Not one that tempts me not to recommend the book to others, but one that nevertheless leaves a bad aftertaste in my mouth when the rest of the work was so satisfying.

I’ll be beginning the next book in this series presently—and hopefully I’ll finish it in a shorter time than it took me to get through this one.

Review: The Barrow

By Mark Smylie

I must admit being a Smylie fanboy. I fell in love with the Artesia graphic novels back when I first encountered them—high medieval warfare in a magical and engrossing setting carefully built with ideas taken from (among other things) Greco-Roman religious cult practices and starring the ambitious daughter of a witch. What’s not to like? Not to mention the art—Smylie’s watercolors are truly a pleasure to behold and different from any other comic-style artwork I’ve seen.

I really cannot say enough good things about the setting that the Artesia and Stjepan Black-Heart (the arguable protagonist of The Barrow) stories take place in. It has everything extraordinary world-building should have: beautiful maps, a complex mythopoeia that provides a basis for the beliefs, superstitions and worldviews of the inhabitants (and even a guidebook to the historical, mythological and cultural in the setting), cultures influenced by historical Earth cultures that nevertheless stand on their own, magic and grit, grand, capital “E” Evil and shades of moral gray. I daresay that I prefer Smylie’s setting to Tolkien and Martin.

To boot, Smylie worked on a roleplaying game for the setting called Artesia: Adventures in the Known World (using the Fuzion System). It’s perhaps a little more rules-heavy than I prefer my RPGs to be, but written directly by the author and it captures the feel of his setting beautifully.

Did I mention that there’s an undertone of Lovecraftian horror? It’s in the existence of the Nameless Cults that worship forbidden gods (cf. Unaussprechliche Kulten or “Nameless Cults” in the Mythos), the chapter titled “Dreams in the Witch House” and the naming of the dead necromancer as Azharad (cf. “Abdul Alhazred,” Lovecrafts “mad arab”).

So, perhaps you should take my review with a grain of salt—there’s just so much in Smylie’s works that appeals to my personal tastes that I cannot help but be biased in his favor.

With that warning, I’m going to highly recommend The Barrow.

It is, in some ways, a classic fantasy story—the quest to recover the mythic sword Gladringer from the long-last barrow of the necromancer-king Azharad, who stole the blade from the “good guys” in centuries past. But the story goes well beyond the simplicity of “classic fantasy,” the members of the “fellowship” that seek this treasure are often at cross-purposes, forced together by circumstance and as likely to kill one another Hamlet-style as to actually succeed. This is, in many ways, a combination of the epic fantasy story with the “small stories” of personal victories and survival favored by post-modern fantasy.

There is much more going on than what the reader sees on the surface of the quest, and while epic dangers may exist in the novel, it is realpolitik that connects this story to the greater world more than the object of the quest itself. Life is cheap and bad things happen; even the highly-competent Stjepan (the sister of the eponymous Artesia, by the way) is out of his element or otherwise subject to the whims of fate at times.

Story aside, the book is very well-written, descriptive and poetic in places while avoiding the prosaic and matter-of-fact when that style best suits the narrative. I read this book rather than listening to it (I’ve been listening to Glen Cook’s Black Company novels at present, with a review forthcoming) and it reminded me of the pleasure of words in print. That said, there are some noticeable editing errors throughout, mostly improper pluralization, verb tense or a similar-sounding but incorrect word written in lieu of what was intended—all understandable writing mistakes, but ones that could have easily been fixed with another round of editing. Still, nothing that rendered a sentence inscrutable or that severely disrupted the flow of the words.

The characters are, for the most part, deeply drawn and well-nuanced, enjoyable to read about without all of them being likeable. Where characters are seemingly two-dimensional (the mad wizard Leigh comes to mind), their stereotypicality is used to good effect, whether humorous, metacommentary about the genre, or a twist on expectations.

I found the story’s ending to be masterful, the kind of skillful writing that leaves the reader somewhat surprised but satisfied with the logical progression of developments that lead to the resolution.

Readers should be warned, however, that the story does contain some graphic depictions of sex acts, some of them highly unpleasant. Mr. Smylie has commented on his website about the reasons he chose to include those scenes, and I find his argument persuasive. Our American society seems to be strangely at home with graphic ultra-violence and yet extremely perturbed by the depiction of sex, even when romantic, consensual and healthy. As I mentioned above, some of the sex in this book is quite unsettling, but not everything that happens to people in this world or any fantasy world is pleasant, and I didn’t find that any of the depictions were there for their own sake or merely for shock value—they made narrative sense, and much more than the too-oft used, “you know this guy’s a bad guy because he’s a sexual deviant.” In many ways, this book is focused on outsiders, on those who are, for various reasons, either at the very threshold of societal expectations or far away from them altogether. The sex in this book provides additional development of that theme.

If you check reviews on other websites, you’ll find that the book has received generally good reviews, but not necessarily review ratings as high as I’d expect. I think that the discomfort caused in some readers by the depictions of sex in the book are likely responsible for some of the lower ratings. That’s not really fair.

There is also graphic violence in the book, but since that doesn’t tend to offend like sex does, I don’t feel a need to address it.

Overall, if you are a fan of the fantasy genre, and in particular if you’re a fan of gritty fantasy (a la Martin or Cook), you really owe it to yourself to read this book. Smylie’s short story published in the collection Blackguards is also good, but should only be read after finishing The Barrow.

I eagerly await the next book in the series.

Review: The Wendigo

By Algernon Blackwood

On a whim last night, I decided to read this short story. I’d heard much about it, intended to read it for some time (it had been languishing in my Kindle app on my iPad for months) and finally got around to it.

Glad I did.

The story takes place on a hunting trip in the Canadian wilderness at the beginning of the 20th century and was the first to introduce the mythology of the wendigo into “mainstream” (read: white) culture.

It’s a horror story, a classic. Now, I can’t say that it was the type of story that had me hesitate to turn off the lights or drove me to chills and goosebumps. For me, its horror is of a more satisfying (and disturbing) type; existential horror about the nature of man and the universe. The wendigo is unsubtly a metaphor for the uncertainty of human life beyond civilization, for what happens when, as Nietzsche says, “the abyss looks back into you.” There’s a cold reminder in this story that, for some of us, our personalities and identities are stable only because of our circumstances—that in another place and time, or just a different situation, we might be surprised or terrified by who we might become. I’m not sure that there’s any horror so horrifying as the loss of selfhood.

There’s an illusion about writers of bygone eras. The archaic feel of the language they employ, however slight in reality, gives this feeling that they write with an aplomb illusive to the modern author. This is a trick, of course, and there are in fact scores of awful writers throughout history (just as there are today; check your bookstore).

Blackwood, however, writes in a style that provided noticeable pleasure to read. His words evoke both the beauty of the virgin wilderness and its intimidating expanse and uncaringness. We are made to feel small in the vast apathy of the universe. Judging by Lovecraft’s writings from about the same time, that feeling is par for the course in the genre.

To say much more is to intrude upon the story itself, to ask you to think more about the story than to experience it. That would be a shame.

Instead, I’ll simply state that I think it’s worth reading, especially since you can likely get it on Kindle for free. It takes an hour to an-hour-and-a-half to make the journey; I don’t think you’ll find it time wasted.

Review: Pawn

Pawn by Aimée Carter

Audible Narration by Lameece Issaq

We find ourselves at some time in the near future, after the fall of the United States led to the rise of the Hart family as the dictators over an America subject to economic collapse and resource shortages. As a result, all citizens take a test on the day that they turn seventeen. The results of the test determines their number—one through six, with sevens being reserved for the Hart family—which thus determine their futures. Fours occupy the middle class, with fives and sixes serving as the administrators of the government and management of production. Threes serve as skilled or semi-skilled labor in maintenance jobs and other services needed to keep the country operating. Twos live in poverty, working those jobs too dangerous or taxing to give to anyone of a higher number. The ones—well, let’s just say that no one wants to be a one. The availability of goods and services is restricted by a citizen’s number, and those who break the law or attempt to buck the system are sent “elsewhere.”

Into this situation comes “extra” (second child) seventeen-year-old Kitty Doe. She has just taken her test and had her result, a three, tattooed and scarified on the back of her neck as with all other citizens. She has orders to travel from Washington, D.C. to Denver, where she will serve in sewer maintenance for her entire life. She struggles to find a way to ignore her fate, hoping to hold out for at least a month so that her boyfriend Benji can take his test and they can figure out a way to stay together (it being expected that Benji will be a six).

By a strange twist of events, Kitty finds herself inducted into the circle of the Hart family, where she becomes a pawn in the interfamilial strife of the family’s members. As a result, she discovers that little of what government tells the citizenry to ensure their docility is true. She has a choice: fight for the people or go along with her puppetmasters to ensure her own safety—and the safety of those she loves.

Pawn is a young-adult (read: teenager) novel. As you’ve probably surmised, it bears a striking resemblance to The Hunger Games—post-apocalyptic America ruled by a dictatorship, a female protagonist with a feline-sounding name being forced to choose whether to become part of the system or struggle to end it and, of course, questions of romance and love with several potential suitors. I believe that this also coincides with much of the Divergent series, but I know too little about those works to be sure.

I would say that Pawn is slightly more adult in tone than The Hunger Games, as early in the story Kitty seeks to sell her virginity to the highest bidder at a brothel in a plan to make ends meet until she and Benji can find a more-permanent solution to her “three.”

I found Pawn to be an enjoyable read (or listen, as the case may be). Kitty and the members of the Hart family are well-developed, with complex and sometimes conflicting motivations sometimes driving them to do the unexpected. Over time, as Kitty discovers them, we learn the history and secrets of the Harts, seeing just how deep the deception, manipulation, and spite goes. The close proximity of the themes and general thrust of the plot to The Hunger Games series ultimately does not detract from the novel, as plenty of unexpected plot twists and a focus on character interactions gives Pawn a different place within the subgenre of (perhaps Feminist?) Teen Dystopian Drama that both works occupy.

The politics of the nation and the far-reaching consequences of the actions taken by Kitty and the Harts remain largely on the outskirts of the story, almost a MacGuffin to drive the more important familial politics upon which the story turns. By keeping things focused on the personal conflicts, the story manages to largely brush aside its lack of development of a believable setting.

My only other significant criticism is that Kitty’s male “love interests” (it should be mentioned that the romantic subplot of this novel provides an undercurrent rather than a central force) remain less developed than the other characters. Lennox Creed, who plays an essential role within the plot, never really gave me enough to understand him or believe his motivations. Benji proved even worse for me—Carter writes him such that he is uninteresting and of little consequence to the story except as someone who Kitty desperately wants to protect. The fact that Issaq voices him as an oafish dullard doesn’t help.

The characters of Lennox and Benji are forgivable if they are meant to serve as a critique of the writing of female characters by male authors in similar tropes of fiction (i.e., the need to save the girlfriend, who appears to be entirely helpless to take care of herself). I can’t be sure, however, that such a pointed critique was intended and that they are not simply sloppily written.

Pawn remains at least moderately interesting throughout its twists-and-turns, though I will not be spending any time on the rest of the series. For a teen audience, I think that this is a solid book that bridges the gap between the “classic” literature that most of us studied in high-school and the ultimately more interesting works of fiction we read in high school on our own time (instead of what we were supposed to be reading for class) or found in our adulthood.

Review: Under the Amoral Bridge

By Gary A. Ballard

Audible Narration by Joe Hempel

A cyberpunk backdrop of 2020’s Los Angeles sets the stage for Under the Amoral Bridge. This novella follows the exploits and misadventures of one Artemis Bridge, a former hacker-cum-fixer linking seekers with hard-to-find or not-so-legal goods and services, all the while trying to stay above any ethical quandary about his profession by never touching the goods or services directly. When a piece of information that could determine the results of the first election in Los Angeles since corporation Chronosoft purchased the right to govern the city, Bridge knows that he’s unwillingly been inserted into a game of life and death.

Bridge reminds me vaguely of Lenny Nero in the film Strange Days (one of my favorites and one of few arguably mainstream films in the cyberpunk genre). While Nero’s character gives you a man of some conviction struggling to survive an increasingly corrupt world—with a likeable personality to boot—Bridge simply is. He’s not sardonically witty enough to amuse the reader with his cynicism, too self-interested to hold our interest as an exemplum of the “man against the world” theme, and too petty for us to pay him much respect. After meeting him in the world of this novella, I find him an ultimately-forgettable example of the all-too-common lowlife hustler that appears in cyberpunk.

Had Under the Amoral Bridge been written and published in the 80’s, I would probably find it more difficult to be so hard on the story. But, the book first appeared in 2009. Coming so late to a genre so well-explored in print, film, anime, roleplaying games and video games, a modern cyberpunk book needs to bring something new to the table. I’m not saying that no one can write good cyberpunk anymore (Richard K. Morgan wrote Altered Carbon, a masterpiece of both cyberpunk and noir, in 2003), but we’re well past the point of using a plot arc known by wrote with a cardboard façade of corporate control, ubiquitous technology, topped with a healthy dose of paranoia, slapping it all together and throwing it out like it’s something special.

Looking at Amazon, the book enjoys pretty positive reviews, so I ought to defend my general lack of enthusiasm for the work. I discussed the flatness of the protagonist above, but it’s the rigid and predictable nature of the plot that really gave me fits.

Cyberpunk descends in many ways from noir: the gritty feel, the moral ambiguity, the selfish motivations of the bad guys, the protagonist who we cannot expect to succeed. This doesn’t mean that every cyberpunk story must be a mystery, although many are—again Altered Carbon comes to mind, as does Snowcrash. The best writing within a genre uses the conventions of the genre, but not rigidly, and not always expectedly.

Instead, Under the Amoral Bridge follows convention too closely, making everything feel caricatured. As I stated above, the cyberpunk background of the story feels too canned and too well-trod, coming across like an original Star Trek set piece that will topple if pushed too hard. To be fair, there are a few places where convention is toyed with: the role of the “femme fatale” (if this story really has one) is a relatively unattractive woman who only truly steps into the role when masked behind her net avatar—there’s interesting stuff about identity that could have been explored here, but the opportunity is lost. Then there’s Artemis’ bodyguard, affectionately referred to as Aristotle. He’s a large black man with a penchant for philosophizing and as much brains as brawns, both of which seem to be considerable. I can’t help but think of him being played by Ving Rhames as the story plays through my mind. Aristotle is by far my favorite character in the novella (perhaps the only one I actually liked), and his relationship with Artemis has enough nuance to break away from being a half-hearted twist on convention (as most of the other minor tweaks throughout the novella come across).

Ultimately, the story plays by the numbers, remains relatively predictable to the end, and contains plot “twists” that the characters themselves should have been able to see coming. This culminates in shameless exposition by the bad guy at the end to make sure that the reader gets what’s happened—even though it’s already painfully clear to everyone except Bridge himself.

The work leaves a bit to be desired stylistically as well. In particular, I found myself often distracted by the use of the passive voice where just a smidge of effort could have crafted a stronger sentence. That said, the craft of writing proves exceedingly difficult, and a less-skilled wordsmith can be forgiven if she tells a powerful and satisfying story. The author skilled in technique but without solid storytelling skills is not so lucky. I see a potential in Ballard to rise to the occasion, and it is quite possible that his later works prove that he has improved his technique and storytelling, but I have only read this small part of his corpus.

In full disclosure, I found that the narration of this book on Audible lacked as well, and that might have contributed to my rather harsh assessment of it. The narrator mispronounced a few words, and his accents and voices for characters failed to bring them to life, only adding to their cardboard cut-out feel.

Overall, this is not a bad book. But neither is it extraordinary in any way. With a world so full of amazing works of fiction (and more created every day) and lives so bereft of time in which to enjoy them, I have to recommend picking up something else before Under the Amoral Bridge, unless you want to continue in the Bridge Cycle (currently a four book series) in hopes that Ballard constructs something more grandiose upon this rather plain foundation.