I Read the Red

Many of my friend enjoyed The Lies of Locke Lamora much more than I did, and it was only after some poking that I revealed my reasons why. After that, I was assured that the problems I had with LLL were not present in the sequel, Red Seas Under Red Skies, so I agreed to read it and post my thoughts. I finished it up over the July 4th weekend, so here they are.

First and foremost, yes, I enjoyed it much more. It’s still the adventures of Jean and his annoying friend, but I’m ok with that, and most importantly, the cheating was not nearly so rampant, and is mostly limited to mere hand-of-author stuff rather than caper-breaking stuff. This is, at least in part, a result of the smaller role played by the bondsmagi (and, tellingly, that part lead to me frowning at their apparent violation of their own rules) and I’m grateful for it.

For context, I actually listened to it rather than read it, and while I was originally skeptical of the overly-theatrical nature of the reading, I was quickly won over to it. The reader (Michael Page) does a good enough job with the voices that it was very easy to stay on top of conversations. One of the unexpected benefits of the audio book format is that it makes Lynch’s fondness for fantasy names much more tolerable. Hearing them spoken makes them at least feel like names when they otherwise sit like lead on the page.

The audio book also has a bit of a downside in that it casts a harsh, unforgiving light on the entirety of the text. Because there’s no way to skim, overly detailed blocks of prose that don’t actually move anything along are cast into harsh relief, and this book is awash in them. If I did not know that Lynch was a gamer, I’d suspect it based on his descriptions, which often serve to lovingly showcase his worldbuilding (which, in his defense, is pretty good) far more than they do anything to move along the plot. They’re problematic enough in their own right, but they’re far more problematic in a book that feels too long to begin with.

In fact, this really feels like two book jammed together, the first a city caper, the second a pirate tale. Either one would probably have been a good read, but their combination feels fat, and wrapping them thickly doesn’t help. This is further muddled by a number of unnecessary time jumps, most egregious of which being an opening flashback which more or less reads like a storyboard for the screenplay this book might be. It’s such a blatant structural trick that it chafes, and it also forces a technical gaffe onto the protagonists (check which names they use).

Finally, this is kind of soft writing. There were numerous points where the tension depended upon your thinking the author would be willing to go there, and Lynch won’t. That’s not too bad a thing, since it’s caper stuff, and fun is appropriate, so it mostly becomes an issue when this moves away from it’s caper roots.

That’s a lot of complaints, but here’s the rub. I enjoyed it, and I’ll read the third book – whenever it comes out – with far less hesitation. For all those complaints, there are some good parts to it. First and foremost, when Lynch is on his game, he really rocks it. Dialog and action move along, his fight scenes are great, and by and large when things are happening, they’re a joy to read. If he were more willing to jump-cut between scenes, it would be a joy to read.

I worry sometimes that Lynch is an author out of time. His writing (at least as showcased in RSURS) seems less well suited to the massive fantasy bricks of today than to the novellas and short stories of yesteryear. With only minimal editing, one could turn RSURS into a collection of stories akin to one of Lieber’s Lankhmar collections and vastly improve them thereby. Many of the longish asides (like the event while climbing) would make perfectly serviceable little stories on their own. It would also offset some of the softness of the writing since there’s an expectation in short stories of a return to the status quo.

It occours to me that the seams are so clearly visible that I wonder if, perhaps, that was the original format, and it got beaten and spackled into Big Fantasy Book. It wouldn’t surprise me, since I imagine that’s the necessity of the day, but it would be a shame if so.

Anyway, the bottom line is that the book’s not flawless, but it’s a fun adventure yarn, with some surprisingly good setpieces. Glad I finally broke down and read it.

5 thoughts on “I Read the Red

  1. Pôl Jackson

    I’ve been trying to figure out why the problems that you had with the first book (The Lies of Locke Lamora) didn’t bother me at all. As I recall, you were disgruntled that the novel seemed to promise an epic fantasy caper story, but subverted itself by bringing elements in out of left field. (Elements that, if looked at from a caper/puzzle point of view, are total author cheats.) In contrast, I had the exact opposite reaction; I really enjoyed the unpredictable left-field elements.

    Here’s what I think: I think that Locke Lamora himself believes that he’s in a caper story. At the time we meet him, that’s been true nearly his entire life. He and the other Gentlemen Bastards have always been “richer and cleverer than everyone else”. So when we discover otherwise – that Locke is completely outclassed by another rich, smart, and ruthless player – we’re just as shocked as Locke is. The slow, dawning realization that we are not in a caper story – that we are, in fact, in a particularly nasty Thieves World story – works for me, because we’re riding the emotional roller-coaster along with Locke.

    I think it all comes down to the strength of our genre expectations. Subverting genre expectations is a really tricky business; even when done really well, there are going to be people made uncomfortable by the bait-and-switch. Take the romance novel genre, for instance. The author has a lot of leeway in what happens during the novel, but if the two lovers aren’t together by the end, there will be riots. It’s part of the author-reader contract for that genre. I imagine it’s much the same for caper & mystery stories; the author promises to present all the clues, so that the reader has a chance to puzzle out the end. Not giving the reader all the pieces is a break in that author-reader contract, and sloppy writing for that genre, to boot.

    Or take the movie Signs. I have friends who fly into a nerdrage over the bad science in that movie, when it is not, in fact, a science fiction movie. On one hand, I find it nearly inconceivable that anyone could miss the point that badly. On the other hand, I do understand how someone could be so in-tune with the genre expectations of sci-fi that they’re not in a mental space to appreciate an unexpected genre shift.

    To sum up: I think that the genre shift from Caper Story to Crime Story in The Lies of Locke Lamora is completely intentional, and for me, it worked very well as a narrative device. I can see how that transition might be too jarring for some, though.

  2. Rob Donoghue

    Heh. I think the problem is I’d be even less forgiving of it if it were a crime novel. I give capers a certain amount of narrative leeway, but in a crime novel I’m less tolerant of things that work because everyone else is stupid.

  3. Pôl Jackson

    Huh. OK, when I wrote “Crime Story”, I was thinking about true crime: where for the most part, the criminals are incredibly stupid. I am guessing that my terminology was off, there. What I mean is, “a story where a number of different criminal interests collide messily and bloodily.” You’re meant to think that the story is a puzzler, but it’s not; it’s this other thing. It’s the tilt in Fiasco, where the wheels come off and the whole thing comes crashing down the hill.

    What’s really happening in the novel is a collision of hubris. Every party in the story believes that they’re at the top of their game. From Locke to the Grey King to Barsavi to the Spider to the nobles, each believes that they have every piece in perfect order, with nothing overlooked. The fact that Locke and the Powers That Be overlook the possibility of Bondsmagi involvement doesn’t make them stupid; it just shows their genuine blind spot for anything that’s not under their control. (And, of course, anyone able to hire a Bondsmagi for that long would have to be incredibly wealthy already, so why would they want to take over some piddling underworld boss, anyway?…)

    I’m glad you enjoyed the second one more. It also had the moment where it turns from a puzzler into a different kind of story – in this case, a pirate story. But given the title, the transition was a bit more predictable. 🙂

  4. renatoram

    I’m unclear on a bit: you write “If I did not know that Lynch was a gamer, I’d suspect it based on his descriptions, which often serve to lovingly showcase his worldbuilding (which, in his defense, is pretty good) far more than they do anything to move along the plot. “

    But that’s exactly what I’d expect from a gamer (a traditional GM figure, specifically).

  5. Rob Donoghue

    @renatoram We’re in agreement, but I was a little unclear. He _sounds_ like a GM, and from the text alone I’d suspect he was one. And since I know he’s a game from other sources, that just sort of confirms it.


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