Publisher: Gollancz / 488p / £18.99 (Hardback) – £12.99 (Paperback)

Rating: * * * 1/2

Having your first novel declared as the official Next Big Thing™ to hit the shelves isn’t always a good thing– but in 2006, Scott Lynch’s debut fantasy The Lies of Locke Lamora came pretty damn close to living up to the hype. A rollicking blend of heroic fantasy and crime caper, it served up plenty of thrills, intrigue and action, as well as giving us a uniquely flawed hero in the form of the titular con artist, trickster and all-round cunning swine. Now, it’s time for the second helping of the Gentleman Bastard sequence, and Lynch has upped the ante by sending his land-loving protagonist out on the high seas to buckle swashes and hoist the mainbrace.

Red Seas Under Red Skies picks up two years after book one, with Locke and fellow ‘Gentleman Bastard’ Jean Tannen having fled some deadly trouble in their home city of Camorr. Heavily immersed in a lengthy con to swindle money out of the Sinspire, the biggest and best-guarded gambling house in the city-state of Tal Verrar, the situation is already dangerous enough for them when, thanks to some vengeful magicians, they’re put under the power of Tal Verrar’s military leader Stragos. He’s a man with political problems, who could really do with a convenient explosion of maritime piracy to distract from his power games, and Locke and Jean are given two choices:– either head out to sea and raise a Pirate rebellion so it can be crushed, or die from a slow-acting poison to which only Stragos has the antidote.

Doing their best to masquerade as masters of the seas, our two heroes swiftly end up neck-deep in trouble as a result, and once the story leaves dry land, the pace barely flags. Lynch’s colourful, energetic prose paints the world aboard ship with vivid colours, and there’s a whole series of well-drawn and memorable characters for Locke and Jean to either battle or join forces with. Balancing thrilling action sequences with the harsh realities of violence and its aftermath, it’s the kind of witty romp that reminds you exactly how much fun heroic fantasy is supposed to be– which means it’s a shame that the book’s central plot ends up in such a jumble.

Spending too long setting up the action, it’s almost as if Lynch set out to tell one story and then changed his mind halfway through. A massive amount of plot goes by before the possibility of Locke and Jean becoming pirates is even mentioned, and while the resulting ocean-bound action is ferocious fun, it also leaves the book’s flashback-heavy opening third looking a little flat by comparison. Add in a couple of narrative red herrings and a somewhat rushed climax, and you’ve got a novel that’s packed to the brim with memorable set-pieces, yet never quite hangs together into a coherent whole.

Thankfully, while the storytelling may be flawed, there’s still plenty of rip-roaring entertainment to be found, and the rambunctious friendship between Locke and Jean is fast turning into one of the most engaging pairings in epic fantasy. No problem is too large for them to find some way of lying, cheating or stealing their way out of it, and the resulting rich blend of fantasy action and sharp dialogue wisely steers clear of the po-faced seriousness that torpedoes so many sword-and-sorcery epics. Lynch may not have bested the turbo-charged, page-turning heights of his debut, but Red Seas Under Red Skies is still a huge amount of fun, and the rakish form of Locke Lamora looks likely to be haunting fantasy bookshelves for many years to come.

FACT BOX:
The character of Locke Lamora actually originated in mid-2000 as a space age con-artist named Locke, who was played by Scott Lynch during several sessions of a friend’s Star Wars roleplaying game.