Let us begin with a story. Once upon a time, I experienced what it’s like to be at sea in a storm. Force nine gales, to be precise, in the Eastern Med. All evening, we’d had a to-do with the authorities stationed in the Port of Tel Aviv, who’d just decided that anybody with a Syrian visa was a Possible Terrorist, even if they were a bunch of school kids from a respectable grammar in England.
They eventually allowed our ship to enter the port, if not disembark. Severe weather warnings were everywhere; that day we were informed that other ships from Syrian ports had been denied entry and were trapped outside in the full force of it. Where we were was bad enough.
The next morning we went to breakfast in the aft canteen. The ship bucked and rolled; it was not unlike climbing a steep hill to reach the canteen itself. Once seated, we looked out across the aft deck to an unforgettable sight. All sky. It wasn’t particularly troubling, until the ship crested the wave and we were plunged, suddenly, into a world of sea. Nothing but water, a great wall of it, and us tiny and struggling against its relentless pull. The waves were bigger than the pyramids at Giza we visited two days later.
After that morning, I went to lie down in my cabin, as per instructions from the captain, until it was mostly over. We had plenty of women on board, perhaps it was the absence of cats that caused the problem.
Sequels are hard. Unless you Do A Tolkien, and simply write what is essentially one book that’s split into three volumes. Otherwise, when you come to the second book in a series, you have to have a clear sense of a stand-alone plot that builds on the first book but doesn’t depend entirely on the first for quality. It gets easy to repeat ideas, the world and the characters are no longer fresh and new, so they have to be interesting and develop on a new level.
Lynch is doing a very good job of managing all of these problems. He has a smart technique: he understands that people don’t merely develop along the arc of one story, but grow and change beyond the narrative of one set of events. Locke Lamora and Jean Tannen were very young during the events of the first book, and Lynch has taken advantage of their ageing to build new stories and open up new avenues of adventure.
What interests me most about this book so far is this exploration of Locke’s morality. A passage dealing with the War of Amusements, essentially the super-rich paying for the privilege of watching the impoverished and desperate subjected to humiliations and punishments of their choosing, fascinated me. Locke’s reaction is his justification for stealing.
I didn’t have a problem with Locke’s choice of lifestyle in the first book, but Locke’s personal justifications never really came to light. He felt shallower, and it seemed rather as though the stealing was done simply to prove that he could. It was very clear, after all, that other than financing ever grander capers, none of the Gentlemen Bastards had any need or love of the money they stole.
While that’s entertaining for one book, I’m not sure I could have stomached it for a whole series. Locke’s reaction to the War of Amusements explains his actions on an ethical level. He’s no Robin Hood, but I can appreciate the idea of ‘the rich remember’, that the super-rich ought to be subjected to moments when their bubbles of privilege are burst and they are made to experience how the other half live. In fact, if he was more of a Robin Hood character, he’d be too nauseating for words.
Lynch’s talent for putting his characters’ balls in a vice, if not multiple vices, has not waned. His world is expanding nicely, and from what I’ve read so far, it looks like this one might be even more complex and satisfying in its unfolding and resolution than the first.
I can’t end this review without commenting on the sea-lore of the world, hence the opening story of life on the open waves. I’m not sure how sailors feel about cats generally, but I’m aware they’ve historically been pretty unequivocal about women being bad luck on boats. In Lynch’s world, cats and women are about the best thing you can have to guarantee a smooth ride at sea. I’m aware that some responses to this decision have been strongly worded in the negative from Certain Quarters who don’t like their view of the world being messed with.
The whole cats thing is hilarious. This is what would happen if the internet put to sea. Imagining forty men on a ship in a storm yelling at each other because Captain Locke forgot the cats is positively beautiful. The tone is absolutely perfect, doesn’t detract from the tension of the situation at all. It’s wonderful.
Then there’s the women thing. I knew about the women-are-lucky thing from a friend, from Scott’s own response to somebody raging at him for doing it, and from Scott himself discussing it at the kaffeeklatsch. I have mixed feelings about it. Right now, I have to say he manages gender so well in every other situation, by not paying any attention to it. Women are just there, doing exactly the same jobs as the men, and nobody bats an eyelid. That, for me, is a dream come true in writing. There isn’t a lot of harping on about Women Doing Men’s Jobs Well (which you get even in Best Served Cold). It’s the world we’re aiming for, genderwise.
I have this weird thing, though, about being singled out as special – whether in a positive or negative way – because vagina. It feels objectifying, however well intentioned, as other nuances of personality, skill and such are lost when you are reduced down to one quality, one you’re not actively using to do the job in hand anyway (sailors, to the best of my knowledge, do not have to use their penises constantly whilst at work). I think I’d have preferred it if there were as many women on the ship as the men (the absence of cats more than covers the luck angle). But the whole women/men are better/worse at X thing tends to stick in my craw.
Yet perhaps we need some positive discrimination here, perhaps we need to go overboard (no pun intended) to make the point. And I can’t help but love this, from Scott:
Zamira Drakasha, middle-aged pirate mother of two, is a wish-fulfillment fantasy. I realized this as she was evolving on the page, and you know what? I fucking embrace it.
Why shouldn’t middle-aged mothers get a wish-fulfillment character, you sad little bigot? Everyone else does. H.L. Mencken once wrote that “Every normal man must be tempted at times to spit on his hands, hoist the black flag, and begin slitting throats.” I can’t think of anyone to whom that applies more than my own mom, and the mothers on my friends list, with the incredible demands on time and spirit they face in their efforts to raise their kids, preserve their families, and save their own identity/sanity into the bargain.
Shit yes, Zamira Drakasha, leaping across the gap between burning ships with twin sabers in hand to kick in some fucking heads and sail off into the sunset with her toddlers in her arms and a hold full of plundered goods, is a wish-fulfillment fantasy from hell. I offer her up on a silver platter with a fucking bow on top; I hope she amuses and delights. In my fictional world, opportunities for butt-kicking do not cease merely because one isn’t a beautiful teenager or a muscle-wrapped font of testosterone.
I don’t think you can argue with that.