Scott Lynch is – along with the likes of Patrick Rothfuss and George RR Martin – at the forefront of contemporary fantasy. His stories intertwine elements of both fantasy and realism. Together, they produce a gripping alchemy.
Red Seas Under Red Skies is the second in his Gentleman Bastard series. The books are set in a fantasy world much like renaissance Italy, except they occasionally include murderous wizards and monsters that might have crawled out of a Dungeons & Dragons manual. The books follow the lives of con men Locke and Jean, who make a living by tricking nobles while simultaneously trying to avoid the vengeance of the Bondsmagi of Karthain, a feared guild of wizards.
The story’s full of wit and originality. Like a lot of modern fantasy, it is as much a response to the genre as a product of it. Gone are the two-dimensional characters and good/bad dichotomies. Lynch instead deals in grey characters and moral ambiguity. There’s character development.There’s double-crossing, and there’s reversal of fortune. Heroes are as capable of horrific acts as villains, and villains are just as likely to kill the heroes as the other way round.
Like George RR Martin, Lynch shows us the real implications of a fantasy world on the human psyche. Killing enemies is traumatic business. The lead character, for example, finds himself gripped by grief and guilt after he attempts to save his friends (through violence) and only succeeds in saving a few of them. He hides in his room for days, bottles of liquor his only company. The fantasy setting makes these depictions of depression and alcoholism that much more pressing. Imagine Frodo gripped by PTSD, unable to climb Mount Doom.
This is just one example of Lynch looking at the genre with fresh eyes. He also – thankfully – subverts many of fantasy’s common stumbling blocks like its problematic depiction of gender roles and lack of diversity. All of his characters are well-rounded and possess agency. The women are not damsels in distress or scantily-clad Xenas. They’re soldiers and thieves, bodyguards and pirate captains, surgeons and leaders.
Red Seas Under Red Skies is part of a new wave of fantasy that takes cues from both inside and outside the genre in order to, ultimately, transcend it. This is not just a fantasy story: its a hustle story, a pirate story, a romance, a political thriller. It’s influenced far more by the broader ideas of contemporary fiction than just elves and goblins and magic rings.
For that, we should be grateful.