Red Seas Under Red Skies by Scott Lynch is the sequel to The Lies of Locke Lamorra, a book I reviewed nearly two years ago. I was ambivalent about reading the sequel, and I will admit the deciding factor was Scott Lynch's delightful response to a critic (warning: link contains ample swearing). In particular, this sentiment:
Yeah, Zamira Drakasha, middle-aged pirate mother of two, is a wish-fulfillment fantasy. [...] Why shouldn't middle-aged mothers get a wish-fulfillment character, you sad little bigot? Everyone else does.For whatever reason, that response was rattling about the internet again a while back, and it kept this book in my mind. Also, Lynch has a wonderful piece in George R. R. Martin's Rogues anthology; I enjoyed his short story there so much that I was eager to read Red Seas by the time the library finally managed to get a copy into my hands. (The local library system has books 1 & 3 in this series, but not 2. Inexplicably. They had to go to Topeka to get it for me. I asked if I could buy them a copy and donate it, but they were all "nooooo we just sell donated books". Sigh.)
I liked Red Seas better than Lies in many ways. It's better-constructed: it has something of the same "tear down the protagonists and let them claw their way back up" arc, but both tear-down and claw-back felt convincing this time. There were still points where the characters planned things that struck me as unnecessarily complicated or heavily dependent on luck, but for the most part, reasonable. I found the first half of the book a bit of a slog: it really does perk up a lot when the pirate mom shows up. Not just because pirate mom. I'm pretty sure. I suspect I liked the second half better in part because the book stops alternating chapters between past and present, a technique I did not love in Lies and still don't love here. Also, the second half starts adding some more likeable characters to the mix, giving it the ensemble feel that I enjoyed in Lies and is missing from the first half, where it's basicaly two protagonists against the world.
I enjoyed the characters, and the depiction of the relationships between them. The relationships between Locke and Jean and the pirate mom captain and her first mate were especially fun to watch develop. Miss Not-Appearing-in-This-Book from Lies continues to Not Appear in Red Skies, but the mentions of her feel natural now instead of like a weird foreshadowing of an appearance that never happens, so it worked.
There are some factors that work against the story for me: I'm not a big fan of the rogue archetype, and these remain stories where you're rooting for thieves and conmen, if not murderers. The book is grim; I'd forgotten how much death there was among significant characters in Lies, and that continues here. And y'all know I love my stories light and upbeat. The author uses frequent profanity in the dialogue, which I'm meh about. So people who enjoy or at least do not object to these things will probably like this book more. Even so, I'll give it a 7.5 and plan to read the third.
Unveiled by Courtney Milan is a Victorian-era historical romance. haikujaguar reviewed and recommended the author and this series specifically, which is the only reason I gave it a chance. Because the back cover blurb sounded horrible. Romance as a genre is full of unlikely first meetings and improbable coincidences, but even for romance, Unveiled goes above and beyond on the ZOMG REALLY scale with its initial setup. The starting premise is that Ash, the male protagonist, has gotten the marriage of his distant elderly cousin, the Duke of Parford, invalidated on grounds of bigamy. This makes the Duke's children illegitimate, and allows Ash to inherit the duchy as the nearest legitimate male relation. (So far, still within the bounds of normal romance-novel contrivance.) Ash then uses some legal manuever to get the right to take up residence on the ailing duke's estate while the duke is still alive and lucid, albeit bedridden. The female protagonist, Margaret, is the old duke's now-bastard daughter. Her two brothers leave the estate to pursue legal remedy for their disinherited status. Margaret stays behind to (a) nurse her father, (b) make sure her father doesn't get murdered by Ash and (c) spy on Ash while pretending to be a nurse. The entire 100-person serving staff backs her ruse.
The whole "I'm just a nurse" ruse is ridiculous at the start, and only gets more ridiculous as the book goes on. (For one thing, if you have a hundred servants so loyal to you that they won't betray this absurd secret, surely you could have at least one or more of them doing a, b & c for you.) The ruse continues waaaaay too long, to the point of me throwing the book down at one point and declaiming, "The STUPID. It BURNS."
However, if you can get past the insanity of the initial premise, Unveiled makes a fine romance. The characters are loveable (though Ash takes some getting used to; he comes across as a total jerk at the start based on his thought process, but his actions speak better of him.) There are lots of sweet romantic scenes, many of which subvert some of the more annoying tropes of romance. Once the stupid "lying about her identity" contrivance is finally put to one side, the next contrivance to keep the protagonists apart is actually understandable and fuels character development. I was a little disappointed by the resolution of the legitimacy question, but eh. It worked.
In addition to the traditional erotic romance between Ash & Margaret, there's a kind of platonic romance between Ash and his two younger brothers, who are destined for books of their own. The relationships between brothers also have some contrivances to create additional angst. You don't see as much of them as I'd like, and I suspect the various issues in this platonic romance don't get resolved until the end of the last brother's book. But the relationships between brothers are one of the strengths of the book, and I liked how distinct they were as people. The next book is about Mark, who was my favorite character in this one, so I'm sure to read it. I will give this one a 7.5, and note that it would've been a 9 without the ridiculous, awful premise. I suspect readers not repulsed by the back cover blurb would be delighted by this book.