I was promised that this would be an improvement on Red Seas Under Red Skies, and I was not disappointed. If anything, I would gladly say without reservation that this is the best book of the three… which doesn’t normally happen in series. It is as though Lynch has taken what he did best in tLoLL, looked at what didn’t work in RSURS and actually thought about how the two differ before he set down to write tRoT. All the best things about tLoLL are here, but more so, and none of what bothered me about RSURS… and best of all (SPOILER WARNING… I think? I kinda assumed this but maybe it is a spoiler) Sabetha.
Sabetha Belacoros, the absent member of the cast, finally shows up. And she was totally worth waiting for. Neither of the previous books have had a real female character at the front of the stage. Even the pirates weren’t really… properly there. He’s been amazing at filling his world with wonderful women, and waited for just the right time to place one at the front and centre, and she was totally worth it. She’s not a Strong Female Character, or a Damsel in Distress, or any other awful cliché. She’s just… a person. And a really well-explored one at that. She has the same character depth as Jean Tannen (though not Locke, I think, as Locke gets all the best in the books) even though she’s only had one book to develop it in. All the hints and mentions of her in the previous books have built up and when joined together with the actual characterisation from this book, serve to provide her with more depth than if she’d simply been introduced fresh. Added to this, Lynch goes back to the patchy timeline he used in the first book, to give us two halves of her story at the same time. Where the first book uses a large variety of episodes, muddled together, however, to create a broader backstory to link into each aspect of the plot, tRoT instead focuses on two threads, the modern-day aspect and one single narrative in the past, and the two link together beautifully to explain both who Sabetha is and how her relationship with Locke has come to be as it was/is (in the first book and in tRoT). Need more tenses to talk about this, I think. When I started thinking about how I would talk about this book, what I wanted to say at first is “Lynch has written a really good female character in Sabetha”, but I think that would be unfair. I don’t think – or it certainly doesn’t feel when you read her – that she was set out as “a female character (must write convincingly)”. She’s a character. A brilliant, fleshed out, wonderful, flawed character, just like Locke and Jean. Not that she’s a great character who just happens to have been noted as being female, as that would be a failing too. She has been written with an awareness of what she’s meant to be (not just in her gender but this is what I’m choosing to focus on here) without that coming to define her. I hope I’m explaining this well, because I cannot stress enough how pleased she made me to read her. Tl;dr – Lynch done good.
Of course, there is more to the book than just her (though she forms a substantial part of it) and the rest of the book is very much a return to what made tLoLL great. The backdrop(s) for the scam(s) feel much closer in their setup to the political situation of Camorr, without being too close or too similar. The majority of the plot (as in, the later chronological bits) takes place in Karthain, because if Lynch hadn’t done that I am fairly sure some of his readers would have died for not knowing about it. It’s not what I expected at all, but it is done with the same beautiful descriptions that Camorr and Tal Verrar were, and with the same precision of plot and design that make every little detail and important point in the narrative. The story is nothing like the story of tLoLL, I have to say. Just… a lot about how he goes about making it feels much closer to that than to RSURS. It also feels a more grown up book; it’s almost as if Locke and Jean have done some development since they started out… It lacks some of the childish glee that tLoLL has, but replaces it with political conniving which is totally worth it and very fun, and with the balance of the past-narrative, which is set when they’re all about sixteen, and so has plenty of childishness to go around. The past-narrative also gives us some insight from Sabetha’s point of view, and changes how we think about what we knew in the first book. How we saw Chains and the Sanzas and the world of the Gentleman Bastards as a whole. It takes some of the shine off it that it had on what was, in hindsight, so obviously just Locke’s view of the world, but the doubt and balance with which it replaces that shine is also worthwhile, and makes it all the more real.
Beyond all this, what tRoT manages to do is be precisely the right length. This doesn’t happen all that often. Like tLoLL, it is perfectly paced (RSURS was not) and when I came to turn the final page, it felt like everything had been dealt with in a timely fashion, with no great rushes or periods of slow dullness, and all ends had been tied together. To the extant that I do not know if there will be another book. Ok, I just googled. There will be: “The Thorn of Emberlain” (coming out this autumn!). But the point still stands. Everything is tied up and sorted so he could just leave it here if he wanted to. I’m glad he’s not. The fact that his third book is better than what came before says that good things are to be expected, and he’s moving to another region again, so we get to see more of that excellently painted world.
I really have nothing bad to say about the Republic of Thieves. Admittedly a lot of the good I have to talk about is much of a mirror on what I said about the Lies of Locke Lamora, but that’s not a bad thing at all. It is absolutely the best in the series so far, and I may have to read it again immediately because it was so damn good.