The premise is Locke and Jean are attempting to rob a powerful casino owner in a brand new city. Their con games attract the attention of the city's military dictator, who conscripts them with poison to become his agent provocateurs. The dictator needs the local pirates to raise a fuss so he can crush them and secure his political position. Locke and Jean are forced to learn how to become sailors as they end up infiltrating a crew which is less-than-impressed with their usual flourishes.
As mentioned, the stakes just aren't there. Locke and Jean don't care what happens to the city, don't have a vested interest in the pirates, and aren't even robbing the casino owner other than out of boredom. If not for the poison, they'd be able to leave with no real consequences. A new character, named Eris, is introduced who becomes very close to Jean but I never got the impression she was going to become a permanent part of the gang. Bluntly, this detracts a lot from the story as much is made of Locke and Jean's conflicting visions of the future but we know they're going to stick together in the end.
Indeed, the pirate element of the story is the place where the story drags the most. Jean and Locke maybe abysmal pirates. Given much of the series is appeal is seeing how the two of them manage to outsmart everyone else, the charm of seeing them as fish out of water wears off quickly. I also am less than pleased at the relative disposability of the Ezri character too since she managed to make a impression despite herself. I would have much preferred if the book had focused on the initial casino heist that it was set up to be about.
Really, if I had one big issue with the book, it's the fact that the villain is too likable. I really enjoyed the Archon and had to say I wanted his plan to succeed. The horrific fate that befalls him is something that left a bad taste in my mouth and I think it feels disproportionate for the narrative that Scott Lynch was sharing. In a world of thieves and corrupt politicians, he didn't seem any worse than the protagonists.
Despite these major flaws, the book still manages to create a delightfully eccentric cast. Requin, Stragos, and pirate captains are all wonderfully realized. Any of them would have made a decent foil for Locke (and do, if we're honest) with a bit more personal antagonism. As such, the book feels like a side-story in the adventures of Locke Lamora as opposed to a continuation of his adventures. Scott Lynch is an amazing author who creates vivid worlds and fascinating characters so, even when I have issues with his writing, it's always entertaining.
Scott Lynch is a master of creating entertaining characters who manage to keep up with an always-enjoyable protagonist. Locke is a master of lying, trickery, deception, and other variants on the same skill. Whenever confronted with someone who isn't fooled, which is often, it becomes a farce as he tries to lie some more--and sometimes it work. Jean is also a wonderful foil, being as solid and dependable as Locke is not. The action and world-building are always good with these books and few worlds seem as vivid as the one found within the Gentleman Bastard saga's pages. I also like that it is a different sort of world than your stereotypical Medieval fantasy land.
In conclusion, Red Seas under Red Skies is a slight step-down from the original novel. It's still very good, however, and has a lot of humor as well as action. I just wish we'd had some serious consequences. At the end of the novel, it feels like the story hasn't really changed anything for our protagonists but put another obstacle in their way. Having already read the sequel, I'm very glad to hear Scott Lynch is continuing the series as I intend to keep with this until the very end.