The book picks up 2 years after The Lies of Locke Lamora. However, despite the references to past events, I believe you could experience this as a standalone without having read book 1.
Red Seas Under Red Skies cemented Scott Lynch as one of my favourite authors I've discovered this year. I really enjoyed The Lies of Locke Lamora. But Red Seas Under Red Skies improved upon Lynch's debut novel in just about every aspect, with a great sense of depth and complexity added to his characters. The world becomes even more fascinatingly extravagant, opulent, and dark, as he explores a different city to that of his first book.
And in probably the biggest improvement for my money, the plot was fantastic. The Lies of Locke Lamora had a good plot for the most part, but, I don't feel that all of the promises set up in that book, were paid off as well as they could have been. In Red Seas Under Red Skies, however, the payoffs come – and they come good. The ways in which our main characters solve the story’s problems are innovative and unexpected, while still being foreshadowed perfectly. My only minor gripe with the plot in this book is that it feels like two narratives combined into one.
About halfway through the novel, the nefarious actions of one power player forces Locke and Jean onto a maritime mission. They must pretend to be pirates and sail across a nearby sea to recruit a crew to come back and ransack the city. I had some trepidation about this. Essentially, it felt like the author was ripping characters away from the main thrust of the plot, and unfortunately it did feel like the first half of the book was almost discarded in a way.
In the end though, the sheer enjoyment and level of immersion I got from watching Locke and Jean’s adventures on the sea was great to read. Likewise, the characters that Lynch developed in such a short amount of time during these ocean traveling sections made it worthwhile. And at the end it all folded back into the main plot really nicely, with the various threads dovetailing into an explosive and rapid conclusion.
From a character perspective, this book was incredible. Not only did the main characters of Locke and Jean have a well-developed relationship, but all major antagonists and supporting characters felt fleshed out and three dimensional. Even the more stereotypical, one-note villains felt realistic. They all had reasons to get me empathizing with them.
And when it comes to the world building ... well, that's where the Gentlemen Bastards series shines. Lynch reminds me of Joe Abercrombie’s ability to write immersive setting descriptions that give a gritty and realistic feel of what it would be like to inhabit a fantasy world. However, what sets Lynch apart in his setting descriptions and world building is that while Abercrombie’s stories take place in stereotypical medieval English settings, Lynch explores fresh ground. Instead of medieval England, Lynch sets his stories in a fantasy world similar to 1500s Renaissance Italy, which is a rare setting for fantasy books to occupy. (At least in my experience). The Renaissance is perhaps my favourite historical epoch, so I eagerly lapped up any scrap of detail about the intricate and deadly world.
Perhaps the biggest credit I can say about Scott Lynch, with regards to world building, is that the capricious and at times over-the-top ridiculousness of this setting never feels comical. We’re never distracted from the story. If anything, the colour and frivolity of this world only makes the darker parts of the story more impactful by comparison.