“Life boils down to standing in line to get shit dropped on your head. Everyone’s got a place in the queue, you can’t get out of it, and just when you start to congratulate yourself on surviving your dose of shit, you discover that the line is actually circular.”
This book was a very enjoyable mixed bag of emotions for me, which I feel like will be very hard to explain adequately without spoiling anything major, but I will do my best. Having been left in a particularly dire situation after of the events of “Red Seas Under Red Skies”, this novel sees Locke and Jean in the service of their old foes: the Bondsmagi. Rather than having them pull off some elaborate heist, they instead employ them for the purpose of attempting to sway an election in their favor in the city of Karthain. This is complicated when their former ally in thievery, and Locke’s old flame, Sabatha Belacoros, is pitted against them, and the pair are forced to confront their emotional baggage whilst attempting to achieve their opposing goals. Even though, in my opinion, this novel was weighed down by a generally weaker story, it was still a very fun read, and I am extremely upset that I’m actually going to have to wait patiently for the release of the next novel in 2019 like everyone else (seeing as I have been reading the previous installments back to back for the past month up until this point).
So let me just say right off the bat that while I had some issues with the overall story, I found the first third of this novel to be very well done. If you happen to have read my reviews of the last two books in this series then you know that my favorite aspect of this series is Locke and Jean’s fierce friendship, and that is very prominent in this section (resulting in plenty of emotional and humorous moments). However, once the duo arrived in Karthain things slowed down considerably. I think the main reason for this was that the stakes of their situation felt noticeably lower than in their previous adventures. This was also my general attitude towards most of their flashback chapters, in which the (then) pubescent Gentlemen Bastards were sent away to be trained as actors. Instead of seeking to attain riches whilst fighting for their lives, the goals in these stories respectively were: 1) win an election and 2) organize a play. Of course there are several entertaining and nuanced story beats interwoven in these plots, but it was still a noticeable departure from the previous novels. Although, I will say, it was great being able to spend more time with the Sanza twins again in these chapters (if not bitter-sweet).
I will also say that I had higher expectations for Karthain, considering that it’s the home of the dreaded Bondsmagi. It was such a great opportunity to develop them as a group and to give the reader more insight on how they operate, that I feel was very underutilized. In my opinion, with-holding some information is a highly effective way of ensuring that groups/characters such as this remain intimidating, as giving away all the information ruins the mystery that makes them such enjoyable daunting figures to begin with. However, I still would have liked to learn a bit more. That being said, Patience (the primary bondsmage that Locke and Jean communicate with) was a very interesting character, adding a more playful side to someone who I would have expected to be much more stereo-typically serious and grim.
Now to get to the real meat of this story and what seems to be it’s most divisive element: Sabatha. Much like Locke, my feelings towards Sabatha are complicated, not so much because of her characterization, but more-so because of how heavily both the past and present plot lines centered around her and Locke’s romance. I tend to be someone who favors stories about strong platonic relationships rather than romantic ones though, so I fully acknowledge that my opinion here is very biased. That’s not to say that I never enjoy romances, as I thought the one between Jean and Ezri in “Red Seas Under Red Skies” was very sweet. The difference is that that romance felt like a nice little side-dish, where-as this one was very much the main course. Sabatha herself though, I thought, was a pretty interesting character. Her biggest strength by far was how real she felt, flaws and all. She wasn’t some stereotypical hardened bad-ass female character as I feared she might be. Sure, there were times where she would somewhat attempt to wear that persona as an armor, but she was also funny, emotional, compassionate and stubborn; she was complicated, you know, like a real person. I did feel like the overall narrative focus on her gave Jean a lot less to do though. Yes, we’ve already had two books to thoroughly enjoy him, but call me greedy, I just always want more Jean Tannen.
So would I recommend you pick this book up? Absolutely. I would have to say that this is the weakest entry in the Gentlemen Bastards Sequence thus far, however despite my criticisms, the characters and writing style we have come to know and love are just as great as ever, and I can’t wait to see where Scott Lynch takes our heroes next. 3.5/5