Reviewed in the United States on April 13, 2021
I really enjoyed The Lies of Locke Lamora and bought this before finishing it, which says a lot since I'm on a tight grad student budget and rarely buy pleasure books. So much of what I liked about LoLL—the companionship of thieves, the disguises and cons, the mix of current story and far backstory that explains motivations, the magic (though minimal and problematic) and the city of Camorr—are lost in RSUS. What’s left is a mashup of a heist, a pirating adventure overrun with nautical terms, a bunch of go-nowhere side stories, stupid motivations and an improbable, rushed ending.
In LoLL, we're left with a quasi-victory: Locke and Jean accomplish their goals, but with great loss. We're also left with some interesting mysteries: who left the Elderglass and why did they leave? Who is Sabetha, at happened to her and Locke's relationship and why did it break his heart? Well, you won’t find out about them here. Indeed, there are a few more hints of mysteries past (the plays, Jasper and Espara) with no follow-up.
What saves this from one star is that the writing and dialogue are good, and there are some parts that are fun to read. I also like the high level of gender equality and new character Captain Drakasha. What keeps it from a three-star rating is the endless nautical jargon and clunky pacing. What keeps is from a 4 or five star review is characters acting out of character or without logic and Locke and Jean’s escape from peril due to luck—instead of trickery, smarts or force—over and over and over. As a reader, I’ll buy this once, maybe twice. After that it’s grating and lazy. By the end of RSUS I cannot believe that Locke is competent as any sort of a thief, con or heist man. Jean should go off on his own and leave the bungler of Camorra.
[Since there is so much time jumping in the novel, the scenes discussed below are in a very loose mix of chronological and sequential order.**SPOILERS below**]
RSUS opens with a standoff between Jean and Locke—Jean has turned coat! And it’s for real since Jean doesn’t use secret hand signals to let Locke know it’s a ploy! Compelling, but when we find out why 90% or so into the book, it’s pretty stupid. Jean DID use hand signals and Locke didn’t see. Locke explains he didn’t notice due to fright at being held a crossbow point by Jean and two other assailants. Come on! These guys seek out stress stressful situations and have used hand signals when in peril many, many times.
Time jump back to right after LoLL, with Locke and Jean fairly destitute and recovering from the loss of their friends and fortune in the small city of Vel Virazzo. Locke falls into drunken self-pity and Jean is frustrated with him and starts training a new gang. I really liked that Lynch shows this recovery period, since all too often in fantasy characters unrealistically recover from loss right away. The strain on their relationship is intereting, and I enjoyed getting to see more of Jean's POV since I thought he was underdeveloped in the first book. GEM! I was sad when this potentially cool development was shuttered after Locke comes back to his senses. WISH they had taken this under-trained crew to Tal Verarr, which would explain why (after the successful cons and capers of book 1) Locke and Jean seem to have lost all their skill and fall under the control of *so many* people.
The heist: Sinspire, the most wealthy and exclusive casino in Tal Verrar run by Requin. The card game con against Madame Durenna and Izmila Corvaleur was clever and fun to read (though it was pretty pointless to see these women infrequently throughout the rest of the book giving Lock and Jean mean glances since nothing comes of it). Locke wheedles his way into Requin’s suspicious but complacent graces by announcing to the game-hall boss that he and Jean have been cheating the un-cheatable Sinspire games, and that an unknown force has hired them to crack the Sinspire vault. Locke declares he’ll identify Requin’s unknown enemy in exchange for working as a Sinspire floor boss and getting the chance to kill Jean. This whole premise seems silly. Requin has never had any issues of consequence with cheaters since they are publicly punished to discourage trickery. If Locke can cheat the games, so what? He’s apparently one in a million, and Requin has multiple sculptures that each hold a dozen times what Locke and Jean stole. Even if successful cheating *was* a regular occurrence, Requin’s wealth is secure since—duh—the house always wins. Requin also knows his vault is impenetrable, confirmed to readers independently by Jean’s red-herring visit to the vault’s maker later on. He is also the most powerful of three powers of Tal Verrar, since a majority of the Priori hold money with him, and Stragos’ power is on the wane, plus he controls the underworld. Powerful people have enemies, so I assume Requin is used to and well-prepared for threats and can influence both the underworld and the Priori. So why in God’s green earth would he tolerate the unknown admitted-trickter Locke?
Much of the buildup of the heist planning was left out, which is a shame. Backstories in RSUS only go to the near-present mostly, and there are basically only three heist buildup scenes: Jean visits a vault/clockwork genius to plant a red-herring, the thieves practice rappelling outside the city, and Locke goes to playground for the rich and amoral, Salon Corbeau, to get some chairs integral to the heist. During rappelling, a destitute highwayman tries to kill them. After the thieves foiling his plan, Locke tells the highwayman that he’s in his debt and that he will have to obey if Locke call upon him in the future. Nothing happens with this scene or the highwayman in the future, so…OK.
In Salon Corbeau, Locke bribes the affable furniture maker and his daughters to put all their other orders aside to get the chairs done in a hurry. Why? They don’t plant the chairs for months, so why the rush order? The purpose of the chairs is very predictable: tools and ropes for robbing and escaping Requin’s office. Why does the apparently super-capable Requin allow these obvious Trojan horses into his office without a thorough inspection by some of the plethora of articifers in the city? Locke’s disgust for Salon Corbeaus’s amoral rich leads to a pillaging of the city much later on, but the payoff for readers is low. The pillaging scene could have easily been accomplished without the Salon Corbeau visit with nothing lost. And really Locke, if you’re so concerned about the furniture maker and ensure his shop isn’t destroyed during the pillage, do you think destroying of his sole customer base will really help him and his daughters? Why not message him to collect debts and move shop after you decide Salon Corbeau will be a target?
The Bondsmagi from book 1 return, taking over merchants’ bodies and warning Jean and Locke that they are going to make the thieves’ lives hell and devoid of a quick death. Bondsmagi supposedly have amazing powers of spy knowledge, so wouldn’t they know tipping off the Priori about Locke and Jean would result in the Priori hiring assassins to kill the thieves? Assassins (unfoiled) = quick death. When Locke and Jean are puzzled about who hired the assassins, why do they overlook the one city power with whom they don’t have contact? If Bondmagi are so powerful, why do they outsource Lock and Jean’s punishment to the Priori and Stragos? If outsourcing is their game, why not let Requin in on it? Honestly, why not tell every power in every city with about Jean and Locke to foil them forever? If the Bondmagi did, this could have been a much more logical and compelling force for Locke and Jean to go to sea, but…
Archon Stragos wants to reestablish his power over the Priori and compels Jean and Locke via long-acting poison to ignite pirates to threaten the city, thus making the military relevant again. This is silly, because pirates attacked Tal Verarr five years ago and after peace came, the Priori tightened the archon’s purse strings. So why repeat what already hasn’t worked? Pirates are an unsustainable enemy since there are only five remaining major pirate ships in this part of the world. For long-standing conflict, it would have made more sense for him to ignite war with another country.
Locke and Jean train to become sailors with Caldris, an experienced naval man—who like Jean and Locke—is also under Stragos’ thumb via long-acting poison. Enter A LOT of nautical terms. Interminable nautical terms. Lynch obviously researched a lot, and in an afterword says that he might have used terms incorrectly. So leave them out, or have fewer, more accurate terms just at the beginning of Locke and Jean’s sea training to have the readers’ experiences with unfamiliar jargon mimic Jean and Locke’s initial bewilderment and subsequent familiarity. Why use both larboard and starboard, which could easily be misinterpreted during a storm? If you want to change “port,” for worldbuilding, why not any number of thousands of made-up words that don’t rhyme with its opposite direction? Cutting the endless explanations of rigging, turning different directions etc. would have made the pirate part much shorter and more enjoyable, and would have given room to really resolve the rushed ending.
Two things are important in this world for a successful sea voyage: women and cats. Women are better officers and both they and cats bring luck. With Stragos’ help, Jean and Locke free imprisoned sailors (unfortunately all the women sailors have previously died) and “capture” a ship of which Locke will have nominal command and Caldris will be his secret ship-whisperer. Huh? The imprisoned pirates don’t know Caldris, so why not have him be captain with Locke as his consigliere/war chief/lip man? OK. Locke, supposedly a master of psychology, conveniently forgets to load the bundle of cats prepared for the trip. What? We are told he’s amazing at thinking on his feet, yet he forgets to bring the only available sea-luck left to him?
Enter Captain Drakasha, a black, non-nonsense mother in her late-thirties who runs a tight ship. YES for females with agency who don’t need beauty or youth to be important! YES for powerful minority characters! Other reviewers have complained that pirates and thieves aren’t always reasonable and that the smooth running of the ship is unrealistic, but I think Lynch sets this up well on the Orchid. I very much enjoyed Drakasha…but don’t understand why she so readily believes Locke after a few conversations and agrees to attack Tal Verrer and vicinity, especially because this hinges on Locke and Jean defeating Stragos. Locke himself has no idea how he will defeat Stragos and says so—to Drakasha! Why does Locke, well-deep into his working relationship with Drakasha, tell her to call him Locke when they’re in private? Lynch established there’s no privacy on the ship, and honestly, who cares? He’s already known to her by the names Kosta and Ravelle, and Locke isn’t even his real name, so…?
Ezri and Jean’s insta-love. Ugh. Ezri’s never met anyone like Jean before, a bruiser who quotes literature? Really? What about pirate captain Rodanov, a literature-loving giant who we know she knows? Their loud, wall-banging sex is that of the imaginings on an 11-year-old boy. I don’t like insta-love, and BUT could have overlooked it if not for two things. One, there was a very interesting moment when Locke was jealous of their relationship and worried about losing his bromance with Jean. This is a GEM and could have really built upon the strain in Locke and Jean’s relationship in Vel Virazzo. Instead, the jealousy resolves with hardly any effort. Two, Lynch puts Ezri in the fridge, using her death to elicit sympathy for Jean.
The ghost entrance to Port Prodigal was cool. Alas, it went nowhere other than being one of the few examples of magic in the book. Given the overhanging danger of the Bondsmagi, why not explore this magic more? Where did it come from? Could the source be used as a weapon against the Bondsmagi? This is another gem that gets left nowhere.
Why does the Shipbreaker fall for literally the oldest trick in the book: an unknown, competing bidder for the ship? And this guy has a monopoly on fencing and has always successfully underbid every pirate in Port Prodigal? Seriously? Fences live in the tricky underworld. No pirate has ever tried this trick before?
Rodanov’s attack on the Orchid is stupid. If he’s so worried about the wrath of Tal Verrar, why not just stay away from it as all the pirates have done for the last five years? You have a SHIP. Go somewhere else in the world. Worried about Port Prodigal? Don’t! The navy wouldn’t be able to get through either entrance to the pirate base since they both have tricky turns that require advanced knowledge to navigate through, and one even has killer ghosts! He doesn’t want to speak up at the pirate council for fear of being the lone nay voter of the five? He has the biggest ship and crew, and the secret support of the most respected veteran pirate captain. But most of all – he has Utgar, a spy planted on the Orchid with a devastating shipwrecking bomb! Just order Utgar to set off the bomb when they’re close enough to Port Prodigal for him to escape and far enough away so that the other captains won’t know! Or order him to set it off far away at a pre-determined location en-route to Tal Verrar—the Orchid’s destination is no secret—and pick him up?
The biggest problem in the book is the super-rushed ending. A bunch of characters in the Priori—integral to the resolving the problems with Stragos and Requin—are introduced in the last 10% of the book. Not only that, but they agree in minutes to get dozens of players in motion to help Locke and Jean within hours. It’s revealed that Locke and Jean never planned on robbing the vault, but instead planned to steal paintings from Requin’s office. Only problem is that the paintings turn out to be forgeries and are worth less than the money Locke and Jean were holding in Sinspire credit. So, in the two years of plotting, they never thought to contact forgers to learn how to identify real works from forgeries, or to see if any buyers have commissioned Therin Throne era replicas? This seems like art thievery 101, especially since Locke spent so much time getting Therin Throne replica chairs in Salon Cordeau. The furniture maker told him about the effects of age of wood and varnish, so why would Locke not look for cracked varnish during his meetings with Requin? In a city known for artificers and alchemists, why not get a potion that only reacts with components of Therin Throne-era paint or something similar?
I hear Book 3 is better, but unless it goes on sale for free or becomes a part of Kindle Unlimited, it’ll be a long time (if ever) before I give this series another go.