I am a huge fan of world-buildling. I love doing it in my own books, and I love reading it done well. It’s harder than it seems; in particular there is an incredibly delicate balance between making the world-building matter—so that it isn’t just theater flats and cardboard props—and going too far the other way, so that every detail of the world that you mention turns out to be crucial to the plot, creating a Truman Show-esque feeling of being trapped in a Habitrail.
At almost exactly the halfway point of Scott Lynch’s Red Seas Under Red Skies, he pulls off one of the most brilliant examples of this kind of tightrope walking that I have ever read.
Lynch’s protagonist, Locke Lamora, is pretending (for reasons of quite literal life or death) to be a sea captain. His ship has weathered a storm, in which several men have died. And Locke is faced with a dilemma. As the captain he’s pretending to be, he should be a lay priest of Iono, the god of the sea. And he is perfectly capable of faking it. But he isn’t a priest of Iono; he’s a priest of the Crooked Warden, the trickster god. Now, this is not one of those fantasies where the gods are empirically real and talk to the characters. But the religion is real. And because the religion is real, Locke can’t do what he obviously ought to do, for his sake and his friend Jean’s sake and even for the sake of the surviving sailors, who need to be able to trust their captain. He can’t fake the dead men’s last rites: “There was no way in heaven or hells Locke could presume to give these men Iono’s rest. For their sake of their souls, he’d have to invoke the only power he had any pull with” (290).
This is the worst possible thing Locke could do at this moment in the book. The worst possible thing. But because Lynch has done his world-building and made this religion a thing of reality and heft to his characters, it is also the only possible thing Locke can do:
‘What are you doing?’ Jabril hissed, seizing Locke by the arm. Locke shoved him backward.
‘The only thing I can do,’ said Locke. ‘The only honest blessing I can give these men, understand? Don’t fucking interfere again.’
And because Lynch is a brilliant writer, the irony of a liar backed into being honest in the service of the god of liars just wraps around this scene like a kraken and squeezes.
Truly, ladies and gentlemen, that was awesome.
Katherine Addison is the pen name for Sarah Monette. Sarah grew up in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, one of the three secret cities of the Manhattan Project, and now lives in a 108-year-old house in the Upper Midwest with a great many books, two cats, one grand piano, and one husband.Her latest novel, The Goblin Emperor, comes out from Tor in April 2014.