A god has died, and it’s up to Tara, first-year associate in the international necromantic firm of Kelethres, Albrecht, and Ao, to bring Him back to life before His city falls apart.
Her client is Kos, recently deceased fire god of the city of Alt Coulumb. Without Him, the metropolis’s steam generators will shut down, its trains will cease running, and its four million citizens will riot.
Tara’s job: resurrect Kos before chaos sets in. Her only help: Abelard, a chain-smoking priest of the dead god, who’s having an understandable crisis of faith.
When Tara and Abelard discover that Kos was murdered, they have to make a case in Alt Coulumb’s courts—and their quest for the truth endangers their partnership, their lives, and Alt Coulumb’s slim hope of survival.
Max Gladstone is one of the most interesting voices to have appeared on the fantasy scene, or indeed the written scene more generally, in the last few years at least; Three Parts Dead was his debut novel, but that doesn’t even begin to really show in this fantasy deconstruction of late-stage capitalism…
Gladstone’s novel is in some ways a standard secondary world fantasy; young magically gifted farmhand goes off to seek their fortune, is trained and rebels against their trainer (mind you, this is all backstory in this case) and then becomes involved in god-changing, life-altering events, complete with personal revelations. That the magical farmhand in this case is a woman of colour is one twist; that the rest of the plot is as much subversion as trope is the other, bigger one. Three Parts Dead combines a whodunnit – with clues dropped as you go, as in any good detective fiction – with courtroom drama in the main strand of the plot. The “twists” of are mixed in their twistiness; while some are inevitable (Denovo, the mentor against whom Tara rebelled, is her opponent in the court case!), a good few more are brilliantly concealed and pulled off. The investigation of the death of Kos is the single strand around which everything else hangs, and Gladstone really does make it all hang together.
The characters of Three Parts Dead are equally brilliant. There’s no clear good and evil in this novel, but our protagonist, Tara, is a wonderful character; self-centred and independently minded, her character development over the course of the novel as she goes through self-discovery by accident is integrated brilliantly into the plot. Gladstone also captures Cat’s addiction fantastically; she’s a semi-major character but Gladstone puts so much into her character, as much as anyone else (even the definitely minor character Captain Pelham), that she feels beautifully real, and she gets some serious character development. Perhaps the only major character who doesn’t develop as a character is the aloof Elayne Kevarian, but Gladstone is perfectly reasonable in that choice; and if you don’t come out of this book in awe of Elayne, I’ll be impressed. Three Parts Dead is peopled by such a fantastic, diverse cast of wonderful characters who really jump off the page and take on lives of their own.
Three Parts Dead is legal-economic fantasy; Gladstone plays with the way that combination lets him deconstruct the way capitalism works, the way failures of corporations cause systemic collapses, the ways we prop up and sustain corporations that have gone bankrupt. That he does this through metaphors of gods and magic make his central theses no less true; that he uses brilliant characters to explore implications make them no less applicable to the modern, real world. Indeed, the god-as-corporation, magic-as-finance is handled beautifully, with all sorts of little notes that highlight the analysis for the attentive and/or informed reader; this is a post-Crash novel in the best sense, in that Three Parts Dead explains elements of the Crash without ever falling into didacticism or dullness.
Gladstone’s first novel is a monumental achievement; Three Parts Dead ought to be dull or dry, but is instead pacy, exciting, and a brilliantly enjoyable read. A truly mindblowing achievement.