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Two Serpents Rise by Max Gladstone

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The desert metropolis of Dresediel Lex is under seige. Shadow demons plague the reservoir, and Red King Consolidated has sent in Caleb Altemoc – gambler and professional risk manager – to cleanse the water supply for the city’s sixteen million people and hunt down those responsible for the attacks.

At the scene of the crime, Caleb finds an alluring and clever cliff runner, Mal, who leads him on a dangerous chase involving overthrown gods, deathless kings, and corporate contracts that govern the sorcerous Craft that sustains the great city-states of man. But when his father – last priest of the old gods and wanted terrorist – breaks into his home, Caleb is unwillingly dealt into a game with stakes much higher than any he imagined.

Caleb and Mal are bound by lust, Craft, and chance. They sleep on water, they dance in fire… while deep in the earth, the slumbering Twin Serpents stir. And if they wake, all bets are off.
~~~~~
Whereas Three Parts Dead had a blurb that was generally pretty on the money, whoever wrote the above blurb for Two Serpents Rise must have been actively trying to mislead the reader into thinking they had a quite different book in their hands. As it is, Gladstone has here taken on the idea of the capitalist state versus the religious state, and corporate sacrifice versus personal sacrifice, and put that into a fantastically written thriller…

It’s also a slightly queer thriller. Two Serpents Rise has, as one of its secondary characters, Teo, a colleague and friend of Caleb’s and a self-identified lesbian; throughout the novel she is in a relationship with Sam that involves spats, making up, differences of temperament and opinion and underlying similarities of character – all the things, basically, that a real relationship holds; and this is one of a very small number of relationships in the book. Teo also proves to be an outspoken feminist (“Thank you for your condescending, sexist apology” [277]) with strong views of her own; that a significant part of Two Serpents Rise hangs on a feminist lesbian in a relationship is rather wonderful.

Of course, she’s far from the only excellent character Gladstone has drawn into this story. The Red King, a Deathless King mentioned in Three Parts Dead, not only appears in Two Serpents Rise but plays a not insignificant role in the story; and his sense of humour, his arrogance and his essential humanity all shine through fascinatingly even as Gladstone makes clear the ways in which he is inhuman. Of course, that’s a secondary character, as is Temoc, terrorist, worshipper and priest of dead gods, and father who cares for his son; and the artist Sam, Teo’s lover, brave,
populist, a little mad, a white character in an otherwise entirely PoC book who has many of the tradition-preserving patronising hangups of white expats.

That’s without even touching on Caleb, our central and viewpoint character; Gladstone has drawn a convincing portrait of a gambler who, having lost his heart for it at the start of the novel, rediscovers his passion and drive across the course of the book; reassesses his role in society; reassesses, in fact, his very society itself. Two Serpents Rise hangs on Caleb’s voice and worldview; his assumptions are the readers’ until other characters challenge them, his outlook on the gods pervades most of the novel, and his rebellion against his absentee father forms a key part of our view of Temoc.

Two Serpents Rise is written as a political thriller; short, punchy chapters with Caleb investigating a series of terrorist attacks – that he is a company man simply highlights that the company and the government are the same thing; the slow series of reveals, both through Caleb’s eyes and a series of Interludes, expand the readers’ understanding of the plot and the scale of events. As is suggested from the very start, the plot hangs on fallout from the God Wars of eight decades prior; the citizens’ approaches to the change between rule by the gods and rule by the Deathless Kings – in this case the King in Red – forms a key part of the novel, as does the way that regular individual (voluntary? though this is questionable) total sacrifice changes to corporate, lesser sacrifices and what that means for the daily lives of the people is fascinatingly discussed from a variety of points of view.

In sum, Two Serpents Rise is as much a novel of big ideas as Three Parts Dead, and just as fantastically written; Gladstone really is a brilliant writer.

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