On the island of Kavekana, Kai builds gods to order: idols that she then hands off to others to maintain. Her creations aren’t concious and lack their own wills and voices, but they accept sacrifices and protect their worshippers from other gods – perfect vehicles for Craftsmen and Craftswomen operating in the divinely controlled Old World.
When Kai sees one of her creations dying and tries to save it, she’s grievously injured – then sidelined from the business entirely, her near-suicidal rescue attempt offered up as proof of her instability. But when Kai gets tired of hearing her boss, her coworkers, and her ex-boyfriend call her crazy, she starts looking into the reasons her creations die, and she uncovers a conspiracy of silence and fear – which will crush her, if Kai can’t stop it first.
Full Fathom Five, the third/fifth installment in Gladstone’s Craft Sequence, continues both the readers’ exploration of the world of the Craft and builds on events in the prior novels, including bringing back a number of characters. In this instance, Gladstone takes on offshore tax havens, Swiss-style secret banking, and social invisibility. This review will contain SPOILERS for Three Parts Dead and Two Serpents Rise.
Full Fathom Five also continues the queer themes of the Craft Sequence; Kai is a trans woman, we learn early in the novel, and this is the subject of barely any discussion (she’s simply accepted as a woman). She talks a little about her experiences of being in the wrong body, but more about the fact that being able to change to the right body was central to her personality now; we also see through her thought processes how other cultures (for instance the Quechal of Two Serpents Rise) are perceived as treating what she calls the “wrong-bodied” among their societies. We’re also treated to the return of Teo, who is (approximately four years after the events of Two Serpents Rise still, we briefly learn, in her relationship with the artist Sam; and the expression of feeling around that is tender and beautiful.
Queerness doesn’t form the centre of any character in Full Fathom Five, however. Kai’s centre is her dedication to her work and to the truth; once prevented from working, she seeks with all that is at her disposal to prove herself worthy of returning to work. This dedication is portrayed sympathetically and as a perfectly reasonable response to the stresses and pressures she is under; meanwhile her relationship with Claude is shown as taut and strained, and all too human on both sides. Izza, the other major protagonist, is shown as very different; Gladstone portrays the refugee street urchin as in control of herself, a character looking for refuge and safety among the unsafe world that bears down and tries to destroy people like her. All the while she’s torn between loyalty to her fellow urchins and the desire for safety for herself.
The plot sees these two characters interacting a number of times in passing before increasingly orbitting around each other; Full Fathom Five has a complex, intertwining set of subplots that resolve into a full-blown economic and espionage thriller. Between criminal organisations whose investments have collapsed and a strange, unknown infiltrator to the island (in the form of Cat!), and Teo representing the Two Serpents Group and with some strange other agenda too, Gladstone balances a number of concerns and themes excellently. The continued use of Craft as analogue for money is excellent, and the portrayal of Kavekana’s culture (a sort of combination of Hawai’i and Switzerland) is fascinating. As a setting for the plot it’s a beautiful, intriguing civilisation that allows Gladstone to especially analyse the way society deals with its undercaste, with the idea of justice and reform, and more; indeed, Full Fathom Five‘s use of the plot to expand on the themes is fantastic.
In sum, Full Fathom Five shows that Three Parts Dead and Two Serpents Rise, whilst excellent novels in their own right, were still the works of an artist coming to terms with himself; in this installment, Gladstone really has grown into himself further and produced a real masterpiece of a novel.
DoI: Review based on a complimentary ARC. Full Fathom Five comes out in the US (and UK?) on July 15th.