Forty years after the God Wars, Dresediel Lex bears the scars of liberation–especially in the Skittersill, a poor district still bound by the fallen gods’ decaying edicts. As long as the gods’ wards last, they strangle development; when they fail, demons will be loosed upon the city. The King in Red hires Elayne Kevarian of the Craft firm Kelethres, Albrecht, and Ao to fix the wards, but the Skittersill’s people have their own ideas. A protest rises against Elayne’s work, led by Temoc, a warrior-priest turned community organizer who wants to build a peaceful future for his city, his wife, and his young son.
As Elayne drags Temoc and the King in Red to the bargaining table, old wounds reopen, old gods stir in their graves, civil blood breaks to new mutiny, and profiteers circle in the desert sky. Elayne and Temoc must fight conspiracy, dark magic, and their own demons to save the peace–or failing that, to save as many people as they can.
As I said when Max Gladstone visited the blog last week, his Craft Sequence is a fantastic, powerful piece of modern, politically interesting piece of fantasy and as a writer, Gladstone seems to be on an ever-upward trajectory of increasingly interesting novels of intricate socio-legal-political fantasy. Last First Snow is the fourth-slash-first installment of the series, and in a number of regards really takes it up to another level…
The two protagonists of Last First Snow are, for the first time in the series, characters we have met before, albeit both in secondary and arguably mentor roles; Elayne Kevarian, Tara’s mentor in Three Parts Dead, is our primary viewpoint character, and Temoc, father of the protagonist in Two Serpents Rise, is our second primary viewpoint character. Both have met before, during the God Wars, when something happened between them which Gladstone never quite makes clear but apparently involves Elayne having saved Temoc; and their friendship stands as a contrast to the friendship and professional relationship shared by Elayne and the King in Red, who stood on the same side of the God Wars. What Last First Snow does is, rather than introducing us to new characters, flesh out existing ones, adding depth and history to them so the reader has a greater understanding of who they are and how they come to be what they are in later books; it’s one of the strengths of Gladstone’s approach to the series that he can retroactively flesh out a character rather than having to just use flashbacks to do so.
The plot is a timely one, that seems to be a plot of the moment; Last First Snow follows Daredevil in being essentially about gentrification, but unlike the Hell’s Kitchen of the latter, Dresediel Lex’s Skittersill isn’t being gentrified by someone obviously evil or protected by a hero; rather, two competing parties, with different motivations priorities, and different understandings of how best to serve the people of the city, are competing to define the district and how it should run. Gladstone’s worldbuilding, whereby magic is a kind of combination of law and money (meaning Gladstone uses financial and legal thinking to approach its mechanics) and the gods have power based on sacrifice and shared beliefs, makes the popular movement resisting the gentrification of the Skittersill powerful because of shared belief; hence Last First Snow is about ideological, rather than physical, dispute, and the resolution of such dispute – so a large part of the novel is concerned with negotiation, with different parties coming together to discuss shared interests and working out how to work together so they all get something approximating what they want.
However, Last First Snow isn’t purely about verbal conflict resolution; Gladstone has some truly fantastic set-pieces that are some of the most over the top battles you will read in any genre fiction novel. Last First Snow features a battle carried out with superhuman capability on top of a reanimated skeleton dragon covered in guns, lightning generators and other projectile devices which itself is fighting semi-angelic undead avatars of the god. If that sounds like the most over the top elements of Warhammer that might be because it is; taking every element one can and just making it more over the top for the violent climactic setpiece is exactly what Gladstone has done, rendering it an amazingly fun and ridiculous piece to read.
Gladstone doesn’t just end with that, though; Last First Snow is not interested in simplistic endings, the kind of endings most epic fantasy of the dragons and gods and liches kind are interested in. Instead, the fight sets up Gladstone’s ending: schemes exposed, families and lives changed and altered, people damaged, a city which cannot go back to being what it was before, relationships damaged and strengthened by actions and choices. Last First Snow keeps one eye on that throughout the novel, and never throws a real curveball; there isn’t any real interest in simple plot twists or trying to fool the reader, instead being more interested in character development and in human responses than in trying to surprise the reader.
Of course, as a novel about social movements and how popular power interacts with other forms of power, particularly economic and political power, Last First Snow is highly relevant at this particular historical moment; Gladstone has thought intelligently about how his different forms of power work, and how they interact and reflect each other, and how each limits the exercise of others. Hence, the King in Red is limited in his ability to leverage his economic and violent (as in, monopoly-of-violence) power by the popular and popular-violence power available to the protesters in the Skittersill; Elayne’s job is to thread the line between the two, as Last First Snow sees characters dealing with competing imperatives and the necessity of balancing different kinds of power to come to an equitable resolution.
Last First Snow might not prove to be the best novel I read this year, but it’s certainly got an incredibly strong chance (reanimated dragon skeleton covered in guns fighting zombie-angels against a background of well-written social commentary and excellent character development!); each novel Gladstone writes proves he is improving as a writer, having started from a high base – this is well worth your time as either an entry point into the Craft Sequence or a return to it.