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Ruin of Angels by Max Gladstone

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The God Wars destroyed the city of Alikand. Agdel Lex has risen in its place. Dead deities litter the surrounding desert and a squidlike tower dominates the skyline—while treasure seekers, criminals, angels, demons, dispossessed knights, grad students, and other fools gather in its ever-changing alleys, hungry for the next big score.

Kai Pohala (last seen in Full Fathom Five) finds her estranged sister, Ley, at the center of a shadowy and rapidly unravelling business deal. When Ley goes on the run, wanted for a crime she most definitely committed, Kai races against time to track her down. But Ley has her own plans, involving her ex-girlfriend, a daring heist out in the god-haunted desert, and, perhaps, freedom for an occupied city.
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The Craft Sequence was nominated for the Hugo Awards for Best Series in 2017, for the nonchronological block of five novels that came out between 2012 and 2016. Now, dumping the numerical titles and for the first time releasing a book in immediate chronological succession from that which came before, Max Gladstone returns with Ruin of Angels

The Craft sequence has always been concerned with economics, with poverty, with religion, with imperialism and empire, with ideas of reality. Ruin of Angels engages with those concepts once again, fiercely; recalling the issues at the centre of Last First Snow, Gladstone draws the reader once again into a world where two different conceptions of reality and how the world should be are locked in a cold war, and something is about to give… Unlike that earlier novel, here, there literally are multiple layers of city; Ruin of Angels recalls China Mieville’s The City and the City, where the practice of knowing which city one inhabits is intensely political. The imperial authority of the Iskari believes in a specific kind of city, Agdel Lex, orderly, regimented, a planned urban metropolis of grids and wide roads, bordering a desert; and in the chaos of the God Wars, it implemented this vision on top of the city of Alikand, leaving that more organically evolved city of libraries in a kind of limbo between existence and not. The way Gladstone plays with these levels of realities, and the way the Iskari use the Rectification Authority (or Wreckers) to enforce their view of the city, feels almost Lovecraftian; certainly the tentacular symbiotes have something of that in their DNA.

Which city you inhabit at any time, which city you believe in, is a political act, and slipping between the realities of the two is a useful criminal survival skill; Ruin of Angels is in many ways a heist novel, or rather a series-of-heists novels, as various characters, most notably Ley and Kai, get in each others’ ways and ruin each others’ plans with the best of intentions. Indeed, Gladstone really captures the sibling rivalry between the two; the relationship between the sisters is at the core of much of what propels and prolongs the plot, as personal and political get entangled and miscommunication and noncommunication lead to disaster. That isn’t to say the plot is necessarily overlong; the way Gladstone propels it, with all its twists and turns, keeps the reader thoroughly engaged in Ruin of Angels, and wondering what happens, although perhaps with a few too many novel-prolonging jumps of point of view and obstacles thrown in. The biggest flaw it suffers comes from Ley’s character; like all heists, it relies on sleight of hand, the problem being that what Ley conceals from those around her, and Gladstone from the reader, raises the stakes of the novel dramatically as it draws to its close and seems to come slightly from nowhere.

Gladstone is always a fantastic character writer, and Ruin of Angels is no exception; that’s the greatest strength of the book, in fact. Kai, who we have met before in Full Fathom Five, sees her character fleshed out more, her realisation of her privileged background really being driven home and the trauma of the events of that novel driven home; Tara likewise continues her development from the hard, cold Craftswoman to someone who really cares and is engaged in a project of improving the world.

The rest of the cast are new, and make a fantastic set of points of view; Ley’s utter determination and refusal to open up to anyone else, to make herself vulnerable, are shown as both strength and weakness, and not the full extent of her character, while her former lover Zeddig is a brilliant, sharp, witty, committed woman who isn’t sure how to feel about her old partner, and gets caught up anyway. Relationships and their complexities are one of the hearts of Ruin of Angels; the way Gal and Raymet dance around their feelings is almost soap operatic in the way it is prolonged, and the way Gladstone uses their contrasting personalities to set up a beautiful romance pays off fantastically. Even the lesser characters who people Ruin of Angels are vividly written, from the vile agent of the Iskari, Bescond, to the perpetually high investments manager Fontaine, through the trans space-start-up ultra-rich visionary futurist (yes, Gladstone put Elon Musk in his novel… and made him trans); more than just broad brushstrokes, Gladstone gives them full personalities, in part by hinting at them around the edges of those strokes.

This number of characters introduces another innovation for the Craft Sequence to Ruin of Angels; in a book of less than six hundred pages, there are nearly eighty chapters, and each one is from the point of view of a different character, in some cases multiple characters. This is vitally important in giving us different perspectives on the events of the novel, and indeed the characters, at earlier stages; seeing how Kai and Zeddig see each other, for instance, is a wonderful piece of writing. However, especially as the action gets faster and Ruin of Angels moves towards its climax, it gets rather choppy and draws out the action and cliffhangers in a way that moves from powerful towards frustrating as Gladstone barely gives full scenes before cutting away.

Ruin of Angels marks something of a break for the Craft Sequence: less economic in scope, more concerned with naked power; more head-hopping and with a larger cast. But it still has the same essentially hopeful tone, the same flashes of brilliant humour, and the same excellence as ever; I highly commend Max Gladstone’s work to you, and think this continues the series in exceptional form.

If you found this review useful, please support my ability to write by contributing to my Patreon.

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Last First Snow by Max Gladstone

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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.
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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.

GUEST POST: Max Gladstone on Bees and Diversity

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Max Gladstone is the author of the amazing Craft Sequence, the first-or-fourth installment of which came out on Tuesday, titled Last First Snow. Since Dr Liz Bourke turned me on to the series, back with Three Parts Dead, I’ve been a huge admirer of the diverse, brilliantly-executed, fascinating, urban economic-legal fantasy that Gladstone has been writing, so I jumped at the offer of a guest-post from the man himself when offered it.

On asking Twitter what the topic of the post should be, the overwhelming response was “bees”; as an alternative, I asked about Gladstone’s choice to write from marginalised viewpoints (most notably, a disabled trans woman of colour in Full Fathom Five). It turns out that, as only a writer of his calibre could, he managed to meld both topics into one in this essay…
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I suspect most people feel more or less the same when they’re being chased by bees.

So, no shit, there I was, in rural Anhui province, in China. After a relatively sedentary first year in the country, I’d taken up running, inspired and a bit intimidated by my roommate Wyatt, fresh off the cross country team at college. I never reached Wyatt’s lofty peak of fitness, but every other day I’d dutifully don shorts and sneakers and plod out through the canola fields behind the school, over the little ridge past water buffalo and cabbages, and carry the circuit around ’til I reached the main road again.

That spring, the canola fields bloomed into a carpet of yellow, and I discovered that the local beekeepers brought their hives to gather pollen from those flowers. Right along my running path.

Now, I’m not allergic to bees, but I had some bad bee-related experiences as a kid, and I’ve been nervous around the critters ever since. But I knew better now, I told myself. Bees smell fear, and a smooshed bee releases a pheromone-type chemical that attracts other bees. So don’t be afraid, and don’t smoosh bees, and you’ll be (hah!) fine.

The first day after the hives arrived, I breathed through my nose, and ran right past. A few bees buzzed around my head for a while, but the swarm did not descend. I’d grown as a human being! I’d survived!

The second day, I ran past again, and again the bees showed little interest. By the fourth run, the whole deal seemed old hat.

My fifth run took place on one of those hot and viciously humid days I’d had too much of growing up in Tennessee. I didn’t want to run, or do much of anything except lie in the shade. I even showered, thinking, it’s cool, I’ll skip the run today. But then Wyatt came back from his run, smiling and cut and flush with health, and, fine, dammit, on go the shorts and shoes and out the door go I. Down the hill. Out the front gate. Off the main road, and through the canola fields.

It turns out my shampoo smells like flowers.

The bees noticed.

At first a few buzzed over, turning tighter circles around my head than they had before. That’s fine. I’m cool. I’m cool.

More came, their wings a high-pitched whine in my ears. Ten, maybe. This is, um. My skin’s crawling. Twenty. Forty. Bees land and wriggle in my hair. By reflex, I try to brush them away—and by accident, smoosh.

Have you ever heard two dozen hives notice something all at once?

To me, they sounded like Hells’ own Angels revving up to kick my ass.

The next, it can’t have been more few seconds, felt like much longer. I’ve never run that fast in my life, and I was running ahead of a dust storm made of bees. I was stung. A lot. I couldn’t run faster than they could fly. Just as the cloud was about to pass me, I dove off the road into a bush, crouched with my head covered, and hid.

This makes no sense—I know it makes no sense—but I remember the bees flying right past me down the road, in a coherent black phalanx. Maybe the Bee Goddess took pity. Maybe I’m making that bit up. I don’t think I am. I was in, at the time, let’s dignify it with the expression “a heightened state of consciousness.”

When the bees passed by, I picked the dead ones out of my hair and their stingers out of my skin. I limped home, tended my welts, and found an alternate running trail until the hives moved on. I did not die. Had I been allergic to bees, I would have been in trouble—but I was just stung, and afraid. Probably people with more traumatic bee experiences in their past might have been more afraid; probably people more hard-core than I would have been more level-headed about the whole affair. But I suspect that (controlling of course for allergies) different folks’ experience of that situation would have fallen along a psychological axis that isn’t much dependent on, say, their sexual orientation, gender identity, or racial background.

We live in a cool moment in fiction, especially speculative fiction: people are standing up and demanding to see more of themselves in books, and taking issue with stories that get their experiences wrong. As someone interested in justice, and as someone who has always read stories from a wide range of authors, backgrounds, and cultures, I love this moment. I’m seeing more books drawing from more wells than I ever remember. These conversations and developments draw us closer to a true literature of liberation. (Or ‘escape,’ if you’d prefer.)

So what can I do to help, as an SF practitioner? Privilege, I have it—my only competition in the Privilege Olympics is my demographic clone who happened to grow up capital R rich. For Christ’s sake, I’m a straight, white, cissexual, heterosexual, monogamous Yale man. Cole Porter wrote whole musicals lampooning people like me. I can—and do—boost, and promote work I love by people the system slants against. I can be an activist and advocate. But I’m worse at all that other stuff than I am at writing books. And if I did all that other stuff better, but focused my books on people who look, speak, screw, and believe exactly like I do, well, I’d be using my greatest powers—skills I’ve spent my whole life developing—to be part of the problem. And to make matters worse, I’d be writing about a world that does not exist, a fantasy within a fantasy. Young writers are told time and again in this business that they only get one big conceit per novel, and I’d rather mine be “wild fantasy magic with dragons and stuff” than “depressing monoculture.”

So, what does that leave?

Well, let’s start with what I can’t do. Where I am now, being who I am, I can’t write Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. I can’t write Song of Solomon. I haven’t lived the life to write those books. I could try—maybe—but it would take immense research, enormous compassion and negative capability, heroic effort, very patient beta readers, and I’d still probably screw everything up.

But I know what it feels like to be chased by bees. And I know what it feels like to grind at a problem for weeks and break through. I know what it feels like to get the shit kicked out of me. I’ve loved. I’ve fallen. And I’ve seen enough of the world, I’ve spoken with enough people, I’ve read widely enough, and I’ve seen enough sympathy in enough different folks’ faces when I describe my Great Bee Race, to trust my intuition that, while different people from different backgrounds may handle the same situation differently, or describe it differently, there’s a lot we humans have in common.

It helps that I like writing thriller plots—setting characters tense challenges of the “find the murderer” / “stop the disaster” / “figure out the truth” variety, and chasing them around the proverbial map. Those plots aren’t that different from a swarm of bees, if you think about it: stakes are high, consequences immediate, and as a result, differences between people tend to get compressed. It’s still, of course, important to get those differences right—choices made under pressure reveal and unwrap character. But immediacy helps bridge the gap between people, too. The swarm of bees, the ticking bomb—they’re not universal, but they help.

When I was first spinning the ideas that became Three Parts Dead, I read some heated discussions online about how few black women main characters there were in fantasy; those informed Tara, no doubt. Thinking the challenge through I felt like I was up to writing a young black woman who was brilliant, ambitious, desperate to get out of her hick home town, confronted with an overwhelming job—I have personal experience with most of those things, and as I embroiled her in a thriller plot, I felt more confident about writing the parts of her character my experience didn’t cover. That’s not enough, but no one book is, or can be, enough. I can write someone awesome, though, and hope it helps.

The same approach informed my development of a non-anglo culture in Two Serpents Rise, melding authoritarian dynamics I knew from my time in China and environmental issues from Los Angeles and religious and cultural signifiers from Mesoamerica. Ditto for Full Fathom Five, in other ways. And by Last First Snow, my most recent book, I found I’d filled a world with people who were not me!

None of the folks in my books “just happen” to be the people they are—I research, I listen to people, I beta my manuscripts widely, I develop compassion and negative capability, I ask, I listen. I work hard to get right the experiences that are beyond mine. I hold my books up to the light when they’re done, and try to ask, honestly: what am I doing here? When I build a character who differs from me in some significant facet, I try to respect those differences; if I don’t, I’m just being a bad writer.

And then, once I have my characters, I set the bees on them.
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Last First Snow came out from Tor Books on 14/7/2015. My review of it is forthcoming. The blurb:

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.

Full Fathom Five by Max Gladstone

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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.
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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.

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DoI: Review based on a complimentary ARC. Full Fathom Five comes out in the US (and UK?) on July 15th.

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.
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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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Three Parts Dead by Max Gladstone

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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.
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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.