Monday, November 4, 2013

New Voices: Three Parts Dead by Max Gladstone

This review has appeared on WWEnd, as a part of my series on new authors. 

Three Parts Dead by Max Gladstone
Published : Tor, 2012
Series : Book 1 of the Craft Sequence

Max Gladstone (website here published his first novel, Three Parts Dead, in October of last year, and his second novel Two Serpents Rise has just come out on October 29th!   Two Serpents Rise seems to be set in the same universe as Three Parts Dead, but this review will only cover Three Parts Dead, as I haven’t had a chance to read it just yet. Three Parts Dead is impossible to sum up in a few quick sentences, both because there is so much going on in the novel and because there are so many fascinating characters!  The story was always brimming with energy, fresh ideas and cleverness. 

In the world of Three Parts Dead, humans have learned to use godlike powers, resulting in a war against the Gods that almost destroyed everything.  Since then, Craftsmen and Craftswomen, who are trained in the Hidden Schools, draw power from earth and starlight to effect amazing feats of magic.  I was surprised by the mechanical and matter-of-fact tone of both Craft and deific power—they are described mostly in terms of law and economics.  For instance, a God’s power is managed and increased sort of like a finance portfolio, with investments and returns.  Of course, if a God were to go ‘bankrupt’, it would have some more direct personal effects, like death.

It is with the death of a God, Kos Everburning, that the story of Three Parts Dead really takes off.  The main character, Tara Abernathy, is part of the team that will represent the interests of Kos’s clergy in the process of resurrection.  This whole mystical/legal/economic system is unlike anything I’d ever read before, and this is really only scraping the top of all of the fun ideas in the story.  Everything in the world fits together like the cogs and gears of Kos’s steam-powered city, Alt Coulomb, and the details are revealed at a pace that always left me wanting to know more.

In addition to the world, the many characters were both interesting as individuals and integral to the story.  The heroine, Tara, is an intelligent, assertive, resourceful young Craftswoman.  In Gladstone’s words, “She had never been one for raw displays of power.  Hers was the clever solution, the quick step…” ~p. 111. She is a thoroughly entertaining character to follow, and I appreciated the highly active role she took in the story.  Other fascinating characters include Tara’s stern boss Elayne Kevarian, the earnest young novice technician (a.k.a. priest) Abelard, the addict Cat Elle, and others. The villain of the novel, also, was absolutely chilling.  His character was not strikingly complex, but he was an extrapolation to the supernatural of a common sort of evil in our world (or my world at least, academia). In addition to Tara’s point of view, the story switches between the points of view of a handful of characters (including Cat and Abelard).  I can see this seeming a little much for a relatively short book, but I enjoyed the insights into the perspectives of other characters.

Despite the fact that this is a fantastical story about fallible, vulnerable Gods, I really enjoyed the story’s exploration of the idea of religion.  Through a number of the characters, we see the strength of a personal connection with the divine, and the suffering caused when one is separated from God.  It was also nice to see the distinction between those who participate in religion in good faith, and those who seek to use the institution of religion to achieve their own ends (such as the necromantic firms).  I can’t be much more precise without spoiling parts of the plot, but I appreciated how these ideas developed throughout the plot.

As for the story, I hardly know where to begin; there are so many pieces. The whole novel felt intensely active and—somehow—brightly colored, and everything always seemed to be barreling forward at a breakneck pace. The novel carries the story of Kos’s death, Tara’s first job, another mysterious murder, the history of the gods of Alt Coulomb, the back stories of various characters, and more.  In short, it feels like there are a million things going on, but they all fit together like pieces of a puzzle. The end of the story does involve a lot of monologuing, both on the sides of the heroes and the villains, but I think they were probably necessary, in this case.  This is the kind of story where every little detail makes a difference, so the monologues were less about recapping things the reader had already figured out, and more about tying in the little details the reader could easily have missed.

In short, this was a very entertaining novel, and I am looking forward to seeing what else Max Gladstone has in store.  The characters were memorable, the world was vibrant, the magic was fresh and unusual, and the story was engagingly complicated.  This is a novel where pretty much everything seemed to fit together perfectly, and it was a joy to read!

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