Gods, like men, can die. They just die harder, and smite the earth with their passing.
Depending on how you are counting, Three Parts Dead is either the 1st or the 3rd book in Max Gladstone’s Craft Sequence—but the books are considered to be stand-alones. It had been recommended to me for quite some time now, and I have opted to collect the first 5 books before jumping into it. There is this reputation that genre fantasy has of being cliched, and it is not an entirely undeserved one. There does exist this hegemony of Tolkien-inspired fantasy with its elves, dwarves, orcs and dragons that laid down the law, and that law is amplified and enforced by games like Dungeons & Dragons, Warhammer, Warcraft and countless popular novels. That is not to say that more unique fantasy does not exist (they do!) and as a teenager diving headfirst into the genre post-Tolkien, I had purposely sought out works that differentiated themselves from this mould, and that had led me to authors like Michael Swanwick, China Mieville, Ursula K. Le Guin, and Susanna Clarke.
I would consider Mr Gladstone’s Craft Sequence to be in the company one of these well-differentiated works. Three Parts Dead is about a world that survives in the aftermath of a war between gods and human magicians that left most deities dead or broken. Some gods that stayed out of the war still lived and ruled. One such god, Kos Everburning, ruled over the city of Alt Coulumb, but he was suddenly found dead with the stench of mystery and foul play surrounding his demise. The magic in this world that Gladstone wrought is unique, and it is based on contracts and arcane legalese. A god like Kos draws power from the faith of his followers, and power is currency. He can parcel his power out to his faithfuls and power his city’s steampunk infrastructure, rent it out to neighbouring nations in military contracts, and even move it around shadily under shell companies. His followers are a hybrid of engineer-priests who maintain his steam-powered machinery, and the legal and contractual cluster-fuck that Kos’ death left behind is managed by Craftsmen and Craftswomen, which are—to put it succinctly—lawyer-sorcerers.
Yes, Three Parts Dead is a fantasy novel, but it is also a noirish whodunit and a courtroom thriller. If this sounds fresh and exciting to you, then you should check this out. If you like China Mieville’s New Crobuzon novels and Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files and wondered what the mashing of these two series would look like, you should definitely check this out.
The story follows Tara Abernathy, a junior Craftswoman who was expelled/graduated from the Hidden Schools looking to prove herself by landing a coveted position in a prestigious Craft firm called Kelethras, Albrecht and Ao by handling Kos’ case. While it is relatively easy to work out the solution to the central mystery (if one is familiar with mystery/fantasy tropes), I admire the author’s mind in constructing the puzzle in the first place given its many intricate parts, and I am still reeling from the finesse of his execution. Mr Gladstone shares Mr Mieville’s penchant in envisioning weighty concepts like faith and magic in mundane and practical terms (e.g. in Mieville’s Perdido Street Station, Hell has an embassy in the city of New Crobuzon where the novel is set, while in Three Parts Dead, Tara talked about having visited hell on a school trip), but I daresay the characters that Mr Gladstone writes tended to be warmer, more likeable and less morally suspect than Mieville’s. The complexity and maturity of the world that Mr Gladstone built is very inviting, tempting me to find out more about how it all work and function (what are the Deathless Kings like, who is King Clock and the King in Red, and all the other things mentioned in passing?), and I was absolutely floored to learn that Three Parts Dead was a debut offering! If I didn’t know better, I would think that this book is the work of an author working at the height of his power. Craft Sequence‘s nomination for the first ever Hugo Award for Best Series in 2017 is a very well deserved honour.
And amidst this vigorous genre-defying exercise, Mr Gladstone managed to sneak some really profound ideas about religion and faith into the text. What are gods’ roles when humans can harness similar powers for their own use? Can humanity’s liberty and self-reliance coexist with humanity’s attraction and dependence on faith? And believe it or not, there is even a feminist subplot about the actions of men in power, and how they exercise their influence on those subordinate to them. But with magic.
The first “season” of the Craft Sequence consists of the first 5 books (described by the author as a “unified cycle”), all of which are out and available. I bought the lot last year in hardback first editions cheaply because I got them secondhand from Better World Books, and the cover arts for them are things of beauty. I honestly have trouble telling if they are edited photos or actual paintings. The artist Chris McGrath also did the covers for The Dresden Files, another series I love, and I think he really outdid himself for these books.
So, if you are hankering for the next Dresden Files book (6 years wait now, so far) or think Mieville should definitely set more stories in New Crobuzon (there are only 3 since 2004), do give Three Parts Dead a try. It tells a complete story and you can stop at just one—but I can’t imagine anyone who wouldn’t want to see more of this world after that.