“I kill gods and guard them, and raise them from the dead when they die. I don’t pray.”
There is this 2001 Australian movie starring the late Bill Connolly called The Man Who Sued God with a very fun and clever premise. Connolly’s character’s boat was destroyed by lightning, and when he tried to claim insurance for it, he was denied on the grounds that it was an “Act of God”. Frustrated, he sued God, naming church officials as representatives of God. I mean, if people want to claim to speak for God, they must accept the liabilities that come with it, right?
That’s what I was reminded of when I read Max Gladstone’s Four Roads Cross which followed from the events of Three Parts Dead almost directly. The world that Gladstone created imagines gods as legal entities as well as being divine ones, and lawyer-sorcerers practicing “Craft” defines our relationships with these beings. The Craftswoman Tara Abernathy, who was instrumental in saving the deity Kos Everburning in Three Parts Dead and now represents Kos (and his recently resurrected divine consort Seril Undying), is facing a new threat: a suit brought up jointly by the everyone who has business dealings with Kos over “undisclosed liabilities”. I never did have much luck with the opacity of legalese but Chapter 10 in Four Roads Cross is a freaking work of art in how it explained the legal fuckmire that Kos and Seril found themselves in. Who would have thought that the combination of two notoriously tedious things—corporate legal jargons and literary exposition—would make for such fascinating reading?
“Even though they don’t share explicit contractual bonds, Kos and Seril are linked by, let’s call it sentiment. Kos died last year because he tried to support Seril in her exile. To a Craftsman, that looks like an under-the-table agreement that Kos will bail Seril out if she’s in trouble. And this is a goddess who makes trouble for herself—remember, she ran off to the Wars and left Him.”
Aev growled. “She fell in combat; She stood alone against murderous hordes.”
“Which sounds great in a poem,” Tara said, “but to a banker, the important word is ‘fell'”
The world-building in Four Roads Cross is utterly delightful in how it meshes fantasy tropes with contemporary elements. It is very reminiscent of Terry Pratchett’s playful merging of the outlandish with the mundane, but with a more subtle satiric edge. Soulstuff is currency, and you basically sell bits of your soul to pay rent, buy grocery, or purchase street food. Town criers function like investigative journalists, and write their findings into songs that they sing at town squares. Nightmares are employed as a teleconferencing platform. Legal battles are actual battles where magic barristers rewrite and redefine reality like terms on a contract. There is a whole chapter where they go to an airport to board a dragon, and Tara had a word with the “pilot”:
Sound below sound composed the voice. She did not fall, nor did she yelp, though she almost did both. Even a Craftswoman could fake only so much composure set beside, well.
I’m sorry if I disturbed you.”
—There was a song before, and there will be a song after.
—I play no role in cabin service. If you have trouble, please direct your concerns to the crew.
“I don’t,” she said. “Or at least I don’t have any trouble they can fix. I needed a walk. Were you singing?”
As much as I enjoyed Four Roads Cross, I must say that there are times where the story simply fail to measure up to the sublime world-building that Mr Gladstone displayed. For example, as much as I enjoyed the dragon airline chapter, I felt that it interrupted the pacing for something that felt like an unimportant diversion. In fact, that whole journey after the dragon felt like an extended fetch quest that had Tara talk to person A, who tells her to go to location B to find person C, all of which didn’t even feel particularly challenging or threatening to our characters. It felt like narrative busywork disguising a relatively simple main plot; pages which I feel Mr Gladstone could have used to give me a clearer understanding of the other subplots, which I still have trouble grasping (even though they are tangential to the main plot). Also at one point, there is a character who acquires a deus-ex-machina token which helped him handle a very specific threat that he had no way of predicting. Sloppy, sloppy.
Even though Mr Gladstone said that his book are standalones, and could be read in any order, I feel that Four Roads Cross works best after you have read Three Parts Dead and Two Serpents Rise. In fact, I would find it unimaginable to read Four Roads Cross without knowledge of the characters and events in Three Parts Dead as Four starts where Three ends. There are two more books I have yet to read in the 5-book “first season” of this series, and I can’t wait to dive back into this world—this amazing, fresh, imaginative world in which the opposite of gods are not devils but lawyers, and faith in the economy and divine faith are one and the same.