For false gods, they cast long shadows.
I have no educational background in literature, and when I write reviews of books I read, I am not able to engage in the exercise on a highly esoteric level. I do however, strive to relate the book I am examining to other works I have encountered, and (clumsily) attempt to catechize what the book means to me and to the world around me. The glaring similarities described in the events of the book to current events in the US cannot be ignored, so I will not ignore them.
Last First Snow is the 5th book in Max Gladstone’s Craft Sequence according to publication order but in terms of story, it is actually the first. It describes world-shaping events that preceded the other books and provides valuable context to their stories. I would go as far as to say one can even read it as a standalone. The draw for me for the Craft Sequence as a whole is the exquisite world-building and magic system which Gladstone use to explore matters of the economy and sociopolitical issues, ranging topics as far afield as corporate personhood (godhood actually), corporate restructuring (necromancy), and offshore shell companies (idolatry). For Last First Snow, Mr Gladstone delves into gentrification, police brutality, and riot control; and how a capricious, authoritarian, billionaire CEO head of state responds to civil disorder. If that doesn’t ring all the bells, you need a new home because under a rock is no place to live.
We see the story from three perspectives in the vaguely Mesoamerican city-setting of Dresediel Lex: Temoc, a community leader, retired warrior-priest, and family man reluctant to be pulled into the conflict; Chel, an inhabitant of the Skittersill ghetto; and Elayne Kevarian, who was employed as a sorcerer-lawyer (a Craftswoman) to facillitate in the negotiations involving the urban development of the Skittersill district. And I would be remiss to leave out the King in Red who is a major player in the story. The King in Red was part of the revolution that overthrew the gods to free humankind from the yoke of theocratic rule. He and his fellow human Craftsmen then carved up the world and rule its fragments as undead lich kings. While there are parallels that one can draw between the King in Red and the Orange President—such as their strongman approach to peacekeeping, their willingness to use deadly force on his own people, and their insecurities over appearing weak—the King in Red is a far more complex, nuanced and likeable character. He echoes historical figures like Cromwell and Robespierre, and he is a genuinely well-meaning revolutionary leader who dethroned tyrants only to be tyrannical in his turn to rule. Gladstone enjoys depicting this flamboyant crown-wearing animated skeleton engaging in mundane activities like reading newspapers, drinking coffee, and sitting in boardrooms. He also has jokes:
Elayne: Are you wiling to risk being manipulated into a mass murder? A crime from which someone else reaps the profits?
King in Red: I thought reaping prophets was the whole point of religious war.
It is strange to read Last First Snow at this time. There are consequences to pretending that there is progress while ignoring those that lag in its wake. There are consequences to thinking that you know best for the people without consulting them. There are consequences to ignoring the voices that cry out from the pain of injustice. And those consequences coagulated on the camel back of Skittersill until a heavily-enhanced Warden (a cop essentially) waded into a community that he considers to be violent malcontents and killed a child. There were conflicting accounts from the cop and bystanders on how it happened but cops don’t wear bodycams in Dresediel Lex, and cellphone cameras do not exist. And when the Skittersill people’s demands for justice were met with weak promises of due process by a system they do not trust, they started speaking in what Dr Martin Luther King Jr. called the language of the unheard; they riot.
As an outsider to the Black Lives Matter protests in the US, I do not feel it is my place to say whether acts of property destruction were justified or not, but I would say that I understand that most protestors are peaceful; I understand that not all looters and vandals are associated with the protests; and most of all, I understand why when you attend to repetitive social wounds by sticking band-aids on them over and over again, the limb will eventually rot far enough for things to break.
In my home country of Malaysia, we face a similar rot in law enforcement: ethnically Indian citizens and migrants are disproportionately represented in police custodial deaths, and the police faced essentially no repercussions for them. Young Malaysians are now learning, in real time, fundamental ideas about social justice from following what is happening in the States, and one hopes that that will make them more aware of the issues we face in our own backyard.
A friend of mine who read Last First Snow before I did, before all the recent BLM protests, actually read it as a parable on US foreign policy as it mirrors the American self-appointed role as the world’s policeman that arose from Monroe’s Doctrine and Roosevelt’s Corollary, and perpetuated to present day. Yes, the society that the King in Red “liberated” was a slave-owning, human-sacrificing crap-hole, but people do not like being dragged on the path of progress for progress’ sake, and one can grow disillusioned when the promised progress is not felt equally by those who need it most. Again, I am not an expert on geopolitics, but I can’t help feeling that the American approach in delivering freedom have yawning room for improvement. I applaud Mr Gladstone’s ability to walk that grey tightrope of morality throughout the novel, and I struggled to pick sides. He showed convincingly why unrefined tactics can easily turn the downtrodden on their self-appointed saviours, and how individuals can be radicalised into being terrorists after witnessing what “intervention” looks like from the ground level. Road, hell, good intentions, and all that.
On a technical standpoint, Last First Snow is probably Mr Gladstone’s most well-written work so far. It is a tightly paced, action-packed fantasy that goes down easy. The magic in Last First Snow (and in the Craft Sequence in general) is not terribly bogged down by intricate details, and the main rule it follows seems to be the Rule of Cool. He even made the idea of insurance appealing when he likened it to magical protective wards. As with his other books in the same series, he made me want to know more about how his world works, and by extension help me know more about how our world works by Trojan-horsing them in a sexy shell of fantasy tropes. The closest things in the spec-fic genre I can liken the Craft Sequence to are Mieville’s Bas-Lag books and Pratchett’s Discworld, with shades of the Dresden Files. If you like any of these, you will probably enjoy the Craft Sequence. Most people start reading from Three Parts Dead, but I can easily make a case for starting Last First Snow as well.