I've been working my way through the Craft Sequence of Max Gladstone over the last few months and I've been blown away by what he's done. For a start, he's refused to do the same thing twice, phrasing each successive book consistently with its predecessors, but also setting them not only in different cities but with new lead characters and the detritus of utterly different cultures with all the rules, assumptions and ephemera that go along with that.
'Last First Snow,' the fourth book in the Craft Sequence, breaks all the rules that he's set thus far. It returns to a city he's already used, Dresediel Lex, which had served as the setting for the second book, 'Two Serpents Rise.' It focuses on characters whom we've already met; especially Elaine Kevarian from the original book, 'Three Parts Dead,' and both Temoc Altemoc and the King in Red from 'Two Serpents Rise.' It's set earlier than the other novels for a change, so other recognisable characters are notably different, like Temoc's son, Caleb, the lead character in 'Two Serpents Rise', who is a mere boy of fourteen here.
All this makes 'Last First Snow' Gladstone's very first traditional sequel (or, to be more accurate, a prequel.) Instead of embarking on the next stage in his unique worldbuilding efforts, he focuses in on an incident mentioned already: the Skittersill Rising, and tells its story instead. While this is another worthy addition to the Craft Sequence, it's inherently a different sort of book to its predecessors and it takes a while to get used to a book that might have been expected for any other writer but isn't for Gladstone.
For a start, it means that he spends less time building a new and unique tone for his new city, because Dresediel Lex is really an old city and he already did that in book two. That city felt like a lead character last time out, but it's merely a location here; somewhat oddly, given that the story revolves around characters who want to shape it. Dresediel Lex itself sits back here and lets them duke it out, whereas a decade or so later, it was such a major presence that it psychologically affected everyone who lived in it.
It also means that Gladstone spends less time peppering his location with fascinating little details for us to see as wild imagination but locals to take completely for granted. Coatls? Dreamers? Opterons? Been there, done that, we think and then wonder why as, of course, sequels are supposed to build on what went before rather than reinventing the wheel each time out.
That's not to say that there aren't new fascinating little details. We see dreamers in more focused settings here, like a vision well that serves as a command map of the city for the King in Red. Gladstone introduces more sentient weapons in toten hunds, as well as a notably horrific but more prosaic one in gripfire. These are all easily translated into equivalents from our world but help to enhance Dresediel Lex a little more.
Finally, it means that much of the suspense of previous novels is inherently lessened because anyone who's read the earlier books knows, not only how the conflict at the centre of this book ends, but which of the primary players live on to fight another day. It's hard to become invested in a chase when it's the younger version of the protaganist of a previous novel doing the running.
In fact, the events really fade into the background as we focus instead on those lead characters. I expected to learn more here about the city and the people of the Skittersill as they revolt against the secular rule of the King in Red and attempt to bring back the old religion of human sacrifice that he subdued by killing its gods. The most interesting new flavour to Dresediel Lex can be found in the bloodless sacrifices Temoc conducts now that he can't take people's hearts for real.
However, I learned much more about the various leaders who find themselves at war than their lieutenants. In a way, that's not surprising because we know that they all survive the riots. Elayne Kevarian features in more of the Craft Sequence books than anyone else and the others are all set after this. Temoc Altemoc is a fascinating presence in 'Two Serpents Rise' and the King in Red is all over that book as well. But I didn't know them like they play out here.
So, while it might seem that this book exists to flesh out a particularly interesting moment in the history of the world Gladstone has created, it really serves to build some of the key characters who have been floating through it.
Elayne Kevarian may be a frequent player but she's a notably unemotional one, a talented and knowledgeable Craftswoman but one who other characters played off in 'Three Parts Dead' and 'Full Fathom Five.' Here she takes the lead herself, a younger version of the icy lawyer witch with a conscience and a soul and a drive to do more than her job requires. She's far from a machine here and her human face is very welcome. Gladstone may have taken her too far from the old reliable mentor to be entirely believable in this timeframe, but I liked the insight into where she came from and how she got to where we know her.
Temoc Altemoc was the absent terrorist of a father in 'Two Serpents Rise' who popped in and out of the story to serve a number of functions. In this book, he's a respected priest, a folk hero and an inevitable leader when unfortunate circumstances move tentative negotiation into outright revolution. I was much more sold on Temoc's history than Elayne's because it feels right. If she felt a little shoehorned into this story, he feels like he was born to play this part. He resists for a while but inevitably answers the call and comes into himself, the right man for the right moment.
It's worth mentioning that both these characters have further history that could be explored. We're given more hints at Elayne's difficult early years and they could easily be expanded into a novel of their own. If Gladstone felt like the Skittersill Rising should become its own book, then his fans are surely screaming that the God Wars should follow suit and they would add yet another angle to Temoc's past.
It would also flesh out the King in Red in ways that this book doesn't. He was a fascinating character in 'Two Serpents Rise,' a man strong and dedicated enough to win a war only to find that the decades of ensuing peace gradually became a struggle. He has depth in that book that doesn't translate to this one. Here, he hasn't yet come to see his city in shades of grey, so acts in black and white fashion as a sort of cartoon villain. Being the animated skeleton of a sorcerer in flowing robes was powerfully morbid in 'Two Serpents Rise' but feels more like an action figure here.
I enjoyed this book, but not the way I enjoyed the prior three. In fact, it felt to me like an aside to the Craft Sequence rather than a new volume in the chronicles of a fascinating world where gods and monsters are everyday business. Perhaps Gladstone has made life a little difficult for himself by crafting three glorious glimpses into this world that set the bar high and us to expect further windows to be opened to new and more outré realms. Looking deeper through an existing window to flesh out a moment in its history feels a lot more like a DVD extra than a new movie. It's a capable extra, but it's not the next window. ~~ Hal C F Astell
For reviews of the first three books click on the title. #1 Three Parts Dead, #2 Two Serpents Rise and #3 Full Fathom Five