I'm not a fan of being given a cool-looking book only to find that it's the fourth in a series. Fortunately, in this instance, I'd met its author, Max Gladstone, at Phoenix Comicon, and bought the first three from him, so it's time to work my way through them and, at this point, one book in, I'm very happy about that decision.
'Three Parts Dead' is the first in a series of standalone books set in the same world. The numbers in the titles don't refer to order; they simply leap around from three to two to five as if Gladstone is a pixie with a hobby of messing with our OCD. Which he might well be, as he certainly has a sparkle in his sense of humour.
He's also a really good writer. This wasn't merely his first novel in the Craft Sequence; it was his first novel, period. It doesn't feel like it: his plotting is tight and controlled, his worldbuilding is complex but enticing and his prose is confident and imaginative. It isn't just his adjectives either, the usual way in which writers attempt to conquer description; it's his nouns.
I was touched by one relatively unimportant paragraph buried in the second half of the book. It describes a queue of patrons outside a particular club with 'rank upon rank of pleasant young flesh revealingly clad' and 'these confections of leather and black lace and pale makeup.' This is the writing of someone who knows how to see.
Of course, most people will focus on the world of the Craft. This is urban fantasy, but it's utterly unlike the last urban fantasy you read and the rest before that. Author James Morrow suggests, on the back cover, that Gladstone cross-pollinated Roger Zelazny, Neil Gaiman and John Grisham, an unusual but interesting combination though not an inaccurate one.
The reason for the Grisham reference is that the characters who drive the story, an odd cross between heroes and villains, are lawyers - and wizards, because to Max Gladstone, it's the same thing. As he told the Nameless Zine's own Chris Paige in a 2013 interview, 'Lawyering is basically magic, as we read about it: the manipulation of ground rules and abstract powers to impose effects on the real world.'
And so the necromantic attorneys of Kelethres, Albrecht and Ao are summoned to the city of Alt Coulumb, because a god is dead and much needs to be done to settle accounts. Elayne Kevarian, an experienced lawyer and Craftswoman, agrees to represent the clergy of Kos Everburning, who has turned out to be rather less eternal than believed by his followers. She brings with her a new recruit, Tara Abernathy, who was kicked out of the Hidden Schools after graduation but is clearly someone with potential.
The need for lawyers is because, in this world, gods channel energy. They receive it in the form of worship and belief and expel it in more physical ways, which are channelled into use and governed by contracts. As Kos is a fire god, his output is used to generate the steam that powers the entire city. Now that he's dead, this will stop once reserves are exhausted, but that can be solved through Ms Kevarian and her protégé proving in court that the overprovisioning that led to Kos's demise was not his fault. After all, they're necromancers. As long as he's not convicted of breach of contract and so sentenced to the death which he's already suffered, they can resurrect him. Of course, his creditors will argue against them and they're represented by a massively powerful Craftsman, Alexander Denovo, who knows both Kevarian and Abernathy well.
These are unique concepts that Gladstone plays with and he does it well. I'm no fan of legal thrillers, but 'Three Parts Dead' does its shystering in ways that appeal to my sense of fantasy. Kevarian and Abernathy are thoroughly different characters who work their respective parts of the investigation in wildly different ways, even as they work towards the same end.
It helps, of course, that they have to work with a plethora of wild characters in wild places. Capt Raz Pelham is a pirate and a vampire, which makes him doubly interesting. Abelard, Novice Technician in the Crimson Order of Kos Everburning, who is on duty in his god's inner sanctum when His flame burns out, is a chain-smoking bundle of well-meaning and inexperience with the world. His old friend, Cat, spends half her time as a junkie, enjoying being bitten by vampires, and the other half as a cop, being transformed into a vessel for Justice, who is a central non-human power who takes over and controls her minions when needed. And then there are the Guardians, exiled gargoyles who were the former city guard in Alt Coulumb until their own deity, Seril Undying, died during the God Wars.
This world is truly immersive, for a few reasons. The prose of Max Gladstone is the bedrock of everything. The way he ties wizardry to the law and deities to power fleshes things out. His habit of throwing out passing references to people, places and events that he hasn't written about yet adds depth and colour to what we see. And then his tightly woven story, unpredictable but internally consistent, wraps things up with a nice little bow.
Beyond that, there's a substance to what he writes that carries far beyond the core story.
His take on gods is fascinating and unique but that extends to those who serve them. Religion generally has a very different tone to it when the gods talk back and especially when those gods die. Abelard is perhaps the most interesting character in the story because, as the back cover blurb ably puts it: he's dedicated his life to his god, who has up and died on him, so he's 'having an understandable crisis of faith.'
The legal side is fascinating too, not only in itself (court sessions here are truly wild) but because the Craftsmen and Craftswomen who work it have different morals to everyone else; not least because, over time, their humanity changes with their accumulation of power. We only briefly meet the Deathless Kings here, but they're effectively halfway between learning the Craft and reaching their own bizarre sort of divinity.
There's also a strong focus on tolerance and, by extension, intolerance. The cover highlights that Tara is a young black lady, whose capability is without question, even though she's still well out of her comfort zone and constantly up against potential failure. Her boss is also female, as is the leader of the gargoyle flight and the representative of Justice that the lawyers work with. Cat is a notably strong woman who knows that she's also an addict and that status is explored and exploited in the story. At one point she forces her victim status on a sleeping vampire, who wakes up to feel inappropriately used. The gargoyles have gone from city guardians to persecuted minority, after the death of their goddess; again something used well within the story.
This month, I also reviewed Mitchell Hogan's 'A Crucible of Souls', (Click here for review) another fantasy set in a carefully crafted world. The difference is that Hogan's worldbuilding is the point, nothing much really happening within over five hundred pages. Gladstone, by comparison, has a strong story to tell and worldbuilding is merely a way in which he can more believably tell it. Both are immersive delights, but this one has the substance. I have the next book in each series at my bedside but there's no doubt it will be the second Gladstone that I'll reach for next. ~~ Hal C F Astell