Review: Three Parts Dead (Craft Sequence #1), by Max Gladstone

Three Parts DeadThe city of Alt Coulumb runs off of the power of its resident deity, Kos the Everburning. Kos has sheltered his people through the God Wars, even when his lover left to fight, to die, and to leave the city bereft of justice. His death would be catastrophic — which is why he can’t be allowed to stay dead. The church hires a firm of necromantic Craftspeople to bring back as much of Kos as they can, the firm sends Elayne Kevarian, who participated in a similar venture for the city decades ago, and with her she brings her controversial new associate, Tara Abernathy, who was cast out of the airborne schools of the Craft to her presumed death. The case, in which Kos’s cause of death must be determined and his debts examined for the Craftswomen to know how much of him they can actually bring back, is a probation for Tara, who must prove to the senior partners that her worth exceeds her troublesome reputation.

Urban fantasies set in secondary worlds, especially worlds that aren’t a pastiche of European cultures, are something I really appreciate and would love to see more of, so Three Parts Dead was bound to be right up my alley. I’m therefore unsure whether it’s a triumph or a Pyrrhic victory that the book ended up so much more memorable to me for its characters than its setting, but given how much I enjoyed the end result, I’ll take it either way.

The setting is full of great ideas, but in this particular instance, it’s perhaps a little too full of great ideas that don’t get fleshed out enough. Alt Coulumb didn’t have nearly as much sense of place as I need from an everything-and-the-kitchen-sink weird fantasy setting, unlike, say, Miéville’s New Crobuzon. It became a series of set pieces rather than a living, breathing city. Some of those set pieces were really interesting in and of themselves, but the sense of immersion is still lacking.

But they could have been sitting in a blank room and some of these characters would still have leapt off the page. I really enjoyed following a strong, ambitious woman protagonist whose primary relationship is with her female mentor, and whose struggle is for her professional reputation. Elayne Kevarian is the embodiment of sprezzatura, and I was charmed enough by her that I didn’t even mind that she might ultimately be said to have manipulated the reader as much as her clients, colleagues, and adversaries. Abelard, the priest of Kos who was tending his flame when the deity died, and Cat, a servant of Justice with a vampire problem, were less memorable, but they did provide both a valuable perspective on the impact of the death of a deity beyond the pragmatic, and a backdrop of what probably passes for normalcy in Alt Coulumb against the gargoyles and vampire pirates.

I was also grateful that the author resisted the temptation to bring together any of the trite romances that looked to me for a while as though they might happen. The book is perhaps a little on the slight side, and I feel a slightly increased page count would have allowed the setting and history a bit more room to breathe, but the advantage is that the narrative stays focused with little meandering.

The plot had a little bit of the feel of a courtroom drama to it, which is a nice twist on the more street-level PI feel of much urban fantasy, and the whole concept of how gods work in this setting — the complex web of binding promises, contracts, and debts in which they entangle themselves to maintain power, and the flow of their grace according to those dictates — was really well executed. I also really like the background behind the Craft, that this is basically something that humans weren’t meant to have which they figured out how to steal, and the whole world changed its relationships with the gods accordingly, although I’d have preferred a much more in-depth look at how that works, but it feels like a forgivable omission for the first volume in a series.

The professor whose feud with Tara resulted in her abrupt and potentially fatal graduation is a wonderfully creepy adversary. There’s a little bit of a dig here at the exploitative relationships inherent to a capitalist system, although it’s subtler than Gladstone will get in the next volume of the series.

Overall, it’s really promising for a debut, even if I wish it had been a little meatier in the world-building. Having read the first three volumes in the series before I could bring myself to stop and write this review, I can confidently say that that promise is fulfilled, and the Craft Sequence goes from strength to strength.

4 stars

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