Review: THREE PARTS DEAD by Max Gladstone
In Short: Neil Gaiman and Jim Butcher are conjured for a China Miéville story about magical lawyers trying to revive a dead God in a steampunk city.
Recommended: Hell yes!
“Gods, like men, can die. They just die harder, and smite the earth with their passing.”
– Cardinal Gustave
World-building is an art form. It’s quite a feat to pick a reader up and place them in a story set in Seattle or New York City and have them feel comfortable even if they’ve never been there. It’s quite another for an author to tell their story in a world that only exists inside their head. Earlier this year I read The Rook by Daniel O’Malley, an oddly well-reviewed novel that shudders and stumbles under the weight of heavy-handed world-building. The plot is like Post-It Notes stuck to the white board of the author’s outline.
Max Gladstone, on the other hand, makes it look easy. It’s a world where Gods (plural) interact with their followers and have a more hands-on approach to the cities they’re sworn to protect. On the mortal side, there are Craftsmen and Craftswomen who draw power from the stars to work their magic. These two powers come together in the steam-powered port city of Alt Coulumb, whose God, Kos the Everburning, has just died. Craftswomen, the devoted clergy facing a future without their God, a chain-smoking cleric, black-suited officers of Justice with a hive mind, incidental vampires, gargoyles! All of these disparate pieces come together in a story that goes where very few (if any) steampunk novels have gone before: the courtroom.
Why has there never been a steampunk legal thriller? This novel proves it can be done, and done very well. The court sequences in this novel hit all the old tropes (I half expected the opposing council to declare he was just a “simple country lawyer” at one point) with tongue firmly in cheek, and thanks to the setting, instead of boring legalese we get to see cases argued with magic in a display that wouldn’t be out of place on the Vegas Strip. We’ve all seen steampunk pirates, policemen, cowboys, et al. It’s time the steampunk lawyer got a shot at the big time.
The plot of the novel is relatively easy to follow, but I’m scared to give too much information for fear of giving something away. Sticking to the basics: Tara Abernathy has just been graduated-slash-expelled with extreme prejudice from the Hidden Schools, an elite academy where people go to learn magic (called “Craft” here). She tries to go home again but quickly discovers it’s just not possible. She’s saved from torch-wielding villagers by the intervention of a former instructor and her new Boss, Elayne Kevarian. And yes, there are torch-wielding villagers. I know how it sounds. But this is a novel that wears the clichés on its sleeve. Gladstone isn’t falling back on the familiar; he’s accepting that it’s part of the pattern and then warping it for his own usage.
Tara’s first job with her new firm is a heavy one: she has to resurrect the God of Alt Coulumb before the citizens discover His death. To do that, she has to look into the how and why of His death. As if investigating the possible murder of a God isn’t enough pressure, Tara’s also being judged by her new employers. If she comes up short, she might end up getting the sharp end of a very nasty severence package. No pressure.
I don’t want to say this book is easy, because that would be an insult to the care and work that went into crafting such an amazing world. The writing doesn’t show off, doesn’t play around, doesn’t waste your time with making you realize how fancy it’s being. The story is first and foremost. The characters are human enough to bring in some mood-lightening humor when necessary, such as between Tara and a member of Justice:
“There are other rules, right?”
The Book of Regulations is twenty pages long.
“Not so bad.”
Appendix A is three thousand one hundred twelve.
Gladstone deserves credit for not only tackling two overcrowded fields – steampunk and fantasy – but mixing them with the legal genre (itself more than a little overcrowded) and coming up with a novel that is unique, fantastic, and utterly readable. It also can’t be ignored that the main character of the novel is a black woman who actually appears on the cover. There was a bit of controversy over the US covers for Ben Aaronovitch’s novels (which represented the main character with a picture of a black man that was turned into a silhouette for no apparent reason), but Tor obviously decided here to give their strong, funny, smart lead character the place of honor she deserved.
This is the best kind of first novel – one that introduces the reader to a clever, talented writer; but it’s also the worst because it means there aren’t other books by the same author for us to devour. In one scene, Tara narrates, “In three states is the mind most vulnerable, Professor Denovo had once told her: in love, in sleep, and in rapt attention to a story.” My mind was incredibly vulnerable while reading this, and I can’t wait to surrender it to whatever Max Gladstone comes up with next.
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