I’d seen Max Gladstone’s name come up in various places in connection with Seth J Dickinson, whose work I discovered last year and quickly became a huge fan of, so once I’d cleared out my reading backlog I decided to give this a try.
The premise in a nutshell: Tara Abernathy is a sorceress (or Craftswoman in this setting’s terminology) who’s lucky enough to get offered a job with a prestigious firm of necromancers straight out of university and unlucky enough, once she takes up the offer, to be saddled with the task of resurrecting a dead god in a form acceptable to his worshippers before the city powered and sustained by that god collapses into chaos. Someone in another review called it “low fantasy”, and while I’ve always understood that term to mean fantasy where supernatural elements are rare or non-existent (which this book definitely is not), I can understand why someone would apply the term here: Three Parts Dead has a very pragmatic, unglamorous approach to its fantastic elements and one of those wannabe-noir atmospheres common in fantasy that is a little bit sabotaged by the tying-up of all the injustices the plot addresses at the end. Which isn’t a bad thing: given recent events, an optimistic ending involving the beginning of the end of the persecution of an ethnic/religious minority and women defeating a man who exploited and preyed on those beneath him was highly welcome.
The nature of gods in this setting, the covenants and pacts they make with their worshippers, makes the book a legal procedural, with the apparently-obligatory shift into a detective/thriller novel once Tara discovers that Kos Everburning did not die of natural causes. It’s mostly a fair-play mystery: the magic (or Craft) and the rules of the setting are demonstrated sufficiently clearly for the reader to understand the nature of Kos’ death, and twists such as what’s going on with the gargoyles and what Elayne does in the epilogue are organically derived from what’s come before. (Elayne’s rationale for her action feels a little contrived, but if I’m feeling generous I can accept it as a demonstration of her not-quite-human outlook.) The use of Craft is fairly well-integrated into the setting’s culture – the Blacksuits in particular, people who can become avatars of Justice, trading free will for superpowers and a sense of purpose so strong it borders on addiction, were a particularly cool concept – though the visceral, detailed acts of zombie-raising and face-stealing are more impressive than the rest of it, and placing them in the earlier sections front-loads the sense of wonder and leaves the rest of the book a little unbalanced. Still, it’s a good concept, and the matter-of-fact way in which Craftspeople drift apart from humanity with age is a fun aspect of the setting and provides a nice bit of implicit characterisation for everyone who chooses to study Craft.
The characters are good enough for what the book requires of them, though the novice priest Abelard felt like the weak link, and I think that’s connected to the occurrence of my pet peeve with many fantasy religions: the cult of Kos Everburning feels very much like Christianity with a new coat of paint. The internal lives of the other major POV characters are all entangled with specific aspects of their world, while Abelard is just dealing with a fairly standard-issue crisis of faith and some limited political intrigue in the Church. He’s less interesting than Tara, Cat, and Elayne, and I wish the blurb talked about Cat and Elayne rather than Abelard because they deserve it more.
The setting’s good and feels original, and, like the characters, is well-drawn enough for what the book requires (this may sound like damning with faint praise, but it genuinely was an enjoyable read). It’s no Perdido Street Station, but if you’re a big setting nerd I suspect reading the other books in this series will probably allow you to build up a better picture of the world. Gladstone’s made an effort to give us a gender-equal setting (it’s not perfect, but it’s better than many secondary worlds), and in-universe racism is directed against the gargoyles rather than any analogue to real-world ethnicities. Everyone seems to be straight and cis, though I’ve heard that improves in later books.
In short, it’s a fun fast-paced thriller with smart, competent characters (barring a certain large brain-fart on the part of one character whose name rhymes with Rabelard), and while it lacks the sheer delight and numinous aspect of something like Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, the baroque inventiveness of something by China Mieville, or the strong blend of plot and character of something like The Traitor Baru Cormorant, I think it’s definitely worth reading if you’re into this kind of fantasy. Three-and-a-half stars rounded up to four because I think there's promise here.
- Format: Kindle Edition
- File Size: 1267 KB
- Print Length: 334 pages
- Publisher: Tor Books; 1 edition (2 October 2012)
- Sold by: Amazon Australia Services, Inc.
- Language: English
- ASIN: B0085UEQDO
- Text-to-Speech: Enabled
- Word Wise: Enabled
- Customer Reviews: 254 customer ratings
- Amazon Bestsellers Rank: #177,155 Paid in Kindle Store (See Top 100 Paid in Kindle Store)