BOOK REVIEW: Three Parts Dead by Max Gladstone
BRIEF SYNOPSIS: God is dead and it is up to Craftswoman Tara Abernathy to return Him to some semblance of life. In the strange and beautiful city of Alt Coulumb Tara seeks out the evidence necessary to win the favor of the court and the respect of her firm.
PROS: Thrilling setting, solid world building, creative ideas, and interesting characters.
CONS: Drags a bit in places, but nothing some tighter pacing can’t resolve.
BOTTOM LINE: Don’t let the cover art fool you, Three Parts Dead is not your mama’s urban fantasy.
Kos the Everburning is dead. Tara is a new associate of the necromantic firm of Kelethres, Albrecht, and Ao and as such she is responsible for His resurrection. Tara must search the city of Alt Coulumb for the evidence necessary to revive the Lord as intact as possible. Aiding Tara in the investigation is Abelard, a chain-smoking priest of Kos suffering from a serious crisis of faith. The two will have to wade through mysteries and conspiracies, vampires and gargoyles, for any hope of rescuing the city from chaos.
“Gods, like men, can die. They just die harder, and smite the earth with their passing.”
In the 1977 science fiction classic Star Wars: A New Hope, there is a throwaway reference to the “Clone Wars.” I wasn’t alive at the time but I’ve read articles written by fans of the series about how such a small quote was able to capture their imagination for years to come. Years later that quote would serve as the basis for a second trilogy of Star Wars movies, but love them or hate them I doubt the prequels could ever match up to the potential of that fleeting sentence. Within the first two pages of Three Parts Dead allusion is made to the “God Wars” and from that moment on I was hooked. Such a casual reference but with such weight behind it! Were the Gods at war with each other? Were the Gods at war with humanity? I couldn’t be sure, all I knew was that I had to read on.
Three Parts Dead is full of such cool, informal world-building. There are no lengthy info-dumps to be found within these pages. Gladstone achieves much by the use of highly evocative name dropping. Phrases like Deathless Kingdoms, Hidden Schools, King Clock, and the God Wars all pop with meaning hidden beneath the surface. There are hints of an enormous world here. Necromancy is a legal matter and religion is mechanical. Magicians are really lawyers and priests are really engineers. The city of Alt Coulumb runs on the steam provided by the fires of Kos the Everburning. The city is protected by the Blacksuits, avatars guided by the resurrected god Justice. Divine autopsies are performed through the convenient fiction, a sort of black magic Matrix for evaluating thousands upon thousands of scrolls that compile relationships, deals, bargains, and compromises. The setting is this sort of gothic steampunk epic urban fantasy. I haven’t encountered a fantasy setting so delightfully original since reading Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn series. There are also traces of Harry Connolly’s gritty urban fantasy Twenty Palaces novels and John Scalzi’s novella The God Engines. To put it simply, Three Parts Dead is wicked cool.
Props to Gladstone for writing a black female protagonist. I can’t remember the last time I came across one of those in the genre and though it doesn’t make a big difference to me what color skin the hero has, it is nice to show some diversity. The characters are interesting, if not incredibly likable. Tara is strong and determined, with a natural talent for the Craft. Her conflict and history with Professor Denovo and the Hidden Schools is appealing. Her distaste for authority but eagerness to please her ice cold boss Elayne Kevarian is fascinating. Tara has a number of dimensions but I never found myself warming to her. I didn’t dislike her but at best I was ambivalent. Cat, Lieutenant of the Justice is another intriguing character. At first Cat just seems like a surly drug addict but eventually you come to realize that through her self-destructive behavior she is trying to fill the void in her life left by having all the responsibility of a divine servant with none of the joy. Abelard is perhaps the most likable character, though the least developed. A chain smoking follower of a dead god? What’s not to like?
The plot is full of twists and turns, largely fast paced but sometimes lacking in momentum. In a world where man decided to take the power of the gods’ into his own hands, the magic is beautiful and fearsome to behold (the way it should be). Three Parts Dead is just as entertaining when the protagonists are researching in the library and battling in the courtroom as when they are engaged in pitched combat. The story takes place over the course of two days but due to some pacing issues it feels like a longer span of time. The mystery is almost too complex, but with an emphasis on almost. Some aspects of the novel work better than others, for instance the ethereal courtroom segments are more convincing than the detective style investigating.
As things go, Three Parts Dead shines bright enough to forgive the minor faults. Gladstone has created something stunning in its ambition. I will be thrilled to see where Gladstone takes Tara in future entries and I will anxiously hope for a prequel series involving the God Wars.
Filed under: Book Review
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