BOOK REVIEW: Full Fathom Five by Max Gladstone

REVIEW SUMMARY: The Third Craft Sequence novel continues to show the burgeoning skills of one of the newest and freshest voices in fantasy

MY RATING:

MY REVIEW:
PROS: Diverse, interesting cast of characters; conceit of the Craftverse transplants nicely to yet another new setting; pacing is improved from previous novels.
CONS: Although not a direct sequel, novel doesn’t stand on its own well.
BOTTOM LINE: The Craft Sequence gets better in this third volume, but it’s not the place to start your engagement with this world and characters.

Kai is a priestess without a God, at least in the traditional sense. She manages and builds Idols, financial instruments for managing soulstuff for those engaged in the cutthroat world of international commerce in Max Gladstone’s Craft Universe. They accept sacrifices, provide a rate of return, and protect those who invest their worship in them. But these Idols, although they have the financial obligations and entanglements like any God, are not really Gods. They are not sentient, they have no awareness, and are just pure financial instruments. Why is Kai and her peers called priestesses, then? Therein lies a story, a story that will be revealed when she falls from favor for an action that seemingly is the right thing to do.

In the meanwhile, Izza, a thief-urchin on the mean streets of the paradise called Kavekana, lives far below Kai, socially and physically. She has a Goddess, though, or had one, anyway; a Goddess who is now dead. Just like the succession of other deities who have risen and died while she and her fellow kids have worshipped and relied on them. But what are these Gods doing on an island dominated by Idols and the Penitents, devices of punishment and social control housing the guilty? Izza wants out of it all, but obligations and events swirling around her have other ideas about her future. And Izza’s story has far more in common with Kai’s than either of them can imagine.

The strength of Full Fathom Five, the newest Craft Sequence novel from Max Gladstone, is without question the diverse set of characters — a predominantly female cast of characters, of all sorts of races and backgrounds. A tropical, volcanic island, a crossroads of commerce and finance, is naturally going to have a diverse population of residents and transients. Gladstone’s world has a very different sort of balance of power between genders, and the result is a set of mostly female characters of color. But it’s more than having a cast of characters who aren’t the typical monochromatic male archetypes that have so long dominated genre fiction (and cover art that reflects that).

A tortured poet, a young girl torn between escape and aiding her compatriots, a priestess whose devotion to duty is not rewarded. All of them have character arcs of growth, change, test and trial, and come out to be transformed by the events of the novel. Fittingly, given how much Kavekana is a crossroads, we also see a couple of familiar faces in the novel from both Three Parts Dead and Two Serpents Rise, in more minor roles. I admit, though, that I could have wished for more of my favorite, Elayne Kevarian, but as she is in an antagonistic role in the novel, it’s understandable that her appearance in the novel is relatively limited.

The rich world of the Craft Sequence gets even more development and exploration in this novel as compared to the previous ones. Here, as opposed to the Death of a God, or the dangers of old ones cracking an entire continent open like an egg, this time we get strange doings with instruments of craft that are explicitly not Gods at all. Or are they? If Three Parts Dead explores Zombie Banks, and Two Serpents Rise explores Too Big to Fail (Awaken), then Full Fathom Five explores what are pretty clearly offshore bank accounts in the Craft Sequence’s equivalent of the Cayman Islands. What are Craft Sequence offshore bank accounts like, and what don’t the users themselves understand about what they created? That would be telling…and is part of the richness of the plot. It does follow and build on some of the ideas explored in his previous novels, and it’s an extrapolation that is clear as well as not completely predictable and straightforward.

I already know that I want a GURPS or FATE worldbook based on the Craft Sequence once Gladstone is done with it. I’d not only play the heck out of it, I’d just love to flip through some of the ideas and corners of his world. The more I see of this world, the more of the edifice he builds, the more I am impressed with it.

As you might guess, then, the major weakness, in my reading of Full Fathom Five is that although the sequence are not direct sequels to each other, the author does seem to rely on the reader having read Two Serpents Rise and (especially) Three Parts Dead to do some of the gap-filling in for a bunch of the foundational worldbuilding. Even with not very strong links in terms of characters to those novels, the world we see here, and its implications, really work best if the reader has been exposed to the more accessible and hand-held portions of the earlier novels, especially Three Parts Dead. Without that foundation, really seeing what Gladstone is doing here, with all of its implications and richness, extending some of his ideas, is difficult, and I think would not do the book justice. This is a criticism that, I think, can also be leveled on, Choice of the Deathless, the text-based adventure game based on the Craft sequence universe.

That said, then, readers curious about Gladstone’s work and universe should not start with Full Fathom Five to really get the full experience of what the author does here. They should, however, not hesitate to pick up Three Parts Dead and find out what the all the fuss is about. You won’t need a deposition from Kelethres, Albrecht, and Ao to read more of his work, afterwards, I promise you.