BRIEF SYNOPSIS: In Alt Coulumb, the death of the God of Fire and the disposition of his contracts and bargains brings together magicians, priests, servants of a lost goddess, intrigue and high action and adventure.
PROS: Strong multiple female characters (and primary protagonist); exciting, wild and innovative worldbuilding.
CONS: Breakneck pace can work against the novel; perhaps one too many complications and small details are made relevant.
BOTTOM LINE: A debut novel that confirms the author’s nomination for a Campbell Award and points to great things in his future.
The Gods of the Craftverse are very different than most fantasy universes. Sure they are embodiments of magic, of cosmic forces, and all that, but that’s just a surface detail. To get things done, like in the Exalted RPG universe, Gods have to make bargains, deals, and contracts with other gods, Magicians, and countries. These deals and contracts are binding and can make or break a God; they hold legal force, even if the unthinkable should occur. A contract unfulfilled can lead to fires going out, steam trains not working, and worse.
So, when a God in the Craftverse dies, death, as they say, is only the beginning.
Three Parts Dead, the debut novel from Max Gladstone, is the story of a young worker in the craft, Tara Abernathy. Kicked out of the arcane school she had just graduated from for reasons slowly revealed in the novel, her efforts to work independently in magic bring her to the attention of Elayne Kevarian, a partner in a law firm who has taken on the case of the death of Kos Everburning. A journey to Alt Coulumb, an investigation into the death of Kos and the deposition of his power and debts is in order. The devil, though, is in the details, as the death of Kos is a far more complicated and intrigue-ridden affair than Tara, or even the priests of the dead God, can imagine.
The novel’s strength, in audio as well as in written form, rests mainly on the strength of its protagonist, Tara Abernathy. A young fresh craftswoman with something to prove and the will to do it, she strives, stumbles, and succeeds her away across the novel. There is a good character arc as well, as the mystery of what led to her bring dropped out of the school comes back full circle, and Tara’s hopes, dreams and ambitions evolve and change by the end of the novel. Tara’s point of view mainly alternates with Technician Abelard. Abelard is a young novice in the Church of Kos, there when the God died, as it were, and becomes crucial to the investigation into the God’s death. His longtime relationship with Cat, one of the minions of the rebuilt Goddess of Justice, too, is crucial.
I have to say, though, that although Tara and Abelard are the protagonists, and Cat makes an intriguing character in her own right, my favorite character in the novel by a longshot is her mysterious would-be boss, Elayne. Strong, powerful, accomplished, and intelligent, every scene with her was a delight to listen to. She makes an excellent pairing with Tara through most of the book, and the scenes where technician Abelard is paired with her alone are absolutely fun. I imagined her, through listening to the book, as an Exalted Sidereal, powerful and clever enough to bargain with Gods, High Priests, Professors of Magic and also have the time to try and cultivate a would-be associate in Tara. For a genre often sorely lacking in strong, complex female characters who interact with each other, Elayne, along with Tara and Cat, show that it is more than possible to do it and do it well.
The worldbuilding is the equal of the characterization in Three Parts Dead. It is revealed that complex financial arrangements led to the recent banking crisis that inspired the contract, power-sharing magic system in the Craftsverse. The idea of Gods and magicians making bargains, deals and arrangements to manipulate and gain power is an insanely awesome one. This does make the death of Kos and his disposition a murder mystery, of sorts, as Tara has to figure out just where his power went, to whom and why. It tumbles out in the end — the puzzle is complicated and too-small details prove extremely important. Readers should know to read closely in order to keep up with the plot. The fast pacing of the novel reinforces this, and in listening to the audiobook, I missed a detail that later turned out to be extremely important to resolving the mystery. Other than that, the narrator, Claudia Alick, voices the characters and the narrative very well. I am surprised to learn that she has not done much genre work, although she is associated with the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.
As strong as this novel is, I think that the author has even better novels ahead. (One of them, Two Serpents Rise, is already out.) I do not need to sign any contracts for power to be persuaded to read them, and you shouldn’t either.