Far Beyond Reality

Three Parts Dead by Max Gladstone

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Before I get started: yes, I know, it’s ridiculous I’m just reviewing Three Parts Dead by Max Gladstone now. At the same time, I have to say I’m quite disappointed in all of you because, really, not one of you could have made me sit down and read this when it was first released in 2012? For shame.

But anyway. Three Parts Dead is one of the most fun and original fantasy novels I’ve read all year, and you should read it too. “Fantasy novel” in this case really means something that falls smack in the middle of the (probably very tiny) Venn diagram overlap between bizarre second-world steampunk tale, urban-ish fantasy à la Miéville, and John Grisham-like legal thriller that features, among others, living gargoyles and seven foot tall animated skeletons known as Deathless Kings. It’s really something else, this book.

I’ve only read this first novel out of (so far) four, so my understanding of this fictional universe is probably woefully incomplete, but here’s my take on it. In parts of this world, the gods still hold sway. In others, humans have overthrown the gods and have started claiming some of their powers (or at least similar powers) through a (for want of a better word) magical discipline known as the Craft. The city of Alt Coulumb is a sort of bridge between the old world and the new — situated on the coast of the continent that’s mostly god-free, but still ruled by a living god known as Kos Everburning.

Except, at the start of Three Parts Dead, Kos Everburning has just died. Tara Abernathy, a young Craftswoman who has been forcibly expelled from the Craft’s Hidden Schools, is given the opportunity to work for a firm that will sort out the various obligations and contracts left behind by the fallen deity. She arrives in the city with her new boss, Ms. Kevarian, and starts to untangle the chaotic sequence of events leading up to the god’s death. This has to be done because, in this world, the powers a god gains from his followers’ belief can be traded, so while Kos Everburning may be dead, the various contractual obligations his church has set up over the years are not.

If this sounds a bit cut and dry, rest assured: Max Gladstone includes most of these really bizarre world-building details naturally and without resorting to too many ungainly infodumps. The story itself rarely pauses for breath and, in the opening chapters before Tara gets to Alt Coulumb, actually feels a bit rushed as Gladstone introduces his characters, his setting, and Tara’s backstory.

Fortunately things settle down once Tara begins working on the case, assisted by young Abelard, a chain-smoking Priest Technician in the service of the recently deceased Kos. Her main antagonist is Alexander Denovo, her former professor at the Hidden Schools who is now representing Kos Everburning’s creditors. Gradually, Tara figures out the events leading up to the god’s death, in the process painting a solid picture of what life is like in the metropolis of Alt Coulumb — a city that reminded me of China Miéville’s New Crobuzon in some ways.

One of the most surprising aspects of Three Parts Dead is its tone. This whole setup, with recently deceased gods and humanity in conflict and, incidentally, some really dark themes in terms of volition and consensuality and so on? It could have ended up sounding very grim, if not for Max Gladstone’s prose.

There’s something wonderfully sly about the way he writes, reminiscent of (and this is ridiculously high praise coming from me) the late, great Kage Baker, who had the same habit of injecting a funny phrase or a sneaky reference when you least expected it. There’s a rhythm to Gladstone’s prose that’s a perfect counterpoint to the darker edges of this story — the best way to put it is that it’s just plain fun to read.

This also made it much easier for me to forgive a few weaker aspects of this novel, such as the rushed opening sequence and a few instances where I felt that Gladstone pushed the boundaries of probability in terms of characters figuring out certain details or showing up in certain places juuust in time to make the plot work. Three Parts Dead is a debut novel, and as such it shouldn’t be a surprise that a couple of its seams are visible. If your experience is anything like mine, you’ll have way too much fun with this book to mind.

(Also, this is maybe my favorite Chris McGrath cover ever. I often feel his covers feel a bit washed out, but this one is just striking.)

So anyway: Three Parts Dead comes highly recommended. There’s apparently something weird going on with the internal chronology and the numbers in the titles (as Gladstone explains himself in an article titled “This is How I Numbered My Books and I’m Sorry”) but as far as I’m concerned, you can never really go wrong if you stick with order of publication, so expect a review of Two Serpents Rise here in the not too distant future.

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