Book three for Max Gladstone's Craft Sequence and there's more of the different in all the same ways. I have huge respect for what Gladstone is doing with what he appropriately calls a sequence rather than a series. Like many authors, he's created a world, but he refuses to play into the standard industry model of sequel after sequel that tells the same old story. Each novel in his Craft Sequence can easily be read as a standalone volume and the order in which they were written or published has little meaning. Only throwaway lines here and there highlight to those who have read all the books that they really play out in the order of one, two, three. You could read them in reverse and enjoy them just as much.
Each book is set in a new place with its own mythology and its own protagonist. These lead characters work in routine jobs for their landscape that are nonetheless utterly fascinating to us, as are their respective set of routines. Gladstone likes writing about the mundane in a world whose fascination is partly in how different it is. I wonder if my day job in IT would appear as magical and fascinating to readers in Gladstone's world, where technology is completely different.
It's worth mentioning that, while the lead character of Kai, creator of idols on the Hawaiian‑tinged island of Kavekana, is entirely new, some of the supporting characters return from earlier books. It's also worth mentioning that I mostly didn't notice because it's too easy to be suckered into these new locations to register when Gladstone ties them into older ones.
Gladstone doesn't just raise ideas like these, he applies them. Beyond the idol creation industry on Kavekana, for instance, he puts an oddly fascinating concept in play here in the use of Penitents. In the first book, we saw that Alt Coulumb's cops are people giving up their bodies for a certain percentage of their time to serve the common good, perhaps in some kind of penance. Here, a vaguely similar idea combines the ideas of cops and criminals by housing the latter in the former, giant stone statues that move. They catch crooks but proceed to rehabilitate them in a sort of virtuous torture. Get caught and you'll be encased in a Penitent, where both your body and your will are forced to comply with the directions the statue takes. It's a sort of iron maiden for the body and soul, working as a cop all the while. It's horribly efficient.
Sure, we realise when he namedrops the cities of Alt Coulumb or Dresidiel Lex, because they're too obvious to miss, and Elaine Kevarian, craftswoman for the necromantic attorneys Kelethres, Albrecht and Ao, was immediately recognisable, but I failed to remember Cat from 'Three Parts Dead' or Teo Batan from 'Two Serpents Rise,' perhaps because I wasn't expecting them and I remembered them in different contexts to this. Yet both have important supporting roles here.
The chapters (and the action) alternate between Kai and Izzy, a homeless street girl, and, while we don't realise how until Max Gladstone tightens everything in, we do realise that what ties them together is a manufactured idol. Kai knows her as a forty character filename abbreviated to Seven Alpha, because Mara, a friend and co‑worker, created her in the strange environment in which they work, inside the crater of the volcano Kavekana'ai. Izzy knows her as the Blue Lady, who met her, talked to her and told her stories. Whether she's Seven Alpha or the Blue Lady, she dies in chapter one but continues to rise in importance as the book runs on.
Idols aren't gods, though they're created to be worshipped and shield their faithful from other gods. They're more primitive creations, unable to think or speak, merely tailored to custom specifications and left floating within the non‑liquid of the Kavekana'ai crater, tied to other idols by contracts. You might see the creation of living idols to worship as fantastic, but it's mostly accounting and risk mitigation for priests like Kai and Mara, utterly routine.
What breaks the routine is when Kai decides to save Seven Alpha from her scheduled death by diving into the non‑pool and offering up her blood and soul. The attempt doesn't work and it gets her fired from her position and sidelined into sales. Yet things don't make enough sense for Kai to quite leave them alone and her ensuing investigations stir up plenty. She has a mystery to figure out and we're only ahead of her because we also have the perspective of Izzy to go on. While her Blue Lady can't be Seven Alpha, according to all the rules, clearly she is and we know we want to figure out how as much as Kai.
'Three Parts Dead,' the first book in the series, began with the death of a god. This begins with the death of what is an idol to Kai and a goddess to Izzy and the latter asks aloud, 'What happens when a goddess dies?' It's an innocent question but a powerful one and it underlines how fantastic this world is.
Gods are real in Gladstone's world, even after the God Wars when many were killed. Alt Coulumb relies on one for power. Dresidiel Lex killed them off decades ago, but they resonate. Kavekana had them but they left for the God Wars and haven't returned yet. In the meantime, the priests build idols that serve much the same purpose and carefully remain isolated from the gods of others. Each of these books riffs on the same theme of what gods mean to people but keeping the angles fresh each time out and without ever getting bogged down in philosophy. Where this story takes us emphasises that subject and it makes the books of the Craft Sequence about as perfect for book club discussions as any fiction I can think of.
Penitents are prominent here, but other concepts sit further in the background, some just tantalising moments of description. I don't know another writer who colours his work so well with odd snippets of dialogue or prose that serve only to add texture or background. The wagons in Kavekana are pulled by spider‑golems, for instance. What do I know about them? Nothing, as they're a single reference on page 70, but my goodness, I can see them.
Another example extends from the use of nightmares as a means of communication. There's an important scene where Kai searches for Mara within a nightmare and ends up talking to Ms. Kevarian, but I'm talking here about what could be described as an anecdote as Kai idly thinks about professional dreamers for half a page and that's it for coverage. They resonate though, because they sleep gagged and blindfolded in caves beneath the volcano, scribbling out the messages for which they act as conduits on scrolls that turn automatically. They're as horribly efficient as Penitents, but this merely isn't the time to question the morality of the practice.
While the Craft Sequence is certainly urban fantasy, it's also other things. 'Three Parts Dead,' for instance, was framed as a legal thriller, while 'Two Serpents Rise' could be described as literary fiction, as the tone of sorrow is so important and the commentary on a civilisation fighting cultural obsolescence so pertinent, all within its story of a risk assessor restoring a water supply. This is surely the most fantasy‑oriented of the first three books, but it's still a mystery at heart. It also plays with such diverse themes as isolation, inspiration and exotica.
So sure, these books are urban fantasy, and they're great fun on that level. Yet they contain so many levels and themes to explore that it's foolish to limit them with only one label. These are rich books, worthy both of periodic re‑reading and discussion with others. I talked with Max Gladstone briefly at last year's Phoenix Comicon, before I'd read these books (given that I'd just bought them), and I'm disappointed to see that he won't be back this year. Discussing the books at his table or during panels would be particularly fascinating. ~~ Hal C F Astell
For a review of Craft Sequence Book 1 Three Parts Dead click here. For book 2, Two Serpents Rise, click here.