Three Parts Dead
Three Parts Dead (Craft Sequence #1) by Max Gladstone
Publisher: Tor Books
Release Date: October 2nd, 2012
The world of Max Gladstone's Three Parts Dead is a very similar to our own: bustling cities with skyscrapers, clothing and technology not that far removed from our own, and lawyers are generally mistrusted since they dabble in dangerous arts. There are, however, a few key differences. In Gladstone's world, there are gods. Many of them in fact, and unlike our world where followers rely on faith since there is no physical proof of a divine being, the gods here are very real and very present in humanity's day-to-day lives. Another major difference is the presence of "craft," a form of innate magic without the divine intervention and only shared by certain individuals. Also, these gods? They can die.
I'm glossing over a lot of other differences as well (the use of steam power, floating buildings, the presence of other sentient beings like gargoyles and vampires), but those are mere window dressings compared to the main premise: there are gods, they are fundamental to many human civilizations, and they can die. So what happens when Kos Everburning, the fiery deity that powers the city of Alt Coulumb, is found dead? Clearly you call the craftsmen and women of Kelethres, Albrecht, and Ao, a firm that specializes in handling the resurrection and/or redistribution of debts from dead divinities.
Enter our protagonist Tara Abernathy, a recent "graduate" of the Hidden Schools that teach craft (She did technically graduate, even if it included a very dishonorable, and literal, discharge). Her talents garner the attention of one of Kelethres, Albrecht, and Ao's partners, Elayne Kevarian. Lady Kevarian enlists Tara for her first case in Alt Coulumb as they work to resurrect Kos before all of his creditors start pressing charges to collect. However, Tara soon discovers that Kos was murdered, and with the help of the young chain-smoking priest Abelard, vampire pirate Raz Pelham, and addict police officer Catherine Elle, she needs to stay alive long enough to uncover the plot.
Gladstone weaves a brilliant little mystery tale set in an imaginative urban setting. He knows every in and out of his world, and he is eager to share it with the reader. We learn about most of the fundamentals of the world through other character's interactions with Tara, but the book does not have a smooth introduction. We are thrown into the world head-first, and the story doesn't slow down to meet the reader until we finally find ourselves in Alt Coulumb. While I had trouble getting into it at first, the story, characters, and world-building began to unfold much more naturally as it continued.
Some of the difficulty I had with the book revolves around Gladstone's peculiar writing style, which can elevate or bog down the prose. Tara Abernathy's world is filled with magic and wonder that is often being used for mundane activities, and so much of the magic is so ethereal and internally focused that descriptions become enigmatic. At times, Gladstone will give us descriptions that are poetic or musing, but work against the flow of storytelling he is trying to establish. Gorgeous sentences like these are interspersed in between conversation and exposition, which can conflict with the tone:
There is a space beyond or beneath the world, where all that is not, which creates all that is, collects and congregates. Shadow dances and wars with light there. Life and mind play their eternal game of flight and pursuit.
-Three Parts Dead (p. 319).
But these are minor quibbles, especially since Three Parts Dead pulled my in and would not let me go, which I always take as a good sign. Gladstone takes you on a great ride through a fascinating world alongside engaging characters. You'll be surprised to realize that, by the end of it, the story's main events took place in less than 48 hours. I wouldn't mind picking up more of this series if I knew the same characters would appear. I believe the next several books in the series take the readers to other cities with different characters, but if they're as well-designed as the ones here, then I wouldn't mind taking that journey.
I recommend this book to fantasy readers who are looking for something fresh and new. I also recommend this to anyone who works in law, as they might enjoy the book's approach to the litigious world of craft. Like last week's book City of Stairs, this book tries to shake modern fantasy out of its complacency, and I believe it does so quite successfully.