Three parts dead – Max Gladstone (Review)

three parts dead max gladstoneKos Everburning is the god of Alt Coulumb. Faith flows from his people to him, and in return Kos keeps the city heated and defended, keeps lights on and transport running. His power is linked through magical contracts to the defense of other nations, his body acting as a source of, and a conduit for, unimaginable power. Without Kos, the people of Alt Coulumb would suffer, and treasure fleets would be vulnerable to pirates. Everything would fall apart.

Kos has just died.

Tara (a junior associate at a necromantic firm) and Abelard (a still-loyal priest of the dead god) have only a few days to investigate the death before everything falls apart. The cause of death has to be established. The complex network of magical contracts linked to Kos has to be fully evaluated. And some form of Kos has to be restored – conscious or not – to fulfill his obligations and responsibilities.

The characters are well-realised. They fit into their society and make decisions that suit. There weren’t any points where I was yelling at them to be less stupid. The plot, which is enjoyably layered, follows naturally from its start point and the different characters’ motivations and positions. The book is a crime novel set in an alien world that manages to produce a compelling and satisfying mystery and resolution.

Three Parts Dead takes place in an original setting, with all sorts of things I’ve never seen done before, or not done anything like as well. Magic is the law and the law is magic; spells are performed through contracts and trials determine exactly how power is and can be used. Some people reject the gods and seek to turn themselves into immortal wizards, others cling to the power of deities – dead or alive. Floating cities move invisibly through the clouds above farming villages defended by reanimated corpses. Originality goes a long way in fantasy – everyone is bored of dwarves and elves – but it’s rare to come across a series that strikes out so far from the mainstream.

The language, throughout, is lyrical. For a book about the legal system – even the magical legal system – there’s a lot of effective and emotive prose. Descriptions of the world and the powers which inhabit it are lush and vivid. The language isn’t simple – it’s decidedly ornate – but it’s also very well-chosen.

Three Parts Dead is not an easy book. It’s complex and twisty, dealing with layered ideas and unusual concepts. Fantasy is a genre in which there is a lot of very readable fiction, but it’s not always easy to find anything deeper, anything that properly grapples with ideas about identity or faith on anything more than a surface level. Three Parts Dead makes the attempt, and ends up rather satisfying.

As I was reading it, the comparison that kept on occurring to me was Douglas Adams. Gladstone has a similar tone, though he focuses far more on the coherence of the narrative, with sardonic humour shining through only rarely. There aren’t many authors I think can stand the comparison; Gladstone can.

I really appreciated this book. The setting, the characters, the language. Most all, I liked the polish. Three Parts Dead is, in a word, sophisticated. A host of new concepts and ideas are thrown at the reader, and the book is skilfully written enough that they all stick. Three Parts Dead is the sort of book that very much justifies the time spent reading it.

Buy it here.

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