Jul 042017

Three Parts Dead, by Max Gladstone

Synopsis: When the God of Fire dies unexpectedly, forensic accountant/mage Tara steps in to keep the infrastructure that ran on his power from collapsing. She soon uncovers a conspiracy from the first days of the God Wars.

Book Review: This is a snappy modern piece that hits all the important notes and left me admiring the ease with which it flowed.

As you can probably tell from the synopsis, Gladstone has a fascinating setting crafted. His world is in the early stages of the industrial revolution, featuring very cosmopolitan urban centers still surrounded by rural countrysides full of superstitious villagers. But this industrial revolution uses gods and a scientific renaissance in human-directed magic as power sources, rather than coal and gas.

A while back it was noted (by Winston Churchill) that if magic actually existed, it would be a branch of applied engineering by now. There’ve been a number of explorations of this over recent decades, and they are neat to see. I think this is the first time I’ve seen someone expand this to the financial system. Which, now that I’ve read it, makes complete sense. Of course it wouldn’t stop with the engineers. The quants would get up in that shiz and find a way to leverage and create financial instruments and soon half the world’s economy would be wrapped up in arcane contract law (pun actually not intended). Published in 2012, this is a very post-2008-financial-crisis book, and it pulls it off  with aplomb! It also marks this as a very modern work, despite being set in an industrial-revolution era.

The language and sensibilities are very contemporary as well. This feels like reading a modern urban fantasy. Except in urban fantasy the magical part of the world is always somehow hidden from the rest of humanity, and the entire genre is pretty tedious because of this. Here all the magic is out front and integrated into society, while keeping the modern parlance of urban fantasy. Our protagonists speak with our speech patterns. When a sleeping vampire wakes to find that someone has slid their wrist into his mouth he spits out “Haven’t you ever heard of consent?” It’s basically Steampunk Buffy + The Big Short, and it’s a delight to read. One of our book club members called it “Dark and Fluffy,” which is a perfect description. :)

There are some problems with pacing around the middle. It really drags for a while after a plot-transition, during which time we don’t really have anything invested in the protagonist succeeding. The threat of her losing her job doesn’t seem very threatening (even though, in theory, we know why it is, this isn’t conveyed in a compelling way). In a lesser book I might have abandoned it at this point. But the strength of the extremely relate-able characters and the enthralling setting pulled me through, and it started to pick up again.

And then the climax! This is one of those books where the climax lasts for the entire final third/quarter! I started into it a bit late in the night, and then I couldn’t put the book down until I was done, so I was up for far longer than I should have been. It is so good, it just keeps growing and topping itself and slamming new twists in which were well set-up before. Every character contributes in a meaningful way until it all cumulates in a glorious cresendo.

The book has some rough edges, but it’s got some real beauty in it too. Good story, imaginative setting, great characters – definitely Recommended.

Book Club Review: An interesting mix! While my overall impression was shared by most, the specifics that different people liked varied. Some weren’t as into the modern voice, others were less happy about the dark bits, and so forth. But they liked other bits of it more to balance it out, so comparing notes on what really spoke to people was neat. (Though everyone agreed the middle dragged). Only one reader disliked it, she didn’t find anything there that spoke to her and viewed it as lost time. Which happens sometimes, not everything works for everyone. Overall though, everyone else enjoyed it and was glad to have read it.

The difficulty comes in that there isn’t all that much else to talk about. There are obvious ties being made between the fantasy world and our own, but they aren’t used to say very much. The book could have made much stronger “Capitalism Will Take Everything True And Good, Dissect It, And Then Sell It Back To You In Super-Efficient Soulless Pieces” statement. It was obvious that was the theme that the book had originally been going for. It is a very pertinent theme, I’m seeing it more and more, and seems to be one of the biggest points of existential suffering in modern life. I really like works that explore that theme.

But somewhere along the way, Three Parts Dead got distracted by the evil-lich-is-evil, lets-all-stop-him game. Which is fine, it makes a good story. But the theme was lost. Now the villain was just a standard Nefarious Bad Dude, instead of The Systemic Forces That We All Embrace.

It’s still a good story. I’m just sad it isn’t the great story it looks like it was aiming for. I would give it a very mild Not Recommended. Depending on your book club’s moods/tastes, it might slip into recommended? Also it’s decently well known by a lot of people now, so that may give it another point in its favor.

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