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Saturday, April 20, 2013

“Three Parts Dead” by Max Gladstone (Reviewed by Casey Blair)

Order “Three Parts DeadHERE
Read An Excerpt HERE

With the recent announcement of the Hugo nominations, I wanted to talk a little bit about one of the nominations I found most exciting: Max Gladstone for the John Campbell Award for Best New Writer. His debut novel Three Parts Dead was one of the best books I read all last year. If you haven't checked it out, you should definitely give it a read before the sequel Two Serpents Rise is released this October.

I'm not entirely sure what speculative fiction subgenre Three Parts Dead falls into: I usually call it epic fantasy, though in some ways it feels more like urban fantasy—largely because the book takes place in and revolves around the affairs of one city. It's even got some steampunk elements in there, so the author really just ignored genre distinctions and pulled out all the stops.

Gladstone adopts a lot of tropes long-time speculative fiction readers will recognize: God Wars, craftsmen, zombies, vampires, and gargoyles, sun and moon gods, power armor, etc. But he's doing something new with every single one of them, and combining them in really unexpected ways. I mean, power armor and gargoyles and god wars together, not to mention raising gods from the dead? Who does that? Gladstone packed as much awesome as he could into one world, and it totally paid off.

One reason I'm calling Three Parts Dead epic is because the scope of the world is vast. With so many things to explain, this book was wonderful about exposition. I wanted to know many things before I learned them, but I learned them exactly when I needed to know. Because of the scope, there were times when it felt like too much to process at once, but that's what comes with having a new, innovative world. Even if I didn't understand everything right away, by the time I needed to put the pieces together the information had been well-integrated.

We don't learn everything about the world, but we learn enough to suggest how big it is. We learn about the economics of paper, and how communication in the city setting differs from other places, and what transportation regulations people keep in mind.

Another reason I'm calling the novel epic is because of the multiple POVs. I loved that a majority of the POV characters were female, because I don't see that enough in epic fantasy. Each POV character behaves intelligently given the information they have, and even when they disagree with each other, they give sound arguments. For example, when two academics debate, they reference dense theoretical arguments, while when an academic and a clergyman debate gods, they have trouble relating to each other. Each POV character comes from a different perspective, their scenes are written accordingly, and that further fleshes out the world.

For the magic system, the readers get a sense that there are limits to what an individual craftsman can do with craft, but we don't really know what the limitations of craft itself are. There is some basic theory on how craft works, enough that we believe there are rules, yet its workings remain numinous. This is my favorite way to treat magic in books.

Three Parts Dead gets theoretically dense, which is fascinating, and packed with all kinds of ethical issues. I appreciated the underscoring themes about failure, addiction, lines that cannot be uncrossed and lines that can, the strength of platonic love rather than romantic, and dozens more besides.

What really makes this book isn't the world-building, though; it's that all of the POV characters are set up as competent in some ways, but by the end they all must do the thing they believe they cannot do. Every single one of them. The moments of epic just pile up until the very final scene, which is pretty much the best ever. I think I re-read that scene three times before I finally convinced myself a scene that awesome really had just happened.

Three Parts Dead works as a stand-alone, but Max Gladstone also set up a lot he can play with later. I was thrilled to learn this novel is the first of a series, and I think if you give this book a shot you will be, too.

3 comments:

bibliotropic said...

This is another book that I'm starting to think I dismissed too early. The reviews I saw seemed to peg it as urban fantasy, which I've learned to mostly steer clear of because of UF's emphasis on romance these days, and I'm not very into that. But from this very detailed review, I'm thinking that I should reconsider reading this one; it actually sounds far more enjoyable to me than I had first assumed. I appreciate the info, and I'll probably end up checking it out after all!

mike albee said...

I already finished three parts dead.

book publicity

David Williams said...

I bought this book after having my curiosity tweaked by the review.
All I can say was excellent.
Read from start to finish in two sittings. Intriguing, fresh lots of new ideas on some old subjects and keeps you wanting more. Can't wait for the next one

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