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Wednesday, October 30, 2013

“Two Serpents Rise” by Max Gladstone (Reviewed by Casey Blair)

Order “Two Serpents RiseHERE
Read An Excerpt HERE
Read FBC’s Review of “Three Parts Dead

If you've seen my review of Three Parts Dead, you know that I had high hopes for Two Serpents Rise, and Max Gladstone completely delivered.

Two Serpents Rise is not exactly a sequel; it's set in the same world but in another part of it. There are occasional references to the city Alt Coulumb, but this book stands on its own. It also works as some sort of blend of epic and urban fantasy: epic in scope yet grounded very specifically in a secondary world city.

The city of Dresediel Lex is clearly inspired by Aztec mythology, but Max didn't limit himself to just Aztec ideas. The history of priests sacrificing to gods is certainly present, but then again, in the very first scene the goddess of gambling also makes an appearance, setting up the motif of balancing risk that runs throughout.

And the running! It's like Parkour gone insane, and Parkour is not exactly the safest sport to begin with.

Structurally this book is a bit different particularly in regards to POV, in that, except for some interludes, there's only one POV up until the end. For a couple of chapters I was waiting for it to switch, but in retrospect I see why that couldn't have worked.

Like Three Parts Dead, another craft/law firm is central to this story, even though the protagonist this time around isn't a craft user. We get to see a different magic that is more tied to the gods. And I loved seeing technology like elevators in this setting, because technological development shouldn't stop just because a world is mostly powered by magic. This book gives a lot to think about in regards to the notions of progress and civilization without giving any easy answers.

Really, the author did a wonderful job of not making any character the straw man, especially in regards to dealing with religion. The issue here is not a matter of whether people believe in gods, but what they owe gods, what they owe us, and how those interact. Is being a diehard believer the right approach, or is it better to completely renounce the gods? Is there some middle ground, and if so, what is that in-between road, and how do you navigate it? What is the value of knowing your place in society contrasted with the uncertainty of having to struggle to find it?

Every character has completely valid points and reasons for believing mutually exclusive views. No argument about the issue of religion is ever “won,” because everyone knows how much more complicated it is, how personal it is, and it's personal for these characters.

And the characters' personal ties really are integral to everything else going on, all the kinds of ties that bind: contractually, romantically, philosophically, filially, religiously — how they all intertwine and how far, how deep those ties can go, and what that means for us.

I love how organically all of these issues work in the social and political framework, the characters, everything. I love that there are no taboos on sexual orientation or on having sex at all. The characters are all riveting, even when I don't like them — I particularly loved the Red King, who is creepy as anything and completely amazing.

All this and I haven't even gotten around to mentioning the whole story is built around economics and the logistical realities of providing water to an urban settlement in the desert and the risks of water conflict — I challenge anyone who thinks fantasy doesn't deal with reality and is purely about escapism to take a harder look at this one.

I really can't recommend this book and this series highly enough. Give it a shot.

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