Three Parts Dead by Max Gladstone. ★★★★
Three Parts Dead is the novel that started Max Gladstone’s Craft Sequence, which is proving to be one of my all time favorite fantasy series. Gladstone has created one of the most compelling fantasy world I’ve encountered and filled it with diverse and well developed characters. Although Three Parts Dead isn’t my favorite book in the series, it’s a good introduction to the world of the Craft Sequence.
One of the best ways to describe Three Parts Dead is that it’s where fantasy meets legal thriller. After all, this is a book containing the phrase “pro bono zombies.” Tara Abernathy, a recent graduate of the Hidden Schools, has been offered a place at the firm Kelethres, Albrecht, and Ao, but only if she’s able to prove herself in their latest case. Kos, the fire god of Alt Coulumb, has died under mysterious circumstances, and without him the engines that drive the city of four million people will shut down and chaos will ensue. Under the oversight of her new boss, Elayne Kevarian, Tara must work to resurrect Kos and find out how he died in the first place. And it’s looking like it might be a murder…
The reason I keep describing this series as “magical lawyers” is because the world of the Craft Sequence was inspired by the 2008 recession. In short, magic = the economy, gods = corporations, death of gods = bankruptcy, craftsmen/craftswomen = lawyers. With me so far?
This unconventional take on fantasy fiction leads to a highly original world and series. It’s inventive and imaginative at every turn. More than that, it feels vivid and life like. There’s clearly been lots of thought put into its development, and I love the connections that span different stories in different parts of the world. There’s even two text based games in the style of Choose Your Own Adventure, if you’ve gotten as obsessed with this world as I have.
The originality of the world extends to the protagonists as well, who tend to be equivalent to attorneys or risk assessors or financial investors. They also tend to be diverse in race, gender and sexuality. Tara is clearly described as black, and I love that the mentor type figure, Elayne, was female (especially that she was an older, childless career women, since you don’t see many of those depicted positively in SFF).
Elayne was probably my favorite character of the book, but I liked the others as well. Tara felt young and sort of naive. She’s ambitious but hasn’t yet given up her humanity in exchange for power. It’ll be interesting to see how this develops in future books where she leads, as I think she’s got a lot of potential character development in front of her.
On this second read through of Three Parts Dead, I noticed a lot more of the details of the world. I’m pretty sure that it’s a highly alternate version of our own, so far apart that there’s more differences than similarities. I’d previously been thinking that Alt Coulumb was somewhere in Europe, but now I think that it’s somewhere on the east coast of North America. Likewise, the timeline is probably earlier than I’d initially thought, with the technology level being more equivalent to late 1800s or early 1900s. I’d love to see a map of the series world, but I haven’t found one so far.
While I’d probably point to Full Fathom Five or Last First Snow as being my favorite Crafts Sequence novels, Three Parts Dead remains a strong start to the series, and I look forward to returning to Tara and Alt Coulumb in Four Roads Cross. Three Parts Dead is a book I’d recommend for anyone looking for well written female characters or original fantasy fiction.