Every so often I read a book that I wish I had written. Right there, in those pages, is a universe that I don’t just enjoy but that I’m actively envious of. Three Parts Dead is not quite one of these books, but it comes close. It’s the kind of book I could see a me from a parallel universe not too far away could have written. It satisfies my current hunger for fantasy that is urban fantasy but not relentlessly focused on the paranormal or supernatural aspects of our contemporary society. It caters to a craving for fantasy in far-off lands, with magic and murder and mystery. It reminds me a lot of Scott Lynch’s The Lies of Locke Lamora or Lisa Shearin’s Raine Benares series. Most importantly, Max Gladstone uses all of this to fashion a solid mystery with a strong ensemble cast. The net result: not only did I want to keep reading this book, but immediately upon finishing it, I wanted to start the next.
Whatever Three Parts Dead might be, a bildungsroman it is not. Gladstone makes the gutsy decision to start as in media res as he possible can: Tara, the primary protagonist, is falling out of the sky. She has been literally expelled from the Hidden Schools, floating cloud castles of learning and study; only her knowledge of Craft (which got her into this trouble) allows her to survive, just barely. After struggling to eke out an existence as a hedge wizard in her hometown village, Tara discovers she doesn’t really belong there, and she willingly falls in with Elayne Kevarian, a partner in the firm of Kelethres, Albrecht, and Ao, and soon to be her harsh mentor.
As Tara and Elayne make their way to Alt Coulumb to deal with the fact that the city’s god, Kos the Everburning, has … well, died … we learn a little bit about this world. Gods? Totally real, in the “more prayers = more power” sense (TVTropes), but dressed up with a nice evolutionary biology gloss. The relationship is symbiotic rather than parasitic, though—gods must provide services in return for their prayer power, and if they pay out more than they receive, they die. Oops. The Craft, Gladstone’s magic system, is in fact the way humans manifest god-like abilities, powered by starlight and soulstuff. Gladstone uses the languages of contract law and economics to furnish most of his jargon for describing the Craft and god-powers.
About fifty years prior to the book, the God Wars concluded. They are pretty much what one might expect from a cataclysmic conflict called “the God Wars”: gods fought, gods died. Elayne and a handful of her fellow Craftspeople were around to witness the end to this conflict; they have no desire to relive it. Many cities have stopped associating with gods much these days as the Craft rises in prominence; Alt Coulumb is a bit of a holdout in that respect—and look where it got them.
Gladstone plunks us down in the middle of a very complex society with very little in the way of introduction or exposition. (Later in the book he often uses Abelard or Cat as the Watson (TVTropes) to allow Tara to drop some mad exposition beats, or Tara serves a similar role with Elayne.) The effect might be maddening for some, who would prefer to learn more about Tara’s past, her life in the Hidden Schools, and her run-in with Alexander Denovo. I totally understand that, because most of fantasy has raised us to expect that early chapter in the hero’s journey. The fact that Gladstone has skipped that, has waved his hands and said, “There was a war, it fucked everybody up, and by the way Tara stood up to her abusive, megalomaniac, mad-scientist professor and got expelled from school” might be disappointing. That’s why it’s a gutsy move.
It works, though, because Gladstone has a good story to tell here and now. And, yeah, there were a few times when I felt a little lost amidst the dialogue and description—but I rolled with it, and it all worked out fine in the end. Authors walk a fine line in trying to establish unique worlds while also keeping their readers sane, and Gladstone might have walked a finer line than most, but he mostly manages to stay on track.
The story itself is a whodunit wrapped up in a larger conflict regarding the city of Alt Coulumb itself. There is no question that someone is going to resurrect Kos, but the question of which parties (the creditors or the Church, the debtors) get the most influence in that process still must be settled in court. Instead of lawyers in wigs and robes, Gladstone gives us Craftspeople fighting metaphorical battles of the mind. Craft is used to interpret and render the higher-plane reality of a god’s existence in ways that a human mind can understand. There is almost a posthuman, science-fictional edge to this part of the story, and I really enjoyed seeing Gladstone do that using magic instead of computers and nanotechnology. Same soup, different seasoning.
So Tara and Elayne are desperately trying to make sure that the Church can bring Kos back as much as himself as possible. On the other side? None other than Denovo, with whom both of them have a sordid past. In order to resolve the dispute, it looks more likely that they will have to answer the question of what (who) killed Kos. The murder of a judge Elayne knows also seems to be part of the bigger picture, particularly because someone went to the trouble of framing a gargoyle for doing it. (The gargoyles being Alt Coulumb’s police force until their goddess got herself killed in the God Wars, and Denovo and Elayne resurrected her as a machine-like entity called Justice—see what I mean about all this complex, embedded history?)
Tara is an excellent protagonist. Though this is technically a mystery and that technically makes a detective, she lacks the smartass voice that, while delightful, is just so common in urban fantasy these days. She’s more empathetic, more unsure of herself—though this isn’t a coming-of-age novel, one might argue that this is Tara’s “debut” as a real adult. She isn’t quite as hardened and cynical as she might want you to believe. And though she is fairly capable when it comes to the Craft, all that amount of Craft can’t help the fact that she almost gets caught up in the lies she has to tell people while she’s trying to sort everything out.
I loved the tension created when Cat discovers that Tara is the one who has been hiding Shale’s face from Justice and resolves to track down Tara and make her pay. Gladstone uses the multiple, limited third-person viewpoints to great effect, doling out enough dramatic irony to keep us interested in what is going to happen next.
The climax and resolution are every bit as gripping as they need to be in a fantasy mystery like this. There’s a final showdown, during which the fortunes of our heroes fluctuate rapidly as Tara, Elayne, Cat, and Abelard all muster their respective talents in an attempt to take down the villains. I suppose that, technically, the ending is a deus ex machina in the most literal sense, so my hat off to Gladstone for creating a plot in which that is not only acceptable but inevitable.
I do have to take issue with the ending, in which Tara expresses her amazement at how Elayne manipulated events and reveals everything we hadn’t already figured out. I get the sense that Gladstone has been trying to establish Elayne as a kind of Holmesian character throughout the book—she routinely engages Tara in Socratic dialogue, drawing out Tara’s reasoning along lines she has already traversed. It doesn’t quite work, though, because he tends to keep us at arm’s length form her as a character, with a few notable exceptions. (I also found it a little weird that he continued to refer to her as “Ms. Kevarian” throughout the book, while everyone else got to go by their first name. Again, it seems like he can’t quite make up his mind whether to humanize her or retain her aura of mystery, so he splits the difference and comes up empty.)
Still, I overwhelmingly enjoyed Three Parts Dead. I’m still on a bit of a high, tingling from it despite having finished it two days ago. This is one of the best, original fantasy novels I’ve read this year (and I’ve read some pretty good fantasy this year). I’m very much looking forward to the next story Gladstone wants to tell.