I read Max Gladstone’s Three Parts Dead last summer when he was first nominated for the John W. Campbell Award. I remember getting a good deal of enjoyment from it during a few sunny days reading outside. It was fantasy, but not as we’ve become accustomed to know it. Gladstone’s Alt Coulumb was a twisting maze of legal deals entwined with magical contracts. The worldbuilding was simply superb, and the plot had me hooked. So I was very happy to see Gladstone among the list of nominees and also get to read this loose sequel.
Dresediel Lex is a very different beast from Alt Coulomb. It too bears scars from the God Wars, but unlike the Iskari, the people of Dresediel Lex did not make peace with their gods. The King in Red killed the last of the powerful gods in the city, and now his corporation—or concern—Red King Consolidated administers many of the public utilities that have sprung up to replace the services once performed by prayer. The economy of the city is based not on money but on soulstuff, which is exactly what it sounds like. Caleb Altemoc used to be a gambler and now works for RKC as a "risk management consultant," and his soft spot for a cliff-runner who was in the wrong place at the wrong time lands him into a deep and dangerous attempt to destabilize RKC and the city itself.
Two Serpents Rise strikes me as a very appropriate way to follow on from Three Parts Dead. I would have welcomed a regular sequel that follows the same characters too, but here Gladstone manages to expand upon his world in a very organic and interesting way. We obtain a clear idea of how inhabitants of Dresediel Lex move around and interact. There’s a very urban, almost modern feel to parts of the city: numbered city blocks, taxis, and of course hostile corporate takeovers. This veneer of modernity elevates the book above some of the more staid fantasy fare that is trying to recall the high fantasy of old. On the other hand, it’s slightly less straightforward than modern urban fantasy, a fact no doubt helped by its otherworldly setting.
The conflict in this book also feels very topical. These first decades of the twenty-first century seem set to be one of debate over the role of the corporation (versus that of the nation-state) in our society. Here in the UK, there has been a lot of criticism over corporations (like Starbucks, Google) that have posted record profits while managing to avoid paying much in the way of taxes. And in the US, where people seem determined to assert their rights to be as offensive to one another as possible, corporations are exercising political and religious lobbying with alarming efficacy under the aegis of free speech through their dubious legal personhood.
Gladstone replicates some of the moral and ethical quandaries surrounding these issues in his pitting of concerns against followers of the gods. The former rob people of little bits of their souls—pittances, perhaps, but together it can add up. The latter leave most people in peace but require the sacrifice of a few for the many. One of the overarching themes to emerge from the story is the claim that these are essentially rather similar ways to operate, merely different forms of oppression. Indeed, in today’s world we may not be subject to the feudal oversight of barons and monarchs, but we still mortgage ourselves to countless corporations, surrendering privacy (in the form of data about what and how we shop and consume) and agency (in the selection of said consumables, at times) for the sake of service and convenience. This is not in-and-of-itself a bad thing, as Caleb argues here. But it can be used and abused towards bad ends.
Caleb is an interesting and flawed protagonist. Burdened by being the sun of a high priest, he knows better than most the intricate horrors of the old religion. But he isn’t totally down with the King in Red either. Hence, I think it’s easy to identify with Caleb: he’s shrewd and cautious, and despite his fallibility (particularly when Mal is concerned, because oh my, isn’t it so obvious?) he’s really not on anyone’s side but his own. Even better, Gladstone offers Caleb a host of supporting cast members to help, hinder, or otherwise challenge and interact with him. His father, Temoc, is a straightforward brute of a priest who hungers for the good ol’ days of human sacrifice. Teo, on the other hand, is exactly what Caleb needs in a friend: someone who pushes him, calls him on his bullshit, and then doesn’t back out when it turns out that their lives are on the line.
Two Serpents Rise is every bit as good as Three Parts Dead, if not better. I can’t quite determine which one I like more—and maybe that’s a good thing. All I know is that Gladstone has cemented himself in my mind as a writer of smart, modern fantasy. His worlds are broad and creative, his characters dynamic and living all sorts of unconventional adventures. This is the sort of fantasy that gets me excited, the perfect summer reading for an inquisitive mind, or maybe a winter’s read curled up by the fire. Either way, it’s not quite swashbuckling, not quite corporate thriller—instead, Gladstone has somehow managed to find a happy medium between the two.