The Craft Sequence Buddy Read, Review and Discussion of Book 1: Three Parts Dead
Welcome to Alex and Marzie's Buddy Read of The Craft Sequence by Max Gladstone! You probably already know my blogging buddy Alex, who blogs over at Alex Can Read. We are happy to be joined by our friend Jenni, a former reviewer at another blog. We decided to read the books in publication order, rather than chronological order, because Jenni had never read the books before (such fun for her, discovering them!) and in the end, after some discussion, Alex and I felt that progressing in publication order was probably going to be the easiest entry point for a new reader.
Let's look at the publisher's synopsis of Three Parts Dead:
A god has died, and it’s up to Tara, first-year associate in the international necromantic firm of Kelethres, Albrecht, and Ao, to bring Him back to life before His city falls apart.
Her client is Kos, recently deceased fire god of the city of Alt Coulumb. Without Him, the metropolis’s steam generators will shut down, its trains will cease running, and its four million citizens will riot.
Tara’s job: resurrect Kos before chaos sets in. Her only help: Abelard, a chain-smoking priest of the dead god, who’s having an understandable crisis of faith.
When Tara and Abelard discover that Kos was murdered, they have to make a case in Alt Coulumb’s courts—and their quest for the truth endangers their partnership, their lives, and Alt Coulumb’s slim hope of survival.
Set in a phenomenally built world in which justice is a collective force bestowed on a few, craftsmen fly on lightning bolts, and gargoyles can rule cities, Three Parts Dead introduces readers to an ethical landscape in which the line between right and wrong blurs.
First, I wanted to gather my own thoughts about Three Parts Dead. You surely know that Alex and I wouldn't be doing a project like this if we didn't already love Gladstone's writing. Why do we love it? You'll read more in our discussion below, but looking back on my initial review last year, when I first started reading The Craft Sequence because it was a finalist for the special Best Series Hugo Award, I already could sense in this first book of the series that Gladstone has created something truly unique in the fantasy world:
4.5 Stars (June 2017) So much love for this book, in which the protagonist, necromancer Tara Abernathy, gets to follow her own path, and gets to talk to other women characters about life, work and sense of self rather than relationship problems. (So refreshing!) Other characters, even more peripheral ones, are richly drawn with complex motivations. Elayne Kevarian, Tara's supervisor, is especially fascinating and inscrutable. Gladstone's magical world, shackled to contracts, legislation, compensation and the required jurisprudence to make it all work, was engrossing to dive into. Can't wait to continue with Two Serpents Rise!
N.B. The omnibus ebook edition of the first five books is available at an absolute steal of a price. (STILL TRUE!)If anything, this is a series of books that improves upon rereading. Each book broadens the original concepts of the Craft world, builds on characters that are woven throughout the series and gives us a rich tapestry. It's a rare thing to find truly original fantasy worldbuilding. (Just when you think it's all been done and only the characters will change, along comes Max Gladstone.) These books give us that unique world. But they also give female readers the rare satisfaction of well-written female characters created by a male author, something I felt even more strongly about in my updated review of the book on Goodreads:
5 stars (January 2018) I have come to appreciate Max Gladstone's amazing world building and character development even more, as I reread the Craft Sequence. I'm really not sure I can think of another male writer that writes women characters as wonderfully as Gladstone does. His books pass the Bechdel test with flying colors.
And so with no further adieu, let's get to the discussion of Three Parts Dead!
"Three Parts Dead" Buddy Read, Part One
with Alex, Jenni and Marzie
Alex: So, Marielle and I have read this series before, but it’s new to Jenni. I’m curious to get your first impression, Jenni.
Jenni: My first impression when reading the book was a bit of confusion. As Marzie has remarked, the underlying world concept is very unique, thus unlike with a lot of fantasy stories, I couldn’t rely on some basic fantasy concepts to help me immediately understand the way this world functioned. It took me a while to grasp how things were set up. I’m looking forward to a re-read, where I already know how the magical economy is structured!
Alex: yes, the first time I read through I spent a lot of the time with my eyes kind of wide as I tried to take in the scope of things and make sense of it all.
Marzie: I believe I have been known to call the steep learning curve akin to “Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride.” We are dropped in, just like Tara, to a strange and complex world. One of the most obvious aspects of The Craft Sequence, even in this first book, is what an accomplished writer Max Gladstone is. Leaving aside the amazing world he has created for the reader, the writing itself is so lovely.
Alex: The writing is beautiful - full of metaphors and lovely turns of phrases. I was really drawn in by Gladstone’s description of his characters. Max has a particular way of writing his female characters in a way that I wish other authors could replicate. None of them are sexualized. Even when he’s describing Cat club hopping trying to get her fix, she’s not sexualized.
Jenni: It’s interesting you say that Alex. I agree that they aren’t sexualized in the least, but I think that Tara, at least, as the main character POV, was also missing some of the emotional resonance that I would expect for a female character. I think it’s always difficult for a man to write a woman well, and vice versa.
Alex: Jenni, I actually kind of disagree. I thought the women were written in really compelling ways. They weren’t super emotional, but they weren’t sad, flat characters that felt badly constructed. (If you want that, see Artemis)
Marzie: This is actually something I love intensely about Max’s female characters. I do not find them lacking in emotion but find them emotionally subtle and not hearts-on-their-sleeves types. And they are all SO different.
Jenni: Oh, don’t misunderstand! I don’t mean the characters were sad, flat, 2D things. They weren’t at all! Tara was an extremely complex, enjoyable character. But she didn’t have the interior emotional landscape I might have expected.
Marzie: I think Gladstone conveys Tara as somewhat emotionally flat for a reason.
Alex: I do agree it was done on purpose. I think it’s one of the things about “Craftspeople” that sets them apart. They talk about it a lot - that use of the craft makes them inhuman.
Jenni: In Elayne’s case, she’s something other than human, and I agree that the alien-ness of her is purposeful - a result of her heavy use of Craft. But Tara has just begun this journey. I would expect her to still be vibrant in her humanity. Like the monk, Abelard; his emotions, his spiritual anguish, leapt off the page.
Marzie: Actually, I read Tara’s emotional state as largely informed by trauma. She seems numb in some ways and, for me, that’s a PTSD thing, stemming from her brutal expulsion from the Hidden Schools. She continues to have flashbacks about what she suffered throughout the book. She is still processing her trauma and I think all her emotional energy is caught up in that processing.
Alex: I agree her emotionless state was on purpose. She was thrown out of the Hidden Schools for her coup against Denovo. She has spent years mired in the Craft and building herself into a Craftswoman. Compared to Elayne, she’s at the beginning, but this isn’t day one. She’s already years down the path. And I also agree that Abelard’s spiritual anguish leaped off the page - and I think that was also on purpose.
Marzie: Abelard’s open anguish and questioning is a natural point of engagement for the reader. We end up questioning many things just like he does. And by the end, I felt that Tara was more emotionally engaged because she was not ‘all in’ on the whole “magical law firm where you serve your clients and ignore what is morally questionable.” I think she has retained a strong sense of morality, as, in her way, has Elayne. She’s retained enough of her humanity to want to explore her options. Elayne accuses her of immaturity but to me, I almost felt like Elayne liked it that Tara wasn’t going to follow the predictable course. What did you think about Cat, a character that is certainly battling her demons?
Jenni: The addiction aspect of her character was extremely well done.
Marzie: Agreed. The aspects of her black suit’s interface with her addiction were fascinating and so well done. And the resulting search for a dangerous “hit” on her off hours out of the suit.
Alex: I thought Cat’s addiction as a result of Justice was a really interesting choice. I felt like it was a commentary on our modern police forces/military forces. How that power is so easy to fall in love with and abuse. We can’t go a day without another story of police brutality, only in this case, the brutality was not only external but internal.
Marzie: It kind of leaves me wondering if brutal behavior in the name of justice doesn’t become addictive itself.
Jenni: Also, it was a strong commentary on the perils of justice if not tempered by mercy.
Marzie: Definitely “Blind Justice” can miss the salient bits. It’s a nice concept with flaws and as is amply proven here.
Jenni: Speaking of things being done in the name of Justice - I thought the idea that the Gods are as much bound to their relationship with those that worship them as their followers are to the Gods themselves was fascinating. That the chains of obligation go both ways. So very different from, say, Greek mythology.
Alex: Absolutely! I found the whole concept of the economy of soul stuff and belief and power to be completely fascinating. Contracts, obligations, power. It’s something that I’m still kind of in awe of, despite having read six books full of it. The soul stuff is a metaphor for capitalism. We’ll see more evidence of that in later books.
Jenni: The fact that the magicians of this world are essentially contract lawyers was hilarious to me.
Marzie: It’s truly fabulous, and one of the most unique things I’ve read in fantasy. He’s managed to connect our litigious western world with a fantasy world in a fascinating way.
Alex: It was hilarious to me, too. I’ve been describing this book to my friends (badly) as magical lawyers saving the world through contracts and blood. “God is in the details, literally.”
Jenni: But are they really saving that world? That’s not so obvious from reading just the first book.
Alex: Well, I think we could argue Tara and Elayne are trying to.
Marzie: I think they are at a minimum trying to right what wrongs they can. The two characters have a common ethos in that.
It doesn't end here! Check out Part Two of our discussion, over on Alex's Blog, where we further discuss the intriguing Elayne Kevarian, share our thoughts about Kos and Seril, and the puzzle of Denovo's abuses in the Hidden Schools!
Kos the Everburning by Katie Yu