Two Serpents Rise
by Mark Gladstone
My GR friends' ratings of Two Serpents Rise are all over the place, and I can see why. For me, the worldbuilding, the ideas, the questions, the pure conceptual brilliance not only saved the book but made it memorable. However, while the setup was promising, the first half of the plot was in desperate need of resuscitation. Caleb Altemoc, risk analyst, is called out to a gruesome death by one of the reservoirs he had assessed. ("The Wardens thought this was a homicide until the reservoir tried to eat them.") Caleb, on the hook for the investigation, becomes distracted by a beautiful, mysterious, sharp-edged cliff runner he discovers at the scene of the crime. Plot-driving actions often depend on flimsy or nonsensical reasoning, and the protagonist is the worst of the bunch. Put it this way: Caleb's only explanation for a series of idiotic actions is a nearly-fatal case of Instalove. As his friend puts it:
"I'm not. I want to help her."
"Because she's pretty."
"Because it's the right thing to do," he said. "And pretty is not even the right word. She burns. She's a verb."
While motivations for plot-driving actions were questionable, the ideas were practically effervescent. Caleb's city is a vibrant, clashing, kitchen-sink conglomeration of modern, Mayan, and magic, with pyramids and floating towers jostling for space with coffee houses and poker bars. The world is heavily influenced by Aztec and Mayan mythology and culture, but with a modern twist. Like the ancient Aztecs, Quechaltans are passionately engaged in ullamaliztli (called "ullamal" in the book), and while the religious backstories of the games are different, in both cases, the game transformed into a spectator pastime that is nearly a religion in its own right. The Wardens, who act as the city's police, supervise the streets from the backs of Couatl, and there are health and safety regulations for monster invasions. It's a crazy, quixotic mismatch of pragmatic and folkloric, with gods and magic and visibly effective religions, with nightmare telegraphs, zombie cleaning staffs, and god-driven desalination plants, and with most people just getting on with their lives.
One of the things I adore about these books is that the gods of Gladstone's world become the analogues of our massive institutions. Craft, the magic of the world, is fueled by agreements and contracts, and its dependence on soulstuff in turn fuels the economy. Two Serpents Rise tackles the aftermath of revolution:
"There is one thing you must understand about destroying gods, boy."
"You must be ready to take their place."
While Three Parts Dead took place in the still-god-blessed city of Alt Coulumb, in Two Serpents Rise, we get to see the true impact of the God Wars. The real problem with revolutions, as visionaries have discovered over and over, is what to do once the revolution is complete: once the world has started turning, how can one bring it back to rest, to stability?
"Sixty years ago, these men and women broke the heavens, and made the gods weep. They had spent the time since learning how hard it was to run a world."
In the case of Dresediel Lex, the King in Red stepped in and effectively assume godhood, maintaining the city's delicate equilibrium through a complex web of contracts in place of "divine grace". But while it's tempting to "put a fence around history and hang a plaque and assume it's over," not everyone is willing to forget. Civil unrest focuses on restoring the eminence of the gods, with the last of the priests--Caleb's father-- at the epicenter of the chaos.
The story revolves around the still-reverberating repercussions of the God Wars. The world has lost the blood, the spectacle, the viscerality of the sacrifice, but is it really any less cruel?
"Once we sacrificed men and women of Quechaltan to beg rain from the gods. We do the same today, only we spread the one death out over millions. We no longer empathize with the victim, lie with him on the slab. We forget, and believe forgetfulness is humane."
"Your system kills, too. You've not eliminated sacrifices, you've democratized them--everyone dies a little every day, and the poor and desperate are the worst injured [...] Your bosses grind them to nothing, until they have no choice but to mortgage their souls and sell their bodies as cheap labor."
The religious zealots argue that modern times have lost the meaning of sacrifice. As one character puts it,
"My problem isn't that we no longer sacrifice, it's that we're no longer conscious of the sacrifices we make. That's what gods are for."
Actually, it felt to me that everyone had lost the meaning of sacrifice, since in both cases, the sacrifice was required from other people. Caleb's definition of sacrifice--that discovering the ugly underside and then accepting it is necessary-- is an insult to the very meaning of the word.
"We come out here, learn the price of our world [...] You wander through this city, and wonder if anything you do will make up for the horror that keeps the world turning. To live, you rip your own heart from your chest and hide it in a box somewhere, along with everything you ever learned about justice, compassion, mercy. [...] And if you yearn for something different: what would you change? Would you bring back the blood, the dying cries, the sucking chest wounds? The constant war? So we're caught between two poles of hypocrisy. We sacrifice our right to think of ourselves as good people, our right to think our life is good, our city is just. And so we and our city both survive."
That's not a sacrifice; it's an ugly form of pragmatism. It's entitlement. It's exploitation. And we all do it all the time. But we do it because it's the easy thing to do. It's the polar opposite of sacrifice, and this becomes a central theme of the book.(show spoiler)
And in the midst of all of these big questions, we have the characters' relationships. Caleb's personality is revealed through his interactions with his best friend, with the King in Red, and, in particular, his father. (I purposely excluded Mal because she's a basically just a combination of plotfuel and MPDG.) To put it mildly, Caleb has daddy issues, which isn't particularly surprising given that Caleb works for the man who declaims Temoc as a terrorist. Temoc has his own spin on fathering; he worries about his child's career:
"There's no more priesthood, and what are kids to do these days when there are no more reliable careers involving knives, altars, and bleeding victims?"
He may disapprove of his son's lifestyle, but he tries to be supportive in his own special way:
"You're my son. I love you. You work for godless sorcerers who I'd happily gut on the altar of that pyramid"--he pointed to 667 Sansilva-- and you are part of a system that will one day destroy our city and our planet, but I still love you."
(Aww. Thanks, Dad.)
You know what? I don't care that the plot was a bit of a mess. I care about the Mayan/Aztec-influenced worldbuilding, and the conversations between Caleb and the King and Red and Caleb and Temoc, and, most of all, the ways the story's issues reflect those in our own world. The characters, worldbuilding, and questions of Two Serpents Rise are stellar enough to make up the difference.