Three Parts Dead - Max Gladstone

Three Parts Dead

by Max Gladstone

"Gods, like men, can die. They just die harder, and smite the earth with their passing."

God has died.
His light no longer warms the city. 
His fires no longer keep the engines humming.
His debts must be paid.
His people are shocked, incredulous, panicked.
Angry.
The only solution? Hire a fixer--from the prominent Crafter firm of Kelethras, Albrecht, and Ao, naturally--to resuscitate the god, if the justice system of the Crafters allows it. Before this is all over, there's going to be a lot of time spent in court...

 

I started Three Parts Dead after reading Carol's review.  I was intrigued enough to skim one of the articles she linked to, in which Gladstone talked about the connections between his story and the recent world financial crisis.  Once made aware of the possibility, the connections were irresistible, but always sardonically amusing and never preachy.  This facet to the story, which I might never have picked up on without the article, only enriched my enjoyment.

 

Even the bare story is tantalizing.  The story starts when Tara Abernathy, novice Crafter, is literally cast out of the Hidden Schools, the floating academy of magic. When she returns home, she decides to "help out" by turning the village's recently deceased into undead guards.  Much to Tara's surprise, people don't really appreciate seeing their friends and family zombified, and she is forced to flee. Fortunately, Elayne Kevarian, prominent Crafter of elethras, Albrecht, and Ao, turns up with a job offer: if Tara can navigate the legal snarls of her latest case, Elayne will take her on as an associate.  Unfortunately, that latest job is the death of the great god, Kos Everburning, of the city of Alt Coulumb.  And things aren't as easy as they seem: before long, Tara is being tailed by a rather hapless and chain-smoking Novice Technician of Kos, threatened by a faceless and extremely frustrated gargoyle, tailed by a vampire-addicted servant of Justice, and stymied by her decidedly disappointed ex-professor.

 

One of the aspects I loved about the story was the rich use of imagery and allusion. Aware of the ties to the global banking crisis, I couldn't help but see the references everywhere.  In the study of the Craft, power not only corrupts but transforms.  With each use or withholding of the Craft, the practitioner becomes a little colder, a little stonier, until he has irrevocably sacrificed his humanity and become a Deathless King, a skeleton of ice and starlight. Gods are not so much banks as whole governments; Craftsmen, these selfish, thoughtless people who can control the power of the stars, demonstrate the risks of an unregulated market:

"It's amazing the damage Craftsmen can do if they're not careful. Miles of farmland reduced to desert in a day by a battle between a Deathless King and a pantheon of tribal gods. Of course the Craftsman doesn't care. He lives off starlight and bare earth. The people are left without water, without homes and the little protection their gods afforded them. 'Free,' as the Craftsmen would say."

Yet when the structure topples, when the people rise, it is not the powerful Craftsmen--the investors, the CEOs, the presidents--who are sacrificed to the fear of the multitude:

"[Not] Craftsmen at all but mathematicians and philosophers, anatomists and chemists and scholars...[the] less militant and more trusting brethren fell to murder and to the madness of the crowds.
It was a dangerous era for those who used their minds."

Even more tellingly, it is a Craftsman who blinds Justice, trapping a goddess within a web of human error and procedure and loopholes:

"Justice was a goddess remade in the image of man. Craft wound through her Sanctum...but the web was not Justice. She swelled within it unseen, a colossal distortion at the heart of coarse human Craft. Tara saw her in outline, a face pressed against, or trapped beneath, a shroud of silk ...her empty eye sockets were pits of broken, glittering stone." 

 He sets up a puppet, a travesty, in the place of truth, and thus gains the power of a god.  As he tells Tara,

"'Justice is blind. I blinded her myself, twenty years before you were born...you've forgotten the first law of design. Never make anything that can be used to hurt you.'"

Within a world where strength and trickery control the outcome of trial and justice, by using the minds and strength and drudgery of others, a man can achieve limitless power. Elayne captures Denovo's driving desires:

"I think you're only happy with a philosophical framework that allows you to be a god."

(show spoiler)

The symbolism was beautiful. The weakest part, for me, was the characters. The book itself is quite short, and there's a large cast and quite a bit of action crammed into the pages, so it's no surprise that the characters felt a little undeveloped. I feel that I never really got to know Abelard, Shale, Elayne, and Cat; sure, I can describe them and provide a quick blurb about their personalities, but my understanding of their perspective felt oddly shallow and distant.

 

Abelard, especially, felt like a tool of the narrative rather than a character in his own right. While this was perhaps appropriate--almost his entire role is to act as an instrument for his God--I found it a bit lacking. All I really know about him is that he is faithful to his God and spends the entire book being pushed around by everyone else.  With all of the characters, I felt that the elements I understood of their personalities were due to direct narrative exposition. I knew Cat was an addict because the narrative informed me, but I never understood what drove her desire to lose herself in Justice and vampire venom, or what caused her to follow Justice in the first place. I found Shale equally flat, a placeholder for a plot point rather than a person.

(show spoiler)

 Tara, the most thoroughly explored character, more depth to her, but even there, I found myself wanting more. It's hard to explain. In many ways, the characters were multidimensional; yet I never felt as though I could predict their actions or fully understand their internal struggles. Part of this may have been the roving third-person perspective; I've come to the realization that first-person tends to be riskier, but with a tremendous payoff in terms of the rich revelation of personality. However, the narrative style certainly aids in maintaining the driving action. The plot proceeded in elaborate, pulse-racing choreography, and even as I admired the special effects, I never quite lost the sense that I was watching a big-budget action flick.


One impressive aspect of the novel was the surprisingly well-developed and genre-defying female characters. I loved the way that even the standard gender domains of the gods were disrupted within the book. Kos Everburning--gentle, warm, the bringer of light and life--is the masculine being, while Seril Green-Eyes--cold, analytical, she who dispatches swift and unerring justice--was the feminine entity. I was also impressed by the multilayered ways in which Gladstone dealt with themes of rape and consent. In one incident, an addict forces her hand into a sleeping vampire's mouth, but, as he points out, although he may have bitten down, unconscious reactions don't imply consent.

Gladstone thoughtfully confronts the issue of consent without agency to refuse, both in terms of addiction--including addiction to the sense of self-confidence that surrendering oneself to Justice brings--and via the undue influence that Denovo uses to gain the trust of his students. When Elayne confronts him on his abuse of power in binding the young students, he responds,

"'Unethical? If you asked most of my, ah, students, they'd claim they are quite happy with my methods.'

'Because you don't allow them to be unhappy.'

'It's a fulfilling experience, being devoted to a cause.'"

(show spoiler)

 In the interview, Gladstone comments that he has a huge "huge writer-crush on Terry Pratchett," and in fact the story reminded me strongly of some of Pratchett's middle period works such as Pyramids or Small Gods. Gladstone's naming scheme hints a bit of Pratchett--the monk Abelard, the fire-worshiping city of Alt Coulumb, the ambitious Denovo, etc. Despite its overarching themes, the story is not devoid of wordplay and humour; for example, take the discussion of taxi drivers in Kos Everburning's city:

"'Cabbies in Alt Coulumb are touchy, with reason. The Guild has a zero tolerance for accidents.'

'They fire you if you have a wreck?'

'It involves fire, yes.'"

or the surprising appearance of Elayne Kevarian:

"Something about her [Ms Kevarian] made the eyes cringe. Maybe it was the way her dark gray suit soaked in the light, maybe it was the way steam from her coffee cup swirled around her like a demon's wreath of flames. Maybe it was the neon yellow smiley face on the cup's side."

Gladstone's ability to slip surprisingly powerful comments into the narrative also reminded me of Pratchett; for example:

"Land lied to the feet, and to the soul. You stand, it whispered, upon unchanging ground. You build upon certainty, and your foundations will never crumble."

 

"Hate directed was easily controlled."

"Was this what Gerhardt wanted, do you think, when he published Das Thaumas? To stretch into eternity, until life becomes nothing but the search for more life? Or did he dream of something greater?"

"Fire, the Church taught, was life, energy's ever-changing dance upon a stage of decaying matter. Every priest and priestess, every citizen, had one duty before all else to their Lord: to recognize the glory of that transformation.
Abelard looked into the Cardinal's dying eyes, and saw within them no fire but that which consumes."

(show spoiler)

Gladstone's story is a fantastic feat of fancy, a compelling story in which the idea drives the plot and the plot drives the characters. The ideas are so tantalizing and the viewpoint so unique that I found myself enthralled.