Three Parts Dead by Max Gladstone
Reviewed by Liz Bourke
28 November 2012
Three Parts Dead is a debut novel to make you sit up and take notice. In recent years I've read a bare handful of debuts as mature and accomplished as this one. I've read a bare handful of novels, debut or not, that succeeded not only in being this vibrant and this inventive, but in bringing the vast majority of their disparate and sometimes hectic strands together into a successful conclusion.
Three Parts Dead is a wild ride that sticks the dismount, is what I'm saying.
Novice Technician Abelard is on duty in the sanctum of Kos Everburning, the god whose divine power drives the city of Alt Coulumb, on the night when his god dies. We first meet Tara Abernathy plummeting a thousand feet to earth, after being cast out of the Hidden Schools for her Craft—although not before her teachers graduated her. She staggers back to her farm community roots for a time, the losing party in the fight of her life, before the timely arrival of Elayne Kevarian, senior partner in the firm of Kelethras, Albrecht and Ao, who whisks Tara away from the consequences of meddling in helpful necromancy too close to her neighbors. Kevarian is in want of an assistant, or an associate, because she has been engaged to deal with the business arising from the death of Kos. A god's obligations, in Three Parts Dead, don't end with death.
Gods, however, made deals. It was the essence of their power.
. . . When a goddess neared death, the needs of her faithful, and of those to whom she was bound in contract, stuck like hooks in her soul. She could not desert her obligations, nor honor them and remain intact. The tension tore her mind to shreds of ectoplasm, leaving behind a body of inchoate divine power that a competent Craftswoman could reassemble into something that looked and functioned like the old goddess. But . . .
Well. Much like Tara's revenants back at Edgemont, a being once resurrected was never quite the same. (pp. 66-7)
The power of gods is bound up in deals and contracts, agreements and promissory notes. Elayne Kevarian has been retained to look after the interest of Alt Coulumb and Kos's worshippers in the matter of his resurrection. Perforce Tara must assist, both in discovering how precisely the god met his end and in defending his remains from the claims of others—others represented by Alexander Denovo, a Craft practitioner whom Tara has met before, for he was responsible for her near-fatal departure from the Hidden Schools.
But there's more going on in this fast paced, tightly plotted caper. Where would a legal thriller—and Three Parts Dead is recognizably a legal thriller, of an astoundingly innovative, fantastic bent—be without dangerous undercurrents, complicated history, and unreliable allies? Soon after her arrival in Alt Coulumb, Tara finds herself an interested party to the death of a judge who had some past association with Kevarian. Investigating the judge's demise leads her to Shale, one of the Stone Men—gargoyles, who are now despised and hunted in Alt Coulumb, but who formerly enjoyed a very close relationship with the goddess Serit, Kos's consort before the so-called God Wars—and to Cat, Abelard's friend, one of the Blacksuits intimately connected with Serit's successor, Justice: a shell of power resurrected from the dead goddess by Craft practitioners much like Kevarian.
There is always more here than meets the eye. Dead gods and dead judges prove to be connected in unexpected ways. Alexander Denovo proves a compelling adversary, the more so since the depth of his involvement in what's going on in Alt Coulumb is revealed only slowly until the climax.
Gladstone builds an intriguing world, a secondary world fantasy that's both recognizably modern and imaginatively, invigoratingly magical. He does so skillfully, incluing rather than infodumping, revealing the depth of background naturally in service to the story. References that initially seem off-hand, a bit of color added to the scenery for color's sake, take on additional significance with each new revelation, creating the impression of a tightly plotted novel within an expansive world. His characters are real, complex, and human even in their inhumanity. Perhaps the most complex character here—apart from the intriguing and opaque Kevarian—is Cat. As a Blacksuit, when she's on duty, she's part of a single entity that thinks and acts according to one will—Justice's. Off-duty, she tries to fill the absence left behind via ever more dangerous highs: she's a vampire junkie. This too is important to the story, to what Justice is and what she isn't; what Kos was, and what he will be if Denovo gets his way.
Slowly, the reader is led to realize that Justice, as much as Kos, is at the heart of this story. Justice and the injustice done in Alt Coulumb at the end of the God Wars. The climax lives up to the build-up, and the payoff is worth the ride: this is a book which intrigued, thrilled, and delighted me by turns, and had me cackling in righteous satisfaction at the conclusion.
Three Parts Dead has some flaws, on balanced examination. The at times hectic pace and the author's refusal to spell out all his complications and recomplications make it necessary for the reader to keep her wits about her: too much inattention, and you'll be flicking back pages to make certain you've caught what's going on. But it ultimately rewards that attention: this is a seriously good book, and Max Gladstone is a writer to watch out for.