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“The more I read, the more I acquire, the more certain I am that I know nothing.”
― Voltaire

Four Parts Awesome

Three Parts Dead - Max Gladstone

It isn’t often that I find a book that hits that fantasy sweet spot.  An interesting lead character who rises above gender stereotypes, world-building inventiveness, a storytelling style that keeps me engaged, a clever little mystery, a willingness to poke at authority, and did I mention inventiveness? Three Parts Dead has a few bumps, certainly. But it was one of the better fantasies I’ve read this year, and if you’ve been considering it, I suggest giving it a try. It exceeded my expectations.


No review of mine would be complete without a quick little summary for the memory- impaired. It opens with Abelard, Novice Technician of the god Holy Kas Everburning and unfortunate on temple duty at two-thirty in the morning. His world turns upside-down when he discovers Kas’ Everburning Flame has been extinguished during his shift. Somewhat farther away, Tara Abernathy is cast out of the Hidden Schools. Barely recovering from the fall, she makes her way back home to her parents and a home she hasn’t seen in eight years. She spends her time recooperating at their rural home, but after an attack leaves her village without guards, she’s tempted to use her necromancer skills to resurrect the guards. Unfortunately, her actions are misinterpreted by the villagers, and Tara experiences a timely rescue from Elayne, partner at a Craft firm of lawyers who essentially negotiate contracts. The firm has a new job–resurrecting Kas–and Elayne wants to give Tara a position, although she isn’t sure if Tara is assistant or associate material. Complications begin when they discover Elayne’s contact in the city has been murdered.


Elayne plays the traditional role of powerful, enigmatic magical mentor (in the Craft), encouraging Tara to take initiative in solving the case while guiding her through the intricacies of working with gods and their followers. Ever since the God Wars forty years ago, both religion and Craft seem to be viewed with suspicion, and although Tara is book-smart, she hasn’t had much experience outside of school. But Elayne is calculating and controlled; there is no doubt she will have examined probabilities and charted several potential paths to the solution. Despite her formality, she isn’t without a sense of humor and comments after she overhears Tara calling her a ‘witch’:

‘A witch?’ Ms. Kevarian said, bemused. ‘I’d think you’d give me more credit than that, Ms. Abernathy. Riding broomsticks, consorting with unholy powers. Who has the time for such pleasantries anymore? Why, I haven’t been on a date since the late eighties.‘”


Narrative is third-person omniscient: largely focused on Tara, but also stopping by a judge, Abelard the Novice, and Shale the gargoyle, and later, Cat the vampire-addict and even Elayne. Personally, I’m usually in favor of limited focal points, but it wasn’t frequent or disruptive enough to annoy. Largely focused on Tara with occasional Abelard inclusions, both provide a similarly human (mostly) naive viewpoint that the reader appreciates as the two learn. The other perspectives don’t necessarily add insight to the plot, although they do humanize other characters and add both dimension to the world-building and to the emotional impact of the plot.


Speaking of characters, I rather like them, particularly Tara. She is a very satisfactory main character; determined, smart, self-reliant, and confident. Gladstone avoids all my pet peeves of extraneous wardrobe or boyfriend details, or the classic overcompensation of turning Tara into The Plucky Heroine.  Female characters are treated very well in this book, meaning that the majority have complex and possibly conflicting motivations. The men, strangely, seem far more straightforward.


"'I like this way better.' Cracking the book open, she inhaled the bouquet of its pages. 'I can smell the paper.'
'You're insane,' Cat said.'
'Knowledge,' Tara replied, turning a page as quietly as she could manage, 'is power. I need all the power I can get.'"


World-building is likely going to be the sticking point for many readers. I happen to love Gladstone’s style. I feel fantasy largely has two main storytelling traditions–the describe-every-detail of Tolkien, or the immersion-experience of Andre Norton. Gladstone follows the immersion style of dropping the reader into the world and building comprehension build gradually (his guest post at Fantasy Book Critic). I couldn’t help but be reminded of two favorites– P.C. Hodgell‘s God Stalk and Roger Zelazny‘s Lords of Light, so if you like either of those styles, I’d give this a whirl. There are no lengthy discourses on how magic works, and there is no appendix on the types of Craft (cough, cough, Sanderson), maps or casts of characters. The reader needs to be comfortably with world ambiguity while details build, as well as understanding that Gladstone’s focus is not to describe the city or even the world. He focuses primarily on relationships between the characters, their histories, the gods (and thankfully, I don’t mean in the romantic sense) and problem-solving the god’s death as well as the judge’s.  Contributing to the magical ambiguity, Tara’s magic seems interestingly of a ‘dark,’ death-like sort–after all, she makes a couple of revenant guards not long after we meet her.


There’s nothing that reminds me of the absolute subjectivity of a read as a book like this, where reviews from friends range from two to four stars. Like taking care of a puppy that piddles on the rug, I just can’t be irritated at something that is so good. Some readers will be bothered by character stumbles or plot points–I wasn’t. I can’t even tell you what they might be. Although I figured out the murderer, it didn’t really bother me because of the complexity of the motivational plotting. The ending was a little rough in the trope-like confrontation between Evil Individual Ambition and Collective Determination to Restore Order, but since there were a couple of twists I didn’t see coming, I can completely forgive the classic wrap-up. Likewise, while there might have been an eye-roll or two at the classic ‘apprentice-confronts-master’ denouement, I applaud the final determination.


As a side note, Gladstone wrote that he created a parallel between the God Wars and the U.S. financial crisis in 2007 (on his The Big Idea guest post). I wouldn’t have seen it–I was too struck by the parallels with God Stalk–but it gave me a new level of appreciation as I re-read.


This is seriously creative stuff, classic fantasy storytelling with modern fantasy fusion setting, with a tricky, tricksy ending. Worth reading again, and this is one I’ll be adding to my space-challenged shelves. In hardcover.