RogerBW's Blog

Three Parts Dead, Max Gladstone 07 August 2014

In a city powered by steam heated by a fire-god, that fire-god has suddenly died. An inexperienced mage looks into what happened. Gladstone is nominated for the John W. Campbell award for Best New Writer.

So obviously one can look at this and say "steampunk" and "urban fantasy", and that's not entirely unfair; there's an awful lot of grimy 19th-century London about the city of Alt Coulumb [sic]. But rather than the stock steampunk approach of taking historical Victorian society, grafting fantastic engineering or magic onto it, and expecting it not to change, there's some real worldbuilding here. Even if Gladstone does feel the need to throw in vampires.

Pacing is odd. The first third seems deliberately slow, introducing us to this alien world; the middle third picks up to something like a normal speed; the last third hurtles through events, revelations, and sudden reversals, as if the author had suddenly discovered he had a word limit.

There's rather less actual background information than there might be; the non-whiteness of the principal narrator, presumed from the cover and praised by many readers, is not mentioned in the text as far as I noticed, and the huge population of the city is only in the blurb (and the streets never really feel crowded). Gladstone's answer to any demand for explanation (particularly wondering how a particular thing might work) is to throw more stuff at us, so that we don't notice the cracks. That's not good if the reader's a gamer like me, but if you can keep him entertained until he's finished the book before he starts to ask "but what about…?" then you've done at least a workmanlike job. For this reader, that was largely true.

The same applies to magic, both the human-based Craft and the god-based raw power. It feels as though it can do pretty much anything the plot requires; we don't have any sense of limits or structure. As a gamer I deplore this; as a reader it does sometimes feel that our protagonist gets things a bit too easily through her use of magic.

Discussion of a magically-powered police force has things to say about the administration of justice; I hoped it would also have things to say about how it's possible to be a bad cop anywhere, but that turned out to go in a different direction.

There are some very pleasing modern constructs filtered into this world; the idea of gods as something like investment banks for soul-power was obviously inspired by the financial collapse of 2008-2009. There are also some very fine moments; particularly memorable to me were an early surgical procedure, and a passing reference to "third normal form" which made me smile.

Yes, female protagonist, and what's better no romance plot for her. Nobody's a fainting idiot here, of whatever sex. The characters are perhaps a bit lightly sketched, but they're a lot better than in many books I've read lately.

It's a big sloppy book overflowing with ideas. Yes, first novel. For my taste a bit more discipline and framework would be a good thing, but it's still distinctly enjoyable.

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