RogerBW's Blog

Two Serpents Rise, Max Gladstone 20 September 2014

Technological fantasy. Sixty years after the Aztec-like city-state of Dresediel Lex was "liberated" and its gods killed, someone seems to be trying to break the hold of the company that replaced those gods.

The best element of Three Parts Dead, I realise in retrospect, was the character of Tara Abernathy. And I realise it now because Caleb, our protagonist here, isn't anything like as interesting. He has a promising background (his father led the fighting during the invasion and is the last priest of the old gods, and gave Caleb unusual magical powers, but Caleb himself wants nothing to do with that life), but as the book opens he's bored, complacent, and essentially staid. Then he meets the crazy cliff-runner Mal, who shocks him out of his complacency (and sparks off his lust). Yes, it's a Manic Pixie Dream Girl romance laid on top of a fantastic setting. Caleb even has a lesbian best friend! Oh, Max, it was so much better when you didn't feel the need to borrow an utterly stock plot. All the other characters are more interesting; in particular, Caleb's father and the King in Red (har har) himself do rather better though they don't have much foreground time. The book eventually manages to pull itself off the rails it's been following, but for me it was too little and too far in.

Another good thing about Three Parts Dead was the small magics: stealing a face, performing an autopsy on a god, searching massive archives. That's not here; it's all big flashy stuff. The action sequences aren't bad, but the first book didn't need to rely on action sequences to keep me engaged. The central mystery of just who's behind the strange goings-on will be no mystery at all if you don't allow yourself to be distracted by authorial fireworks. The setting is much more explicitly borrowed from a single culture than was Alt Coulumb.

If Three Parts Dead was about the modern financial system in general, Two Serpents Rise is definitely influenced by Enron transposed into a water supply monopoly. (A mention of the possible need to impose "rolling droughts" makes sure this is clear even if you hadn't already picked it up.) There are also passing comments on the culture of anti-terrorism, and on ever-growing consumption. Since the rules of Gladstone's world are still very loosely defined, he can get away with concepts here (particularly in terms of the utility of gods) that really didn't seem to show up at all in the previous book.

It isn't a terrible book, and I will read the next in the series, but I keep mentioning the earlier one. This is because after that amazing d├ębut volume this was a profound disappointment; that book got right all the things that this gets more-or-less good enough. If they'd been published in the opposite order, I'd probably have enjoyed this and thought that the other was even better.

Followed by Full Fathom Five.

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  1. Posted by Owen Smith at 11:56am on 20 September 2014

    I thought Enron is an oil company. I'm struggling to see how rolling closure of petrol stations was ever seen as possible.

  2. Posted by RogerBW at 07:55am on 21 September 2014

    Look it up, particularly the "California's deregulation and subsequent energy crisis" section on Wikipedia. What did for it was speculative trading in the energy market, backed up by wholesale accounting fraud, but as with many American companies in a relaxed regulatory environment they realised they could make more money by deliberately screwing the customer with inferior service. "Rolling blackouts" were the side-effect on California's electrical grid of their (and others') market manipulation to get wholesale electricity prices up.

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