Ever since I learned that Tor would be publishing my friend, Max Gladstone’s, novel, I’ve been extremely eager to get my hands on the book. And it does not disappoint.
With strong, unique characters, superior and highly imaginative world building, and an expertly structured plot that gradually builds in intensity until reaching a genuinely stunning climax, Three Parts Dead is an absolutely brilliant debut that works on every level, both the story’s main text and metaphorical subtext working in perfect synchronicity. Underneath its surface, Three Parts Dead is a complex, philosophical examination regarding, among other things, what makes a god, the level of ownership that gods and religions have over their worshipers and how much, if any, ownership or control worshipers of any given religion actually have–or should have–over their deities and beliefs. It is a novel about what it means to have faith, and about the process of learning to have faith, whether it is in a deific being or in yourself and your own abilities.
But it is also a compulsively readable secondary world urban fantasy murder mystery/legal thriller set in a steampunkish city, Alt Coulumb, that runs on the fire, heat, and steam of a literal, great and powerful god, Kos Everlasting, whose sudden death threatens Alt Coulumb’s long-term survival and balance of power and sets the plot in motion. Enter Kelethres, Albrecht, and Ao, an infamous firm of necromancers, a partner of whom, Elayne Kevarian, charges their newest probationary hire, our strong, female, refreshingly non-Caucasian protagonist, Tara Abernathy, with solving the case of why Kos died, before they use their sorcerous skills to resurrect him.
The reason that they can’t simply bring him back to life has to do with contracts. Contracts are what keep gods alive, the first one being in the form of simple worship: people worship a god, which gives him strength and the ability to bestow grace and rewards upon his followers. The more people that worship him, the more powerful he becomes. But because it can take a long time for any god’s influence to spread far enough for him to become powerful, various religions enter into contracts with one another, with the greater gods lending power to the minor deities, the potential problem being that if a god enters into more contracts than he actually has power to provide, it can kill him.
In this case, it seems that a contract with the Iskarian pantheon is what overloaded him, and if this is true, due to his debt to them, control over the exact nature of his resurrection could end up in Iskarian hands (in other words, he could be brought back as a very different entity, shaped by their needs rather than Alt Coulumb’s), unless his death can be proven to have been a murder. Given that his death coincided with the murder of a prominent judge, this seems increasingly likely.
What is so ingenious about Three Parts Dead is how beautifully and economically it succeeds in all of its various sub-genres. It’s far better than the majority of supernatural female detective novels out there. Tara isn’t a sassy, sexy, confident gal in heels. Instead, she is a fiercely intelligent but green young woman still coming into her own. Having only recently been expelled from a sorcerous academy in the clouds known as the Hidden Schools, she has had a lot of training in the magical arts and is very good at them (in fact, her expulsion ironically had to do with just how good at it she is), but she has also never been out in the real world as a professional, so much of this is still very new to her, and this first case–unlike any I’ve seen in an urban fantasy mystery before–has a profound impact on her that could forever shape the course of her life. She also has no potential romantic suitor. Three Parts Dead does feature a breathtaking romance, but it doesn’t directly involve Tara and it is unlike any that one would ever expect.
Meanwhile, it also features a more throughly developed mythology–including a complex and original, legally structured magical system, fully fleshed-out world that you can practically smell, touch, and taste (Alt Coulumb is every bit as distinctive and realized as the cities found in Scott Lynch’s novels), and intriguing history–than most epic fantasy tomes accomplish in 500+ pages, while simultaneously displaying more flights of genuine imagination and full-bodied characters than you often find in them, as well. Some of the novel’s most wonderful creations include Abelard, a young priest of Kos, who constantly chain-smokes in order to perpetually fill his body with the fire of his lord, a vampire pirate named Raz Pelham, cops who are literally possessed by the spirit of Justice, and anthropomorphic gargoyles who used to be the Guardians of the city but are now viewed as dangerous renegades.
Additionally, the mystery is elegantly structured, each seemingly inconsequential puzzle piece coming together by the end in a manner that narratively dazzles, even as it strengthens the novel’s underlying thesis.
And it accomplishes all of this in under 350 pages, while also laying the groundwork for future novels in what promises to be an absolutely smashing series.
Three Parts Dead might be Max Gladstone’s first published novel, but it certainly doesn’t seem like it.