Tags: Max Gladstone
Tara Abernathy has a degree in necromancy from the prestigious Hidden Schools which float among the clouds, but as Three Parts Dead opens Tara’s falling out with a professor leads to a literal fall back to earth. After an unsuccessful attempt to return to her home town, she finds herself unexpectedly hired by Elayne Kevarin, a sort of high-powered necromancer/lawyer from a major firm, and thrown right in to work on a huge case. Kos Everburning, fire god and patron to the steampunk metropolis Alt Coloumb, is dead. The god’s city and church want him raised, but so do his creditors. Successfully litigating the restoration of Kos will require discovering who killed him and why, and that in turn sends Tara searching through the church’s archives with an acolyte named Abelard and the city’s underworld with an addict policewoman named Cat.
Three Parts Dead flirts with a couple different genres, borrowing courtroom scenes from legal thrillers and a huge pile of tropes from fantasy, but in its bones it’s a noir detective story. Tara reviews documents and goes to court a couple times, but she spends most of her time questioning uncooperative suspects and casing seedy bars. Judged as a detective story, however, Three Parts Dead is thoroughly mediocre. The character voices aren’t very distinctive, the setting is interesting but not very atmospheric, and although information is withheld such that the mystery is not solvable in detail, all of the twists and the eventual outcome are quite easy to guess well ahead of time. But the by-the-numbers mystery isn’t what gained the novel considerable acclaim since its release in 2012 and a Campbell nomination for its author, Max Gladstone. Some of the good press stems from something that is mostly outside the text: the cover, which in a refreshing change from the norm is unapologetic about depicting Tara as a person of color.
But Three Parts Dead has also earned much praise for its distinctive world. It starts with the relatively simple observation that if magic involves, as it does in many traditions, blood-sealed pacts and dangerous deals with supernatural forces, then it stands to reason there would be lawyers who would litigate those contracts. When viewed through this unusual lens, fairly conventional wizards, vampires, and gods feel fresh and different. Wizards become lawyers, necromancy becomes bankruptcy restructuring, and gods become corporations. It’s a clever bit of speculative alchemy that makes the novel stand out from the crowd, but it’s not actually all that successful.
A common criticism of Three Parts Dead has been that no rules are laid out in advance for the magic system, making the magical resolutions to Tara’s confrontations with her opponents seem arbitrary. This is true, but stated so simply it suggests that only the magic-as-physics approach of authors like Brandon Sanderson is legitimate. Unexplained magic can seem numinous, as in Tolkien, or capriciously dangerous, as in Miéville. Rules need not be stated, but it’s fair to say that a story with unexplained magic needs to do a better job than average convincing the reader to suspend disbelief lest events appear to proceed by authorial fiat.
On this point, Three Parts Dead‘s colorful world works against it, for while its constituent elements are very colorful, they never congeal into a consistent world. The fire god Kos seems like something out of a pagan pantheon, but its church is far more like the Catholic Church than any pagan analogues and the discussions of personal faith and individual relationships with the divine are straight out of Protestant theology. The steampunk tropes lightly sprinkled through the text are derived from the industrial age, vampires come from Eastern European legends, and the concept of gargoyles who turn from stone to flesh and back again comes, as far as I know, not so much from folklore as from the 90s cartoon show. Then there’s Keverin’s law firm of Kelethres, Albrecht, and Ao which, as the structure if not the sound of its name implies, takes its organization straight from modern legal firms. Mixing material from different traditions can help reinvigorate old concepts, but things can’t just be dropped in as-is, they have to be integrated with each other.
Three Parts Dead is far from the first fantasy novel (nor the last) to deploy the familiar cadences of the Catholic Church without stopping to consider whether these things actually make sense in their new milieu, but the biggest problem here is a reliance on punchline worldbuilding. You won’t know this term–I made it up while writing the previous sentence–but you are probably familiar with the technique because it’s used extensively in the Harry Potter series. The formula is to take something familiar from our world and give it a thin fantasy veneer that makes it humorous and interesting. Harry Potter has page after page of this: fantasy candy with funny flavors, fantasy books with funny titles, fantasy sports with funny equipment, and so on. Three Parts Dead isn’t so densely packed with punchlines, but they remain the core aesthetic of the worldbuilding, giving us moments like a legal document review that involves an out of body experience and drug addicts who get high on being bitten by vampires. In both Harry Potter and Three Parts Dead this material can be fun, but trying to build a serious story on such a superficial foundation is perilous. For example, addiction is obviously an extremely serious subject, but when an addict is impaling her wrist on an unconscious vampire’s fangs to get a fix, it smacks more of satire than something real. The light, gee-whiz tone also prevents the reader from ever being concerned that Tara might actually lose. Worst of all, at least for a reader like me, humorous punchlines rarely stand up to serious scrutiny.
For an example, take the premise of wizard lawyers in wizard law firms. Here Gladstone is on to something really clever, because to a layperson the law is an occult force they can only vaguely sense, a force that manifests in ancient language and strange rituals. Someone could write a great book leveraging this alignment, but Three Parts Dead is not that book. Its Craftspeople, typified by Elayne Kevarin, are not wizard-lawyer hybrids so much as characters who sometimes act like lawyers and sometimes act like wizards. There’s a mistake here that feels fundamental. Like any stereotypical fantasy wizard, Elayne Kevarin can blast people with energy, invade someone’s mind, raise zombies from corpses, and in general wield enough power to beat back an entire army of mundane people. All well and good, but then she goes to a courtroom to argue her cases. Gladstone tries to have it both ways by having Craftspeople “argue” using magic, but the contradiction is never resolved. What seems to have been forgotten is that lawyers are not themselves powerful. True power lies with the state, the leviathan of Hobbes, that compels obedience to the law. Lawyers are only powerful because they can channel some small part of that power through their knowledge and persuasive speaking. If Elayne Kevarin can blast her opponents into submission, why does she try to beat them by arguing cases in “Craft court”? Are her clients hiring her because of her magical power, or because she understands the law? If she merely understood the law and had no magical power of her own, could she still litigate? And who is the state that enforces this law which binds gods and humans, churches and nations? There is no monopoly on violence, that much is clear given the events of the novel, nor does it seem possible there a police force or even a military to enforce the court’s judgments, since these things are explicitly said to be controlled by the litigants.
A reasonable objection at this point is that this is a fun low fantasy novel, not a relentlessly serious epic like Lord of the Rings or A Song of Ice and Fire, and that what I think of as “serious scrutiny” is just killjoy nitpicking. To some degree that’s true. This is a matter of taste, and those looking for beach reading won’t be too disappointed (though they might still wish for a tighter narrative and more surprising twists), but Three Parts Dead invites this scrutiny when it quotes Bertrand Russell with its title and pauses its narrative to try to make serious observations about faith and law. It’s always good to see an author trying to break new speculative ground, but it’s also more disappointing when such efforts fail.