Review: Three Parts Dead

What happens when you apply the logics of modern-day contract law to a world in which deities provably exist and provide quantifiable services to their followers? That’s the question posed by Max Gladstone’s Three Parts Dead, his debut novel and the first novel in his Craft sequence, which he describes on his website as “legal thrillers about faith, or religious thrillers about law and finance”. About which claim more anon; let’s just say for now that this is the story of Tara Abernethy, a disgraced young lawyer of sorts who specialises in arranging the affairs of dead gods. She’s approached by Elayne Kevarian, senior partner in the firm of Kelethras, Albrecht and Ao, to assist her in the case of Kos Everburning, the god who powers the cosmopolitan city of Alt Coulomb and who has recently died, leaving him, obviously, unable to fulfil his obligations to the city. The pair have firstly to figure out what killed Kos in the first place, and secondly resurrect a version of him to keep the city running.

There’s something nerdily fascinating, isn’t there, about the “fantasyland does bureaucracy” formula: it’s what makes Terry Pratchett’s Going Postal, in which a convicted criminal rejuvenates the postal system of a steampunked London analogue, work so well; or a novel like Steven Brust’s Orca, which features a financial crisis in a high fantasy world ruled by elves. I think this has something to do with the pre-industrial economies often depicted in such works: in the absence of significant mechanisation (which is often replaced by magic, an individual craft almost never used in circumstances of mass production), the protagonists of these novels have a tangible relationship to their work and the products of their work that modern-day knowledge workers do not have. Tara, Elayne and the other lawyer-types in Three Parts Dead do magic as a key part of their practice; in Going Postal, favourably comparing the tangibility of the mail to the ephemerality of a semaphore message is a specific marketing strategy deployed by protagonist Moist. Orca is perhaps the most subversive of the three in that it makes use of generic convention – i.e. our culturally conditioned expectation that pre-industrial economies are based on tangible goods rather than abstractions – to shed light on the utter ridiculousness of our current economic system: the fact that protagonist Vlad finds nothing of substance beneath the businessman Fyres’ complex financial arrangements is the point, it’s the great scandal of the book. And if it’s a scandal in that world, why isn’t it more of one in ours?

Going Postal, too, features a critique of economic systems that prioritise delivering profits to shareholders rather than producing goods or useful services: the semaphore company that is the post office’s main competitor has been acquired by the arch-capitalist Reacher Gilt in a way that seems to have involved convoluted financial mismanagement, and he’s busy running the system into the ground while extracting as much profit as possible from it. Three Parts Dead, by contrast, doesn’t quite seem aware of the difference between its protagonists’ relationship to the products of their work and our relationship to it in the same way, which I guess makes it feel a little…mendacious. It tells us that, ooh, aren’t these characters’ lives fun and detailed and interesting, and therefore isn’t work under late capitalism basically fun and detailed and interesting (even if there are some bad eggs), when the two things aren’t the same at all?

So. What about Gladstone’s legal/religious thriller claim I mentioned above? Well, Three Parts Dead isn’t really about religion or faith, and I think in fact its legal framing of how deities work in its world actually precludes it from being about religion or faith. In this world, the gods definitively exist. They are governed by discoverable rules. They pay attention to contract language. There is, in short, nothing of the numinous or mysterious about them. They are just extraordinarily powerful but ultimately knowable beings. That’s not how religious faith works, and this is something that SFF authors very often get wrong when writing about the gods: faith is fundamentally irrational. It is about the unknowable dimensions of human existence.

That’s not to say Three Parts Dead is a bad book: you can write about gods without writing about religious faith, I think, it’s just a question of what you’re using them for. But actually I didn’t find it a hugely compelling novel, partly because of the ideological problems I’ve talked about above: it reproduces capitalist orthodoxies in its fantasy world without really saying anything about them, and I’m not sure how interesting that is, ultimately. I certainly didn’t find it anywhere near as intricate and intelligent as Gladstone’s latest solo novel Empress of Forever; but then there’s seven years and about as many books between them, so I suppose that’s not surprising. I might well read more of the Craft sequence, just because I did enjoy Empress so much; but Three Parts Dead was quite hard going, and a little disappointing.

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