Saturday, August 23, 2014

The Saturday Review: Three Parts Dead by Max Gladstone

You know which Mission Impossible movie is my favorite? (Trust me, this is relevant.) The first one. Before they got too action-oriented and just plain ridiculous (though the 4th one was enjoyable), there was the first one, that, if you were paying attention, dropped little bread crumbs along the way. Three Parts Dead by Max Gladstone is like that, only without the part where Tom Cruise rips off his face.

(This book has zero face-ripping, in case you were looking for that sort of thing.)

This is the first book in what is now part of a trilogy, and as the third one is out - or due soon - it seemed like a good time to write the first one up. Gladstone's created a brand new world here, with it's own mythology and blend of fantasy and science fiction and even a little steampunk, and though there isn't a lot of the usual world-building that would go into a more traditional sci-fi treatment of the piece, there's enough there so the reader doesn't get lost wandering in and out of both the alleyways and the politics of this new world. Part of me wishes there had been a little more, as there's clearly a class divide at work in this world, and an even greater divide between the cities that run on magic and the outer areas that don't, and that's mostly left unexplored other than the bits the reader is introduced to as character development. Perhaps that's what the sequels will help do.

As for this one, there's a murder mystery of sorts at the heart of this story. Civilization is built around various gods, each one providing the life-force - or just the utilities - that keep their individual cities going. One of those gods has been killed, and it's up to a young lawyer/witch to help her boss figure out who and why. The novel does a great job of blending the legal aspects of having a city and a world that runs a lot on magic with the more down to earth practicalities off it. A great deal of thought went into how it all works, and though a legal drama might not sound like the best thing to blend magic and science with, it works very well. Even when the scene shifts into a courtroom, in a scenario that, minus the trappings, would be at home in a John Grisham novel, it never loses it's sense of action.

There's also some philosophical/theological explorations here, which is fitting when the other main character is a priest whose job it was to watch over the god, and who therefore has a vested interest in solving the mystery. Again, like the courtroom material, what could have been a heavy-handed or even boring exploration of these weightier issues is deftly woven within the action of the main story, and never feels out of place or makes the story slow down.

The characters were well-thought out, the machinations of all involved sufficiently complex without being overwhelming, and the world just gritty enough to feel lived-in yet still retaining its sense of being something new. A blend of Grisham and perhaps Mieville, with just a dash of Gaiman around the edges, this is a world well worth taking the time to explore.

As for that Mission Impossible thing? If you're paying attention, Gladstone drops clues as to the ultimate reveal, like any good mystery writer does. Some of them you may not catch until the end, but they are they throughout and they make for a satisfying puzzle. While you can't solve everything from the clues, there's a big part of the mystery that's waiting for you to figure it out.

Only without the face-ripping.

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