Max Gladstone‘s Three Parts Dead is a cool idea. In the world he created, gods exist and magic does too, though for most of the world’s history it was practiced through faith by theologians and priests. Then, came individuals who believed gods did not need to be the intermediaries of power and people did not need to worship gods. People could have the power of gods, of magic, without the relationship to a divine being. Of course, war breaks out and the human magicians, called Craftsmen, as magic is called craft in these books, kill a major god and the ugly war grinds to a halt.
All of that is backstory for the novel, which is the first in a series. Three Parts Dead takes place 60+ years after the war and the Craftsmen and gods have lived in a tension-filled peace. The Craftsmen are useful to those in the faith and have their own laws governing craft.
The problem at hand is that the major god who resides on the planet has died. His power is like an accounting book with power flowing out in forms of obligations and protections, while power flows in through prayer and tributes. Gods are not supposed to just die. But, if they do, then the Craftsmen can bring them back to life. The only issue is that it may not be the god one knew before. Think of Dr. Frankenstein reanimating a corpse. Some bits may get left behind.
While Three Parts Dead is a cool idea, it feels like Gladstone is struggling to find his voice. The book reads as though Terry Pratchett, J. K. Rowling, and China Miéville were forced to sit in a room and write a draft. There are moments of humor that seem straight out of a Pratchett book, but whereas Pratchett’s entire novels are satire, the humor clangs too-loud and off kilter next to the seriousness Gladstone strives for. The cool concept seems like a Miéville storyline. The world is kind of steampunk. It’s not fantasy in a George R. R. Martin or Guy Gavriel Kay way. It’s much closer to Miéville’s Perdido Street Station. As for J. K. Rowling, it seems like Gladstone tries to aim for some of her wonderful use of language and brightly imagined interiors, but has overpopulated the novel with metaphors that aren’t really needed.
So, did I hate the book? No, I did not.
Again, the concept and world-building brought me in, and so did the characters. The main character is Tara. She was literally thrown out of the Hidden Schools of Craft, like fell from the skies and left for dead. Tara is confident, brash and talented. After Tara’s “graduation” she is taken on as an apprentice by Ms. Kevarian, who works for a Craft firm. Think of them as magic lawyers and it helps. The cast is rounded out by a devilishly manipulative antagonist, a vampire pirate captain, gargoyles, a junkie whose job is to be possessed by Justice, and a young priest / engineer who was there when God died.
The book is fun but not a smooth ride. I was hoping for something which flowed like Lev Grossman’s Magicians series. I may check out the next novel in the Craft Sequence, as I think Gladstone’s writing will only improve. It’s worth noting that, like Pratchett, Gladstone is expanding this world with new characters and new stories, instead of writing further books about the same characters. I’m sure at some point characters will reappear or overlap.
Overall, if you are looking for a fantasy novel that isn’t more of the same, I do recommend you check out Three Parts Dead. For more on how the novels are ordered, read Gladstone’s post on Tor.com.