Three Parts Dead by Max Gladstone

I’m a proud atheist to the bone, and happy to be one. I’ve got no grudge against organized religion. Some philosophical and ethical questions, but I’m mostly content to say “To each his/her own.” However, even beside all of that, Three Parts Dead asked a question and sketched a situation that I hadn’t considered, but it made me intensely interested to see what happened next: What do you do when your first day on the job as a necromancer involves a dead god?

Tara Abernathy was kicked out of the Hidden Schools, just before being cast back to earth. Abelard is a lowly novice who was the man on watch when the Eternal Flame went out. Together, under the direction of Tara’s boss from the mystical firm of Kelethres, Albrecht & Ao, they set out to answer the three simple questions that pop up in any suspicious death: Whodunnit, how, and why? The fact that the who is Kos Everburning, god of the city of Alt Coulumb, does make it a little trickier.

To make things more difficult, the god’s followers and contacts all over the world depend on Him for power, whether it’s simple prayer or an agreement that His flame will protect their ships. Most of the other Gods are dead in a terrible War some years past, and so the pool of suspects for the passing of Kos is even wider than otherwise…

I’ve heard said quite often (and have probably said myself) that one of the most important parts of any fantasy is setting up a good system of magic. If magic can do A, but never B, your reader will enjoy and understand the story a great deal more than if they can simply wave their hands and create bullets or dragons or bring people back from the dead. (This is part of the reason comic book characters like Dr. Strange are so tricky, btw).

This is an idea that Mr. Gladstone clearly took to heart. The system he has created for both magic and religion is intricate and yet easy to understand. I would be amazed to learn that he hasn’t spent any time studying the law, because it’s a very structured and revolves around Contracts, finding the truth in court, and balancing the give and take of power. The fact that this is his first book is amazing-it’s very polished and confident.

As I said before, I am an atheist. I mention this because it’s in a fascinating way woven into the plot. Tara is a Craftswoman, one of the magic-users who depend on their own power for their work, as opposed to the users of Applied Theology who call on their gods for assistance. The Crafters were on one side of the God Wars, battling deities who felt that the humans were getting too powerful. Tara herself wasn’t there, but she follows their ideas. She doesn’t understand religion, and while she respects the immensity and raw power of Kos, she doesn’t worship any god and prides herself on her reliance on her Craft, and therefore on herself. Abelard is dedicated to his god, and feels a terrible emptiness when the flame has gone out. His love for Kos and simple reassurance in the warmth of his god’s presence is endearing and comforting, and certainly made me look at my ideas and conceptions of religion a little more closely. Both viewpoints are explored and treated with equal validity and respect.

Both Tara and Abelard, and in fact all of the characters in Three Parts Dead are strong, interesting, and very well-made. Tara loves her Craft, but does some questionable things with it, hesitating and second-guessing her actions (but not her power) all the while. Her backstory is very intriguing, and she’s both cold-blooded and idealistic enough to fulfill the role of being a good hero. And the villain of the piece is a quite disturbing fellow with a clever plan and a horrible history with Tara herself.

Writing a fantasy novel is hard. Writing a good mystery is likewise very difficult. Combining the two genres, therefore, has to be exponentially more challenging-you must not only create the world, but also the laws, courts and policemen that inhabit it, a much more formidable idea than simply laying out a murder in New York or Sydney, a place where we have at least a passing familiarity with the world and the way people in it will react in certain situations. In a fantasy world, the only limit is your imagination, and that is a plant that needs the right conditions to bloom properly, as it has in Three Parts Dead.

As with all of my other reviews, this one is also featured on Cannonball Read, a race to review a certain number of books in a year, all in a good cause. There’s a lot of other good stuff over there: please feel free to take a look.

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