Three Parts Dead

by Max Gladstone

Cover image

Series: Craft #1
Publisher: Tor
Copyright: October 2012
ISBN: 1-4668-0203-0
Format: Kindle
Pages: 336

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Tara Abernathy was a student in the Hidden Schools, learning Craft, until she was expelled. Literally expelled: thrown from the floating schools to crash painfully to earth in the Badlands, left to return to her family and village and a life of small workings of Craft and contracts on behalf of local farmers. She had largely resigned herself to that life until raiders started killing people. Tara is not the sort of person who could stand by and watch that, or someone to refrain from using Craft to fix the world. The result was undead guardians for the town, perhaps unwisely formed from the town's risen dead, and only a job offer saves Tara from the ungrateful attention of her neighbors.

That's how Tara finds herself employed by the firm of Kelethras, Albrecht, and Ao, in the person of partner Elayne Kevarian. Provisionally, depending on her performance on their job: the investigation of the death of a god.

It's possible to call Three Parts Dead urban fantasy if you squint at it the right way. It is fantasy that takes place largely in cities, it features the investigation of a crime (and, before long, several crimes), and Tara's attitude is reminscent of an urban fantasy heroine. But this is considerably different from the normal fare of supernatural creatures. In this world, magic, called Craft, is an occupation that requires a great deal of precision and careful construction. Small workings are described similar to magic, although with an emphasis on metaphor. Larger workings more often come in the form of energy flows, contracts, and careful hedging, and the large Craft firms bear more resemblence to mergers and acquisitions specialists than to schools of wizards.

This means that the murder investigation of the god of Alt Coulumb involves a compelling mix of danger, magic, highly unusual library investigations, forensic accounting, hidden Craft machinery, unexpected political alliances, and an inhuman police force. Rather than the typical urban fantasy approach of being beaten up until the resolution of the mystery becomes obvious, Tara and her companions do quite a lot of footwork and uncover a more complex political situation than they were expecting. And, in keeping with this take on magic, the story culminates in a courtroom drama (of a sort). I really enjoyed this. It combines the stylistic elements of urban fantasy that I like with some complex and original world-building and a great take on magical contracts. I prefer worlds like this one, where any source of power people have lived with for a long time is surrounded by the controls, formal analysis, and politics that humans create around anything of value.

Tara is also a great protagonist. This is a coming of age story in a sense, and Tara is sometimes unsure of her abilities, but it's refreshingly devoid of worry or angst over new-found abilities. Tara enjoys her work, and approaches it with a well-written mix of uncertainty, impulsiveness, and self-confidence (sometimes warranted, sometimes not). I've read some good stories where the protagonist gets dragged into the story against their will, and some of them are quite good, but it's refreshing to read a book about someone who takes to the story like a duck to water. This is a believable protrayal of a character with a lot of native ability and intelligence, not much wisdom (yet), but a lot of thoughtful enthusiasm. I was disappointed to learn that she isn't the protagonist of the next book in the series.

The biggest flaw I found in this book is that Gladstone doesn't stick reliably to his world conception. At times, Craft collapses into something more like typical fantasy magical battles, instead of legal procedure and contract made concrete. I suppose this makes parts of the book more exciting, but I would have preferred a plot resolution that involved less combat and more argument. This isn't helped by the utterly hissable villain. There's a lot of complexity in understanding what happened and who was going to benefit (and how), but there is absolutely no doubt who the enemy is, and he's essentially without redeeming qualities. I would have preferred more nuance, given how satisfyingly complex the rest of the world-building is.

Three Parts Dead also occasionally suffers from the typical first novel problem of being a bit overstuffed. The world-building comes fast and thick, and nearly everything Tara does involves introducing new concepts. But the world does have a coherent history, and quite a lot of it. It used to be a more typical fantasy world ruled by gods, each with their own territory and worshippers (and Alt Coulumb is a throwback to this era), but an epic war between gods and Craft is in Tara's past, leading to the defeat or destruction of many of the gods. She lives in a time of uneasy truce between human and inhuman powers, featuring some very complex political and economic alliances. There's a lot of material here for an ongoing series.

This is a great first novel. It's not without its flaws, but I enjoyed it from beginning to end, and will definitely keep reading the series. Recommended.

Followed by Two Serpents Rise.

Rating: 8 out of 10

Reviewed: 2014-12-31

Last modified and spun 2017-04-01