Two Serpents Rise

by Max Gladstone

Cover image

Series: Craft #2
Publisher: Tor
Copyright: October 2013
ISBN: 1-4668-0204-9
Format: Mobi
Pages: 350

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This is the second book in the Craft Sequence, coming after Three Parts Dead, but it's not a sequel. The only thing shared between the books is the same universe and magical system. Events in Two Serpents Rise were sufficiently distant from the events of the first book that it wasn't obvious (nor did it matter) where it fit chronologically.

Caleb is a gambler and an investigator for Red King Consolidated, the vast firm that controls the water supply, and everything else, in the desert city of Dresediel Lex. He has a fairly steady and comfortable job in a city that's not comfortable for many, one of sharp divisions between rich and poor and which is constantly one water disturbance away from riot. His corporate work life frustrates his notorious father, a legendary priest of the old gods who were defeated by the Red King and who continues to fight an ongoing terrorist resistance to the new corporate order. But Caleb has as little as possible to do with that.

Two Serpents Rise opens with an infiltration of the Bright Mirror Reservoir, one of the key components of Dresediel Lex's water supply. It's been infested with Tzimet: demon-like creatures that, were they to get into the city's water supply, would flow from faucets and feed on humans. Red King Incorporated discovered this one and sealed the reservoir before the worst could happen, but it's an unsettling attack. And while Caleb is attempting to determine what happened, he has an unexpected encounter with a cliff runner: a daredevil parkour enthusiast with an unexpected amulet of old Craft that would keep her invisible from most without the magical legacy Caleb is blessed (or cursed) with. He doesn't think her presence is related to the attack, but he can't be sure, particularly with the muddling fact that he finds her personally fascinating.

Like Three Parts Dead, you could call Two Serpents Rise an urban fantasy in that it's a fantasy that largely takes place in cities and is concerned with such things as infrastructure, politics, and the machinery of civilization. However, unlike Three Parts Dead, it takes itself much more seriously and has less of the banter and delightful absurdity of the previous book. The identification of magic with contracts and legalities is less amusingly creative here and more darkly sinister. Partly this is because the past of Dresediel Lex is full of bloodthirsty gods and human sacrifice, and while Red King Consolidated has put an end to that practice, it lurks beneath the surface and is constantly brought to mind by some grisly artifacts.

I seem to always struggle with fantasy novels based loosely on central American mythology. An emphasis on sacrifice and terror always seems to emerge from that background, and it verges too close to horror for me. It also seems prone to clashes of divine power and whim instead of thoughtful human analysis. That's certainly the case here: instead of Tara's creative sleuthing and analysis, Caleb's story is more about uncertainty, obsession, gambling, and shattering revelations. Magical rituals are described more in terms of their emotional impact than their world-building magical theory. I think this is mostly a matter of taste, and it's possible others would like Two Serpents Rise better than the previous book, but it wasn't as much my thing.

The characters are a mixed bag. Caleb was a bit too passive to me, blown about by his father and his employer and slow to make concrete decisions. Mal was the highlight of the book for me, but I felt at odds with the author over that, which made the end of the book somewhat frustrating. Caleb has some interesting friends, but this is one of those books where I would have preferred one of the supporting cast to be the protagonist.

That said, it's not a bad book. There are some very impressive set pieces, the supporting cast is quite good, and I am wholeheartedly in favor of fantasy novels that are built around the difficulties of water supply to a large, arid city. This sort of thing has far more to do with human life than the never-ending magical wars over world domination that most fantasy novels focus on, and it's not at all boring when told properly. Gladstone is a good writer, and despite the focus of this book not being as much my cup of tea, I'll keep reading this series.

Followed by Full Fathom Five.

Rating: 7 out of 10

Reviewed: 2017-03-31

Last modified and spun 2017-04-01