Three Parts Dead, by Max Gladstone

In Three Parts Dead, Max Gladstone paints a picture of a fascinating world where gods are a commodity to be bought and sold, where “soulstuff” is the coin of the realm, and where knowledge of the Craft can be a key to immortality…of a sort.

The city of Alt Coulumb came out of the God Wars with one of its gods intact, Kos the Everburning. In return for the worship of his people, Kos provides heat and steam power to the citizens of Alt Coulumb; he is also the hub of a vast network of power relationships with other gods and god-like beings across the planet. Oh, and he has just died. If he isn’t revived in some form by the turn of the new moon, the city will descend into chaos and the finances of the globe will take a severe hit.

Tara Abernathy is a Craftwoman, one capable of manipulating the soulstuff that enlivens every person. With a little careful effort she can restore the recently dead to a kind of life; of course, it’s necessary to trim away the fiddly bits of the soul so as to leave energy for basic functions. When she is brought to Alt Coulumb by her mentor she assumes that the job will be to do much the same for Kos, stripping away the damaged identity and higher features of the personality and leaving a kind of spiritual machine that can do the essential work that Kos did. Something similar was done at the end of the God War to Kos’ dead consort Seris, who was responsible for civic order; the result was the cold, blind soul machine called Justice, whose unstoppable Blacksuits police the streets of Alt Coulumb.

But it seems that Kos the Everburning was forcibly extinguished, and it’s up to Tara to investigate the murder…while preventing her own destruction at the hands of her enemies. In a normal mystery it’s often useful to follow the money; in this case, Kos died because too much of his soulstuff was withdrawn by business partners at just the right moment. How was it engineered? And why was Kos weak enough to be vulnerable?

I’m always surprised when a fantasy author manages to come up with something I’ve not seen before, but Gladstone has done it. In this case, the nifty conceit is twofold. First, there’s the notion that spirit—soulstuff—can be manipulated technologically just as matter is manipulated. Manipulating soulstuff is how the gods of the nations do their thing, and being incredibly powerful beings of pure soulstuff they are naturally good at it. But some decades prior to the start of the book, human beings began to learn how to manipulate it themselves; this led to the God Wars, as the gods attempted to preserve their monopoly, and in the end to a new world order in which the men and women of the Craft work with soulstuff on a daily basis, and some of them, the Deathless Kings, are nearly divine in stature. Gods linger in some parts of the globe.

The second piece is the realization that economics still applies. A god derives power—soulstuff—from the worship of his believers. He provides services to them in return, which increases the amount of worship. A successful god is nothing more nor less than a going concern.

Soulstuff represents value that is transferred between entities, based on agreements. And if agreements are broken, redress needs to be available. And so the whole legal machinery of contracts and accounting are brought to bear: in the new world order, there are judges, and courts, and contracts, and ledgers, and many other familiar terms…but the reality of them is weirdly and frighteningly different than you’d expect.

This is the first book in a series, the Craft Sequence; I discovered it through Leah Libresco’s interview with Max Gladstone a week or so ago. I definitely intend to pick up the second book, Two Serpents Rise, which has just come out. However, I’ve a couple of bones to pick with Mr. Gladstone.

First, though I enjoyed Tara and the other primary viewpoint character, chain-smoking Novice Technician Abelard whose cigarette flames are an homage to his god, they always seemed a little distant. I didn’t identify with them or care as much about them as I would expect to in a book like this. I’m not sure how to fix it, but I think Gladstone needs to work on that.

Second, it’s not clear whether the book is set in a different world altogether, or on our world in the far future. It would seem to be the former, as we simply don’t have gods like Kos, who provides steam heat to his followers, or Selis, who polices the streets; we never have. Nor are there any place names that settle the question. On the other hand but most of the characters have names that wouldn’t look out of place in the town where I live. I found it a bit jarring.

Third, he’s got Bad Fantasy Church syndrome. Authors of fantasy novels always seem to use the Catholic Church as their template for creating any kind of religion whatever, ignoring the fact that Catholicism really is very unlike anything that came before it, or anything that has emerged subsequently that doesn’t derive from it. So the Church (the word itself is a purely Judaeo-Christian notion) of Kos is led by a Technician Cardinal who has spent much time hearing confessions, so we’re told. Why confessions? There’s no hint of an afterlife in this system; Kos is clearly a being of this world, not the next, and while he wants faithful devotion to him, there’s no obvious reason why he would be concerned in any other way with the morality of his followers. So why use Catholic categories? It’s lazy, is what it is.

But all that said, this is still an interesting tale, fascinating and chilling and surprising by turns, and while it has its flaws Gladstone definitely stuck the dismount. Recommended, if you like this sort of thing.

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