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What We’re Reading: Three Parts Dead

2016 December 15
by Josh Johnson

What We're Reading

13539191Three Parts Dead by Max Gladstone (Tor, 2012)

Max Gladstone’s debut novel Three Parts Dead doesn’t have a fantastic title. It sounds pulpy to the max (and this is coming from a great lover of pulp) with a dash of vagueness tossed in for good measure. It’s the kind of line someone on CSI: Arbitrary Metro Place might say while pulling down sunglasses. “I’d say this bartender is three parts—*tilts sunglasses*—dead.” And yet, the title is important. Gladstone wrote a nice post over at Tor describing why this and his other novels from the Craft sequence are named the way they are. And it turns a slightly cheeseball title into something charming and fun. Right? Right.

Three Parts Dead is more than anything else fun. I have final papers to grade and a new daughter missing several beats in her circadian rhythm and my own damn book to write and I just wanted something that would pull me in, make me excited to pick it back up, and reward me for investing in the story. And Gladstone’s debut novel does all of that and more.

The story is Tara Abernathy’s, a Craftswoman (a sort of magico-juridical necromancer person) who is thrown out of school, nearly killed, and then given a job working for a high-powered law firm. The case? Investigating the circumstances surrounding a god’s death and resurrecting Him if possible.

But this is also Abelard’s story, a young priest in the church of Kos the Everburning, the recently-dead god whose case (and resurrection) to Whom Tara is assigned.

And it’s also Cat’s story, a woman working as a peace officer (of a sort) and also in search of a high that will distract her from her life. Incidentally, her boss is the goddess Justice, who is a resurrected version of an old god named Seril. It’s complicated. Clearly.

Gladstone uses an omniscient third-person narrator to huge success in this novel, moving from character to character, following the story instead of perceptions of the story. The best moments in this book are when the same action is happening to/in front of/near many of the characters and the perspective moves effortlessly between them, keeping up the pace while adding in additional narrative stimulus. The climax of the story, which I won’t ruin and would probably take some serious time to explain anyway, is like this: strangely multi-perspectival and unified all at once. It’s great.

Three Parts Dead also has this great metaphor of the courtroom and legal troubles as fantastical and magical; it undergirds much of the action and plot in the story, and this way of jazzing up jurisprudence is hugely exciting and fun. About halfway through the novel, Tara and the opposing council present their opening arguments, but the whole thing takes the form of a magical contest held over the imagined (but very real) body of the dead god Kos. It does what fantasy is best at: taking a theoretical conflict and making it literal as a way of better exploring its nature. We see what legal battles are really about here: power, trickery, preparation, and will. It makes for a strangely exciting story about law.

If there are moment where Gladstone stumbles in this book, they are closely linked with how imaginatively his world has been built. Characters will sometimes turn to one another to explain things they both know (or should know) as a way to convey exposition or worldbuilding, and because the plot is tied up in the intricacies of a fantastical law system, Gladstone has to slam on the brakes at times to let us know what’s really going on, what’s really at stake, and what that person really said.

But those moments are few and easily forgotten in the greater genius of the novel. I can’t wait to dive in to the others.

What fun page turners have you been reading recently?

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