Dead Country by Max Gladstone fantasy book reviewsDead Country by Max Gladstone

Dead Country by Max Gladstone fantasy book reviewsDead Country (2023) is Max Gladstone’s seventh title in his highly recommended CRAFT series (OK, technically, it’s the start of a new trilogy entitled CRAFT WARS), which might make some readers who sadly have yet to wade into the series hesitant to pick it up. But in some ways, Dead Country is oddly a perfect place to enter this universe. Let me explain.

No, there is too much. Let me sum up.

When Craftswoman (i.e. magic wielder) Tara Abernathy is forced to return for her father’s funeral to the small town she ran away from decades earlier — or was driven away from thanks to their fear over her burgeoning magical abilities — she finds that the town, centered in the aptly named Badlands, has seen an uptick the last few years in frequency and intensity of attacks by skeletal, undead Raiders created by “the Curse”, spillover magic from the decades-past God Wars. Before she even enters the town, she rescues a young girl, Dawn, who was the sole survivor of an attack on an outlying farm. Even this doesn’t gain Tara welcome though, and only the intervention of an old friend and her mother prevents her from being turned away or possibly even killed by the townspeople.

Despite the town having forced her out long ago, and despite the obvious ongoing fear and suspicion, Tara takes it upon herself to try and protect them from the Raiders and their new, powerful leader known as the Seer. In addition, she reluctantly takes Dawn — who has the same sort of raw magical aptitude Tara had in her youth — on as a student, though she doubts her ability as a teacher thanks to her own horrible experiences as a student at the Hidden Schools. Finally, she has to deal with all the unresolved issues with the people of the town, including an old flame who might be a potential new flame and a man who loathes her abilities.

As noted, this is the seventh book in this world, and as such there are reference to things Tara has done before. And certainly, if you’ve read the series knowing where she’s coming from will allow the book to carry some more character weight. But also as noted, despite that, Dead Country makes for a surprisingly easy intro to this universe (well, surprising only on the surface; it’s clear Gladstone has worked to make it so, and so I don’t want to trivialize his craft here).

Max Gladstone

Max Gladstone

The major way this serves as such an easy on-ramp is the teacher-student relationship between Tara and Dawn, who is the classic Confused-Character-as-Audience-Stand-In. And so much more overtly than in the prior books (I think — I’m working from vague memory so could be wrong), Gladstone is able to fill in the reader as to how the Craft works, what happened during the God Wars, and so on. To be fully honest, it was a little too overly expositional for me at times; I never feel I need a novel’s elements fully understood to follow engaging-compelling characters and/or interesting plots. I like a little discomfort as info is doled out in bits and pieces, while here it’s all laid out in clear bold type (well, not literally bold). But, while not my personal preference, I will acknowledge it’s a smart move if one wants new readers to pick up a seventh book in a created world series, as well as that lots of people do in fact like things clearly laid for them. You know where you fall in any of those categories and can predict your mileage accordingly.

Another way this is a fine jumping off point is how focused the narrative is. While it absolutely broadens (and does so greatly) toward the very end, for most of the novel we’re in a tightly localized setting amidst a very small number of characters enacting a deeply personal story that focuses on relationships: between Tara and her mother, Tara and her possible lover, Tara and her unresolved relationship with her father, and others. Tara has to find a way to make her peace with these individuals, her hometown as a whole, and her own past. In that way, and also in the way it explores the idea of going home along with the plusses and minuses of life in a small, isolated community (particularly for those who are different, and, even more particularly for women who are not only different but who also have power), Dead Country is a more domestic type of novel than a lot of fantasy.

Of course, that’s if one broadens the definition just a little to include calling down lightning from the sky, undead warriors impaled atop their skeletal steeds, a desert filled with unnamed and hungry monsters, gods (or their kin) and things bigger than gods. As I said, it’s only a domestic novel for “most” of its length. And even that portion includes a major, vividly portrayed battle and several fight scenes and deaths. We’re not talking Jane Austen domestic here.

The CRAFT series is one of my favorite ongoing series, and Dead Country both fulfills the promise of the series’ quality to those like me who have read every book and also acts as an open-armed welcome to those who haven’t read any. But while you can read this as an entry point, I’d personally recommend going through the prior six books instead. First, because they’re so damn good. Second, because while you don’t really need to know anything in them to enjoy Dead Country, it will make for a somewhat richer reading experience. And finally, because once you’ve read those six and then this one, your wait until the sequel to Dead Country will be all the shorter. Though of course, you could always do a re-read in between, which this book has quite possibly enticed me into.

Published in March 2023. Since her village chased her out with pitchforks, Tara Abernathy has resurrected gods, pulled down monsters, averted wars, and saved a city, twice. She thought she’d left her dusty little hometown forever. But that was before her father died. As she makes her way home to bury him, she finds a girl, as powerful and vulnerable and lost as she once was. Saving her from raiders twisted by the God Wars, Tara changes the course of the world. Dead Country is the first book in the Craft Wars Series, a tight sequence of novels that will bring the sprawling saga of the Craft to its end, and the perfect entry point to this incomparable world.