I can’t describe how much fun it was to be back with Tara Abernathy in Alt Coulumb in Four Roads Cross (2016), Max Gladstone’s fifth book in the CRAFT SEQUENCE. In Tara’s world, a year has passed since Three Parts Dead, and Tara has been working hard in the city of the god Kos the Ever-burning. Now, a new threat, aimed at the nascent goddess Seril, the Lady of the Skies, emerges, forcing Tara to take even greater risks, and making her friends question nearly everything about their lives in the city.
Seril was believed to have been killed during the God Wars. Among the citizens of Alt Coulumb she is a fearsome myth, a mad god used to scare children, and her own children, the gargoyles, are viewed as monsters. Much of Seril’s essence was reworked into the demi-god named Justice. Justice was a powerfully functional machine that lacked compassion, empathy or mercy. Now that Seril has returned and merged with Justice, law enforcement seems to be changing slightly, but there are other stories, too, of winged creatures of stone who drop from the sky to save innocents who are in danger. The priests of Kos have kept the rebirth of Seril a secret, but that secret is leaking out, and the “shareholders” of Kos’s godly powers (soulstuff, measured in units of souls) are worried, and are looking to cash out their spiritual investments.
Tara is a Craftswoman, one of the secular magic workers who functions as a broker and a contract lawyer most of the time. Tara is worried about her own changes though; as a post-God person, she is disturbed when Seril — who talks to her regularly — calls her a priestess. When the shareholders send a powerful and experienced Craftswoman, Madeline Ramp, against Tara, Tara has not only her own insecurities but dark places in her past yanked forward into her memory by Ramp’s aide, Daphne, a former schoolmate of Tara’s.
Tara’s story is largely, though far from entirely, “lawyeresque.” It’s the “legal thriller” portion of the book. Cat, who is an agent of Justice, and her friend Raz the vampire, see changes happening in the streets of the city, and when a boat comes into port filled with zombified victims and a questionable manifest, they are rightly suspicious. Abelard, the loyal believer in Kos, struggles with his new role, and must play an important part in the changes happening in the city. He isn’t sure he is up for the task.
The new characters caught my interest and added a new layer of suspense to this story, because the fate of Seril and Kos, and the city, will affect them, and I deeply cared what happened. Gavriel Jones is a journalist who, somewhat like Tara, has to confront the aspects of faith. Matt is an egg dealer in the town market, and the Rafferty girls, particularly Ellen and Claire, are daughters of a vegetable dealer. The girls have had contact with the gargoyles and Seril; they are believers. This throws their already-angry father into a deeper rage. Hasim and Umar, both refugees to the city, play a crucial role in the final sequences.
The story is complex, twisty and still fast moving. Gladstone easily creates a world filled with various, competing interests. Along the way he still drops in plenty of humor and whimsy. Artifacts from the Old World (um, that would be us) crop up. For instance, when she is at home, the vicious, cold and formidable Craftswoman Ramp wears bunny slippers. If the story slowed down at all for me, it was when Raz and Cat hashed and rehashed their relationship. I could have done with a little less of that personally, even though it builds up to Cat’s decision, and action, at the end of this book.
I was personally thrilled when Tara Abernathy finally meets Caleb Altemoc, the main character from Two Serpents Rise. I was disappointed that their story connection ended so quickly. I want to be clear; it isn’t a flaw in the story. What happens is exactly what needs to happen. I was disappointed the way I would be if two good friends of mine stopped by for a visit but couldn’t stay very long. That’s an odd reaction, because I wouldn’t say Altemoc and Tara are friends themselves, exactly, but it’s a measure of how deeply I engage with Gladstone’s characters.
And some of those characters broke my heart, as they were meant to.
One side comment; how nice to see cover art that depicts Tara Abernathy as she might actually look!
It’s a CRAFT book, so of course along the way we get red-eye flights out of the local airport — on the back of a dragon. We get golems and zombies, student loans, Deathless Kings who drink pink cocktails with umbrellas in them, and magical skulls inscribed with silvery glyphs. We get stories about relationships, and questions about faith and spirituality. And by the end of Four Roads Cross, we are deeper into the Craft world. We see the issues, we see at least two of the sides. The one thing I can’t see is what’s coming next, but I know it’s going to be big. And good.
Thanks to my trusty Kindle, I toted along all of Max Gladstone’s CRAFT SEQUENCE novels on a recent hiking/camping trip, as I’ve been meaning to read them based on my colleagues’ positive reviews. Since I read all six one after the other, you can probably deduce I’m in full agreement with their judgments. Rather than an individual review for each, I’m going to review the series as a whole, without spoilers and actually without any plot summary since the other individual reviews cover that nicely. I have, however, assigned the usual star rating for each in the list below.
I read the books in chronological order, which (so far) runs like this
- Last First Snow 5 stars
- Two Serpents Rise 4 stars
- Three Parts Dead 4 stars
- Four Roads Cross 5 stars
- Full Fathom Five 4.5 stars
- Ruin of Angels 4 stars
Reading the series in chronological order meant the Craft’s weird mix of the fantastic, the urban, and the corporate/legal in Last First Snow was wholly fresh to me (possibly other authors have done this melding, but I hadn’t come across it before save [kind of] Wolfram & Hart in Angel) and I absolutely loved it. So much so that I kept excitedly relating the various expressions of that mix to my wife and son as we hiked along on our trails: “So it begins with, like, a 3D PowerPoint presentation at an urban planning meeting and becomes an argument about gentrification between grass roots protestors and a huge corporation run by a skeleton …” or “but he can’t because if he breaks the contract …” or “plumbing, it deals a lot with plumbing …”
The ways in which Gladstone uses fantasy’s ability to allow the metaphoric to become literal is wonderfully fun (and sometimes funny). Seriously, what can better convey the idea of a “faceless corporation” than a literally faceless CEO? Or the soul-sucking impact of materialism better than money that literally comes from your soul? The CRAFT world as clear analog for our own adds a stimulating intellectual/social/philosophical depth to the series, one that should provoke some hard thinking (and self-examination) in any reader.
The themes/subjects are timely and important: gentrification, the clash of tradition and progress, materialism, colonialism, the positives and negatives of religion and capitalism, refugees, atonement both personal and social for past sins, several more -isms, and especially responsibility across a myriad of applications: civic, corporate, journalistic, religious, personal and inter-personal. These are tough questions to wrestle with and wrestle the characters do; Gladstone does not insult us by implying there are easy or painless answers here.
Of course, if you’re going to try and make people wrestle with big ideas in a fiction series, you need to keep them reading, which means character, plot, and style, and with some minor variance amongst the six works, Gladstone mostly excels at all three.
Characters are richly sophisticated throughout. That aforementioned skeleton CEO — the Red King — for instance, would have been wholly stock (evil corporate bigwig who cares for nothing but padding his bank accounts) but instead had multiple layers of complexity to him ranging from deeply personal motivation to a true (I thought) desire to improve his city. His direct adversary, Temoc, is also richly complex. After all, it’s easy to root for the grass-roots underdog as he stands up to the corporate “Man,” until one realizes that he’s the priest of a religion whose gods call for blood sacrifice. D’oh! I’m about as atheistic as one could get, and can’t stand cigarettes, but I still found myself mourning the loss of a god alongside the chain-smoking priest of that religion. In fact, time and again I found myself empathizing with (or sympathizing with) characters whose personalities and/or actions and/or goals I did not like at all. That’s the mark of good characterization in my mind. And the characters I did like from the start, I mostly loved: Izza the street-tough girl, Elayne, the crisply coolly competent Craftswoman lawyer, and a host of others both major and minor. I also, many times, made note of Gladstone’s facility with small domestic scenes/details, which serve to both flesh out characters and also act as counterpoints to big flashy scenes such as battles, huge blow-up arguments, or rides on giant dragons.
Plotting is probably where I found the most variance. Last First Snow I found consistently tense and gripping while Ruin of Angels, while still thoroughly enjoyable, I thought bogged down in places and felt overly long. And Two Serpents Rise felt a little thin in spots. But really, I enjoyed each and every one, my favorites being Last First Snow and Four Roads Cross. I’d also say that Gladstone generally has a deft hand at twists and turns, often shifting the narrative just as the reader thinks they can predict what’s going to happen. That unpredictability is a particular strength throughout.
Finally, as noted, the writing is at a consistently high level. The prose is smooth and can be startling at times. Gladstone is promiscuously inventive and one of my favorite aspects is how we get these throw-away lines like “they’d questions him after the zombie revolt two years ago though he played no part in that” or “Sansilva stores cured their wares pre-sale. Over the next week the thieves and fences … would suffer insanity, depression…” The books can be surprisingly funny, and while every now and then things may tip over into sentimentality, generally there’s a truly moving wealth of emotion underlying much of the action. The magic can be a bit fuzzy, though it does clear up and fill out the more you read, but I never felt that to be a major issue; maybe occasionally distracting, is all.
If you haven’t read any of the CRAFT SEQUENCE books yet, I highly recommend reading them in chronological order and all in a row. You won’t tire of the settings or tone, and all the little cross-connections, bits of referenced history, and set-ups for future events will stand out all the more clearly. I’m glad I finally got around to this series and look forward to the next installment.