With each book in THE CRAFT SEQUENCE series I feel more and more out of joint, but intrigued at the same time. Max Gladstone continues to play with concepts like gods and souls in ways that feel very familiar and completely alien all at once. Throw in a lot of reverse gender and religious stereotypes and the world this series depicts is something new and wildly different.
Kai is a priestess working for the ruling order/corporation on the island of Kavekana. The whole feel of the island is very Polynesian for me, but Gladstone doesn’t really say it. I felt like I was in a major city on a Hawaiian island with a huge volcano looming over the city, not threatening, but a very real presence and reminder of the power it contains.
The original Gods/Godesses of Kavekana left the island long ago to fight in the wars of gods and deathless kings. Gods died in those wars and the world was impacted in many ways. For Kavekana the results were traumatic because their gods never came home. In their place a quasi priesthood arose — a priesthood funded by the idols they created. These idols were a means for wealthy organizations and individuals to shelter their riches in a sort of off-shore account. The fact that the riches were comprised of soul stuff that other people had paid out in some fashion is really disturbing. In addition to physical labor, an alternate source of currency is part of your soul. It’s a fascinating analogy for the world we live in because in surrendering our time and intelligence for money, are we not perhaps giving up part of our soul?
Kai was born a boy, but in the process of becoming a fully trained Priestess was able to change to the gender she identified with. This is some of the psychological theory that I really don’t buy into in the world I live in, but for purposes of the novel it creates additional complexity to the character. Kai is exceptionally talented at working with idols and performing the rituals and observances necessary to funnel the power of soulstuff hidden away within these quasi-gods. The idols are assumed to be marginally aware, responding to various requests and transactions per the “programming” they are instilled with. It is interesting to note that they can be killed. The exact “how” that an idol replete with soulstuff can die is even more fascinating because the soulstuff can be traded and transacted much like money and an idol that goes into the red dies.
When Kai tries to intervene to save the life of an overdrawn idol, all sorts of problems happen. Lawyers get involved, but instead of being merely highly trained parasites, these are powerful craft-wielding lawyers whose questions are backed up not only by logic, but by the power to read your thoughts and dig into those things that you really wish to hide.
There are other characters in Full Fathom Five (2014) that make it by turns sprint and limp along. A fallen poet who for a brief time becomes gifted far beyond anything he ever hoped or dreamed, an avatar of a mainland god who is hiding from the world on a Kavekana, and a young girl who tells the powerful stories of unknown gods to children who worship in hidden churches while running from the law.
Gladstone is either a full on genius or a complete heretic because he deftly weaves all these storylines together in such a way that the story feel seamless. I didn’t identify with any of the characters that tell the story except for the mysterious blind bartender who gently moves different people down paths that they need to follow. This was not a story that I just flew through. I actually grew bored with it for a time because I didn’t like most of the point-of-view characters, but by the time that I finished Full Fathom Five, I was once again in awe of the talented Max Gladstone and his vision of a world where gods die, religion is a form of corporation, and people sell their souls for something to eat.
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.