I will admit upfront that it took me quite a while to get through Last First Snow (2015), the fourth book in Max Gladstone’s CRAFT SEQUENCE, which would seem weird considering how much I enjoyed the other books in the series. At this point, I am just very glad that I did read it. Gladstone may have taken a while to capture my interest, but by the end of the story, I was reminded why I like his work so much.
To begin with, the story in Last First Snow takes place before Two Serpents Rise and happens to be set in the same city, Dresediel Lex, and has characters that carry over from the future into the past. It feels that way because we read about them in the future and now we are reading about them in the past. The cool part is that it helps to make sense of things in the future.
At the heart of Last First Snow is manipulation and greed. It’s pervasive across many different storylines in the book. Whether greed is tied to money, to power, or to religion it’s still about coveting more. The manipulation is the part that really hurts. It’s watching good people, who are trying to make a difficult situation work, get played by others who almost seem to smile while they stab them in the back.
Dresediel Lex is the home of the King in Red, one of the supremely powerful craftsmen who overthrew the Gods and became a CEO of a massive corporation that governs Dresediel Lex. There are problems with Dresediel Lex that stem from history versus progress. The old gods died, but some of their magic still remains. In the poor quarter of town, the Skittersill, this is preventing new development from displacing the poor tenants and undermines the magical standards that the Red King Corporation seeks to extend.
In order to reach a consensus on how to bridge the gap between the poor, increasingly militant residents of the Skittersill, RKC (Red King Corporation) brings in a neutral third party to manage the negotiations. Elayne Kevarian, familiar from Three Parts Dead, is a well-established practitioner of the Craft and an associate of the Craft firm Kelethres, Albrecht and Ao. Her job is to help fix the wards that surround the Skittersill both to protect the city and to meet the needs of the avaricious companies who want to swoop in and snap up the cheap property to develop it and the poor residents who don’t want to see their lives suddenly made unaffordable by instantly sky-rocketing property values.
Elayne has a history working with the King in Red. During the wars she served in the armies that he led to defeat the Gods. She remembers the horrors that were unleashed and is doing her best within the limitations of her powers to avoid having a conflict spiral back out of control.
On the other side of the RKC is the last remaining Eagle Knight, Temoc. When his Gods died Temoc settled down, got married, traveled the world and had a son. His devotion to his Gods has not died, but being devoted to something that is no longer active is not unrealistic. As the avatar of the glory of the past, Temoc is revered by the poor denizens of the Skittersill and is thrust, unwillingly, into a central role in the negotiations. As the rancor between the sides build, Temoc is pulled again and again back into a life that he has foresworn in order to protect his family.
Last First Snow takes a while to really get going. There are many supporting characters that are added to the story, but the real conflict lies between the King in Red and Temoc. The interesting, one could say tragic, part of the story is how both will try to avoid conflict and seek to sidestep the manipulations of off-screen actors who want nothing more than to see war. I enjoyed this story a lot and really want to read Two Serpents Rise again with all of the details about that past that Last First Snow shares with fans of the series.
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 question him after the zombie revolt two years ago though he played no part in that” or “Sansilva stores cursed 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.
I listened to the audiobook version of Last First Snow which was released by Tantor Audio in March 2019. Troy Duran gives an excellent performance and I definitely recommend this edition. Duran’s deep voice is perfect to portray Temoc but he also does a wonderful job with Elayne and other female characters.
I’ll agree with John that Last First Snow is slow going at first but pays off at the end, and I’ll agree with Bill that any writer who can make me love a character who performs human sacrifices must be brilliant.