Ruin of Angels, published in 2017, is Max Gladstone’s sixth book in the CRAFT series. This story follows Kai, a priestess we met in Full Fathom Five. Kai is a, well, a “venture priestess.” She creates internal spiritual spaces for clients, and invests in projects that reach into the metaphysical — as everything in this world does. A project has brought her to Agdel Lex, a modern city nested in the time and space of Alikand and a dead city as well, while outside the squid-powered protection of Agdel Lex, starving remnants of half-dead gods ravage anyone who tries to enter the Wastes. Kai’s sister, Ley, an artist, suddenly approaches her with a deal so shaky Kai refuses it. And then things get bad.
Within the city, Ley has friends, or at least a gang: Zeddig, a member of one of the Families of old Alikand, who is a “delver,” someone who illegally enters the city of Alikand to retrieve artifacts; Reymet, a reclusive academic, and Gal, a knight (and a nod to Wonder Woman, I think). Kai soon crosses paths with a familiar Craftswoman, Tara Abernathy, and Bescond, a staunch member of the Agdel Lex Rectification Authority (colloquially, and not fondly, known as Wreckers) and her symbiont squid.
Ley created an “art project” that allows people to delve into the city of Alikand without protective gear; the Rectification Authority sees a way to make Ley’s project a weapon, basically destroying both Alikand and the dead city. The Rectification Authority, under the auspices of a squid-god, believes that it is doing the best possible thing for the people of Agdel Lex and the world, by closing an open spiritual wound at the heart of the cities. It believes it is doing the best possibly thing without taking into account the lives and legacies of the people whose ancestral home was Alikand.
The premise of the cities did remind me of China Mieville’s The City and The City; and sometimes, the scraps of nearly-dead gods in the Wastes did too, but this book is nothing like that one. Gladstone took the concept of multiple cities in one location and wove it seamlessly into the Craft universe. I did not miss the point that any city is many cities.
There are plenty of social messages at work in Ruin of Angels. There is a lot of snark directed at start-ups and funding pitches (we, with Kai, sit through a number of those and they’re funny); and what development and gentrification really do besides generate large profits for some people. There are messages about belief in oneself, and sisterhood, family and blame, but mostly there is a wild, complicated, action-packed story with lots of humor, convolutions and emotion. By the end of the book I believed that the squid-god-thing really did mean well, which I hadn’t been sure of at the beginning. By the end of the book I even decided I liked Ley, even though I hadn’t started out the book that way.
Gladstone has always written strong women characters who direct the plot, but I was nearly to the end before I realized that all the principle characters are women. There are male characters, but the movers and shakers are all female. There is nothing showy about this; the people who have an interest in the outcome of this story are female, and they make the choices that drive the plot. It’s well done.
And I liked the writing.
Angels gathered in the silence above the city. Ragged, hurt, and shining, they watched the new world unfurl: broken glass and broken alleys, burned towers, palaces unseen in a hundred fifty years, bomb craters and broken windows filling with people as they explored the fresh and long-hidden damage. Prayer flags fluttered in market squares. The angels hovered over a city they did not understand, a city they recognized from maps and memory but had never known in life. They saw it crisp and clear as new type.
I think Ruin of Angels was a little too long for the story, and I thought some of Kai’s ruminating, and Ley’s, could have been compressed, but I enjoyed these characters and the weirdness of the story got hold of me and would not let go. A fine story in its own
right, Ruin of Angels adds to the feeling that things are changing in the world of the Craft, and they’re changing fast.
Ruin of Angels is the most recent installment of Max Gladstone’s CRAFT SEQUENCE series. You can find my general spoiler-free review of the series as a whole on the individual pages for each book on our site (short version: read it), while this will be a more detailed review of just this novel. I’m going to assume knowledge of the prior books.
Gladstone brings back some characters from a few of those books, including Kai, Izza, and Tara Abernathy. He transplants them to a new urban setting, however. Or perhaps that should be urban settings, since, in a bit of plotting that may sound familiar to China Miéville fans, the setting is an entangled/overlapping set of cities. The old “dead” city of Alkiland was destroyed in the God Wars and the new city lying atop it is Agdel Lex, a city run by and really “imposed” upon the former residents by the Iskari, who are big fans of order, or rather, ORDER. The problem for the Iskari is the dead city isn’t really dead — it lives on in the memories and traditions of its original people, but, in yet another example of how the metaphorical becomes literal in fantasy, it can also actually be physically entered by “delvers,” so long as they have the right gear and magic. It’s still dangerous work, not least because the Iskari Rectification Authority (“Wreckers”) will hunt down and arrest (and worse) those who dare make these “incursions.”
Kai arrives in Agdel Lex for what is supposed to be a quick business meeting, but when her sister Ley, whom she hasn’t heard from in years, shows up and desperately asks for a lot of money only for Kai to turn her down, things quickly turn chaotic. Ley ends up on the lam for a crime Kai witnessed her commit, and Kai finds herself, much to her dismay, working as hostile ally with the Iskari police to find her sister and bring her own without harm. Ley, meanwhile, is planning an even bigger crime, but those plans are complicated by a host of factors, including but not limited to: the best delver she can hire is her ex-girlfriend and things did not end well, unspoken love between other members creates more tension, a brutal loan shark wants the money owed him, the Wreckers are on their trail, and the planned crime involves entering the Wastes, where dead gods will either kill you, drive you insane, or both (it’s fantasy, after all). Izza eventually arrives to help Kai while Tara finds herself caught between her business relationship with the Iskari and her personal morals/ethics. New main characters include Ley’s team (Zeddig, Raymet, and Gal) and Bescond the Iskari lieutenant.
As with the prior books, Gladstone tackles some serious themes in Ruin of Angels, including colonialism, the loss of one’s homeland, the responsibility individuals have for the wrongs of the world that they aren’t directly involved in but that their lifestyle or blind eye allow, the way in which history and tradition are both boon and burden, the clash between tradition and progress and between order and freedom. Those are some deep and deeply important issues, but one of the CRAFT SEQUENCE’s strengths has always been how Gladstone does not shirk the personal as he explores the social, and so we never lose focus on the ties that bind (for good and ill) between characters: ties of sisterhood, of love, of shared trauma, of simple shared humanity. To be honest, I thought sometimes the book tipped into the overly sentimental in a few spots, but those moments were rare.
I don’t want to imply, with the list of Big Themes and focus on character, that there isn’t much action here, because we get quite a lot, and then, towards the end, we get several lengthy breathless action sequences. That said, Ruin of Angels did bog down for me in several places, and felt its length much more so than any of the other CRAFT novels. I wouldn’t excise huge chunks, but I thought some small-bore pruning throughout would have streamlined and strengthened the book.
But a “weaker” CRAFT novel I’ve found is still better than much of what is out there, and the minor pacing issues didn’t detract overmuch, though they did place Ruin of Angels in the middle of the series for me rather than at the top with Four Roads Cross or Last First Snow.