The Brass God (2018) is the third installment in K.M. McKinley’s THE GATES OF THE WORLD series begun with The Iron Ship and continued in City of Ice. By now, readers should be accustomed to the slow pace and sprawling structure, and The Brass God offers more of the same, though it’s better paced than its predecessor. I’m not sure everyone will have the patience for this series, but if you can muster it up, I remain convinced it’s well worth it.
The Brass God picks up pretty much right after City of Ice and continues the story of the siblings at the core of the narrative (though we’re down one sibling and no, I’m not saying which), each having their own plot strand. While the siblings, and the other major characters, are all familiar by now, McKinley brings in a few new ones as well, adding to an already large cast. Given that this is the third book, there will be some spoilers for the previous two (for instance, you’ll be able to figure out which sibling didn’t make it out of The City of Ice alive).
In the arctic, the survivors of the expedition to the fabled city try to stay alive in spite of the harsh conditions and despite being pursued by magical creations from the city. It doesn’t help that the survivors are a mesh of two different expeditions that met violently — tempers are high, suspicion runs rampant, and egotism and sexism raise their heads as further obstacles. Meanwhile, aboard the ship that could possibly come to their rescue there’s the threat of further violence and mutiny.
In the, um, polar opposite of the arctic setting, out in Black Sands — the great desert beyond the edge of human civilization — Rel is carried along by a group of Modalmen — gigantic four-armed humanoids — off to a “moot” to debate whether or not to invade the human kingdoms. Luckily for Rel, “his” Modalmen are not the ones who eat humans. That group is ferrying another set of humans to the moot, though that caravan is more of a moving buffet as the Modalmen periodically pick out a few humans to munch on. It’s at the moot that Rel will come face to face with the titular character, the Brass God, a meeting that will change his life and possible the entire planet’s future.
Meanwhile (a lot of “meanwhiles” in The Brass God), the ongoing arc of the old gods trying to return continues, with machinations a-plenty involving Aarin, acting as a Guider and a conduit to one of those gods, and Guis, possessed by a servant of the gods. Their sister, Katriona, is all the while continuing her attempt to convince other merchants/ industrialists to treat their workers better in a storyline involving murder, Tyn magic, hit men, and a young girl whose background makes her an important pawn in the big game.
There’s more going on (I did say it was sprawling), but that’s much of the major story. McKinley handles the many POV/setting shifts smoothly and deftly. The novel is well-paced, and we move in and out of the various plot strands at well-chosen times, often as a means of increasing suspense/tension. The Brass God, like the other books in the series, is lengthy, but unlike its predecessor The City of Ice, it didn’t feel overly long or as if it bogged down in places. And while there’s no resolution here, the plot strands are starting to overlap more directly (or at least come nearer each other) and so they all feel part of a whole, unlike some strands in earlier books that felt too disconnected.
The world-building remains fascinating, and while McKinley takes her time with it, I questioned fewer of the details in this one in terms of how necessary they were in comparison to earlier books. Even better (though I can see how some might differ on this), the world continues to expand outward. We learn so much more about the Modalmen, for instance, here, whereas before they were just rumors and fearsome monsters. I also continue to love the interplay of science, technology, and magic here, and how we’re witnessing a world on the cusp of an Industrial Revolution deal with some of the “less sexy” aspects, such as labor laws, environmental destruction, and the like. And woven throughout are other important issues of bigotry and sexism in the scenes with Katriona, but also with the wonderful “Hag of Mogawn,” a character I absolutely adore for her astronomer’s bent and fierce independence.
McKinley offers up a richness and a variety — of setting, of character, of theme — that I find myself reveling in, happy at how she’s not rushing me through any of it. Some readers, I’ll grant, will be disappointed there is no resolution in The Brass God, having already devoted so much time to reading so many pages of THE GATES OF THE WORLD. But I’m willing to follow McKinley through at least once more, eager to find out what happens to these vibrant, fully-fleshed out characters in this absolutely fascinating world she’s created.