Two Serpents Rise by Max Gladstone
Two Serpents Rise (2013) is the second book by Max Gladstone and is set in the same world as Three Parts Dead. I struggle to define the “genre” that this series fits into. There are elements of urban fantasy and steampunk, but none of that really fits. It doesn’t matter because the books are awesome and Gladstone has built something that really works.
Two Serpents Rise features Caleb Altemoc, a mid-level risk management analyst for Red King Consolidated (RKC). As with Three Parts Dead, the story follows the intriguing and complex corporate connections between powerful Craftsmen, wielders of magic, and the gods. Caleb is caught in the middle of a huge incident when one of the main water supplies for the city of Dresediel Lex becomes infested with demonic parasites. This is truly catastrophic because the city is in the middle of a desert, reminiscent of Los Angeles, and the need for water grows and grows.
Caleb’s world is extremely complex. On the one hand you have the King in Red, one of the deathless monarchs who overthrew and slew many of the gods who ruled the world. In the 50 or so years since the regime change, RKC has become one of the major players in the city’s utilities market. So, water is the ultimate commodity because no water means no life and RKC, through many layers and layers of contract, is bound to provide water. Failing to meet the contractual obligations means draining the life force of the King in Red, the quasi-CEO and tyrant of the city.
Commodities in this world become ever more complex because the currency that is used is “soul stuff” — very small amounts of one’s soul can be passed to another. The process for this transfer is never well defined, but one can save parts of one’s soul in a bank, gamble it in a hand of cards, or even use it to pay for a flight across the city. Souls are a valuable commodity and it’s not just in a good and evil sort of fashion. It makes for a very compelling aspect of the story because characters have to consider how much of their soul they’re willing to trade away and for what.
As Caleb investigates the contamination of the reservoir, he comes into contact with a Cliff-runner named Mal. Cliff-running is something like Parkour except that the heights and distances that the proficient are able to cover are magically enhanced. The thrill of running across powerlines or into prohibited areas only adds to the rush the runner gets. Mal is Caleb’s best witness to the act of sabotage and tracking her down and earning her trust is his paramount mission. To do this, while protecting her from the authorities who might otherwise dissect her spirit to get answers, adds to the complexity of Caleb’s already difficult task.
Two Serpents Rise has many interesting aspects ranging from justification for human sacrifice to complex political maneuvering between adherents of the gods and the impossibly powerful Craftsman who have overthrown them. Much of the story seems set around the ancient Aztec and/or Mayan cultures and their honoring/satiating of the gods through human sacrifice. Caleb’s ties to the gods and those who still follow them is yet another wrinkle to follow.
Two Serpents Rise was a great read. After Three Parts Dead I was already pretty convinced that Max Gladstone could spin quite a yarn, but Two Serpents Rise was just as good, which is impressive for a second book. I highly recommend that fans of urban fantasy and steampunk give this series a try.
John said he didn’t know what genre Max Gladstone’s CRAFT stories fit into. I agree, so I’m going to coin my own term here: officepunk. The heroes of both novels so far have been employees of big corporations. There’s lots of typical office imagery — pinstripe suits, desks, clipboards, business meetings and contracts — but there’s also zombie armies, flying insect taxis, poker games as acts of worship, soul money, demonic parasites, and enslaved gods.
Gladstone’s world is such a strange blend of the familiar and exotic that I had trouble settling into it in his first CRAFT novel, Three Days Dead. I never knew what to expect, which made anything seem possible, so it felt like there were no “rules” and some of the major events seemed slightly arbitrary. This second CRAFT book, Two Serpents Rise stands alone but is set in the same world, so it felt a little more comfortable than the previous story.
Caleb, our protagonist, is a businessman who works as a risk manager for a company that supplies his desert city’s water. When he discovers that demons infest the water supply and that some angry ancient gods may soon be unleashed on the city, he has to find some way to save it. A pretty athlete may be a witness, but if Caleb wants to learn what she knows, he has to catch her first.
As John mentioned, a major theme of this novel is sacrifice. What would a good person be willing to sacrifice for others? When is it okay for a few people to be sacrificed for the greater good? What is our duty to our fellow humans? Do small sacrifices of our moral beliefs put us on a slippery ethical slope?
I read Two Serpents Rise on audio which was produced in 2013 by Blackstone Audio and read by Chris Andrew Ciulla. The title is 12.5 hours long. Ciulla did a great job with the narration — he’s got a pleasant voice and a nice cadence. I liked this narrator better than the narrator for Three Parts Dead and I’d recommend it.
I’m not sure what’s coming next in Gladstone’s CRAFT series. Book three, which releases next summer (and has a really awesome cover), is called Full Fathom Five. If we add the “Three” and the “Two” from the titles of the first two novels, we get “Five.” This makes me think that perhaps Caleb will team up with Tara, the protagonist of the first novel and they’ll work together on the project Caleb proposes at the end of Two Serpents Rise. I’d like to see that.
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.
Officepunk! I so need to read this series. Demons are the best explanation for some of the copier issues I’ve dealt with, to be sure.
haha! And I think I’ve met some demons sitting behind desks!
Kelly, you could probably write a great officepunk novel!
That is a nice theory! I wold like to see Tara again but I think the author said that we will be seeing Cat again in FULL FATHOM FIVE. I interviewed him recently (it goes live tomorrow) and I think thats who he said we’d see again. Either way I think I will love the next book because I’ve seriously enjoyed the first two. I also listened to the first on audio and really enjoyed it though I didn’t listen to the second.
Tabitha, thanks for letting us know about the interview — I’ll take a look. Have you seen the cover for Full Fathom Five? It’s really gorgeous. I liked Cat, too. Not surprising that he’d use that character again — she’s unique.