Reposting to include Bill’s new review.

Wicked Problems by Max Gladstone fantasy book reviewsWicked Problems by Max Gladstone fantasy book reviewsWicked Problems by Max Gladstone

Save the world, or fix the world? Can we do either? These questions underlie the second book in Max Gladstone’s CRAFT WARS series, Wicked Problems. Other things are happening in this 2024 installment, too, and the ending, while anticipated, is a gamechanger for everyone involved.

In Book One, Dead Country, Craftswoman Tara Abernathy took on a student, the orphaned and traumatized Dawn. (Mild spoilers ahead.) While Tara tried to teach her about the Craft, she couldn’t keep her own doubts (and self-doubts) out of her lessons, and Dawn took away a very different understanding of magic, power and responsibility. When Dawn merged with an imprisoned entity of the Craft, she became frighteningly powerful—and she’s not done yet.

Tara needs to stop her, but there are other problems facing the world. Namely, the stars are going out, devoured by the skazzerai, a race that feeds on suns and planets. Both Dawn and Tara want to stop the skazzerai; their methods are completely different. In Wicked Problems, Gladstone draws together characters from the previous Craft books. To simplify a bit, there’s Team Tara, which includes priestess Kai, the gambler Caleb, and Abelard, saint of the  fire god Kos the Everlasting. Team Dawn includes Temoch, the last Eagle Knight, who is also Caleb’s father; Malina, the woman who tried to awaken two demi-gods in Two Serpents Rise; a dead god Dawn resurrected, and a group of former mercenaries. Readers are quickly reminded that when Caleb was a boy, Temoch carved the sacred marks of the Knighthood into his arms, without Caleb’s consent. Kai, a corporate consultant (for lack of a better term) is also a formal priestess to one god and a hidden priestess to another. Tara is, in comparison, “simply” a Craftswoman, but she is unstoppable in her determination.

The story follows the various characters, weaving storylines together into a complex tangle (one definition of a “wicked problem”). Of course, the stories converge, with some resolutions that are expected, and some that are still surprising.

I’m going to detour a moment to fangirl over Gladstone’s worldbuilding and his wit. Part of the fun of the CRAFT series for me has always been the mixture of life in the world of the Craft. Corporate magic is nothing new now, but Gladstone has always created it on a large scale; the bodies of dead gods becoming water utilities, legal and magic briefs arguing the exact degree of contractual agreement between the mortals and the magic, the use of soulstuff as currency. The world is plainly not ours, and yet it is. You can catch a cab to the airport and sip a latte from Muerte Coffee (which is everywhere) before catching your dragon flight to a neighboring city—only your flight is powered by a dragon. You may be a powerful, well-established Craftswoman like Elayne Kevarian, but you can still wear fluffy bunny slippers in your own home. Magic is tracked and traded on various exchanges. On the other hand, no one would see the corporate ruler of the city of Dresediel Lex, a skeleton hovering in the sky, wreathed in crimson lightning bolts, and think, “Ho-hum, just another CEO.”

But what are the risks of corporate magic? This seemed to be the question in the first series, and Gladstone is digging deeper into the issue with the CRAFT WARS. In the wake of the Gods War, when the wielders of the Craft overthrew most of the deities, magic became democratized, or maybe I mean “democratized.” Almost immediately, it was corporatized. This system works for many, but not all, and it isn’t equitable. However, are the whims of the gods any better? Temoc, the last Eagle Knight, wants to bring back genuine human sacrifice and cut out people’s hearts, because that act was sacred, while routinely delivering a few drops of blood is bureaucratic. Does “saving the world” mean maintaining a status quo, and does “fixing the world” mean sacrificing millions of lives? Doesn’t the corporate world sacrifice lives, just more slowly? While our protagonists struggle with these very real questions, a truly world-ending danger glides closer and closer.

With Dead Country and Wicked Problems, I feel a change in the sensibility of the books. I’m not a close enough or astute enough reader to find the passages that support my theory, but my sense, especially with this book, is that the “save the world/fix the world” dilemma is now less abstract for the author. I very well may be projecting, since Gladstone has written elsewhere about how parenthood changes a person, but it seems like the urgency on the page here is more than fictional.

That said, Wicked Problems is an exciting, gripping read. Dawn’s journey held my interest, but I was glad to be back among familiar characters at times too. I identify with Tara’s mentor, Elayne Kevarian, who is functionally about my age—and by “identify” I mean I wish I was one-tenth as cool as she is. Saint Abelard, who has always been almost placid in his faith, shocked and startled me with a decision he makes near the end.

I don’t think anyone could start reading here without at least having read Dead Country. Dead Country was an excellent introduction to the Craft, but to truly appreciate this book, it helps to know the stories of the characters from the original series. If you are familiar with Gladstone’s world and its problems, this book will sweep you up in dragon’s wings.

~Marion DeedsWicked Problems by Max Gladstone fantasy book reviews

Wicked Problems by Max Gladstone fantasy book reviewsMark Twain once said “a book without plot or character is just a random assortment of words and so one might as well read the dictionary out of order.” Now, far be it from me to argue with a fake quote I just made up (he never said that. Nor did Ben Franklin or Winston Churchill), but I firmly believe Max Gladstone’s Wicked Problems completely disproves Mark Twain’s never-made claim. Because honestly, if a “random assortment of words” can give me segments like “The God gathered them in His mighty hands and lifted them into the hollow of his chest, where His heart once was. Tempe climbed the rough bone.” Or “Way up there, Serpents writhed and bled solar flares, and the King in Red was doing his thing, grown into a skeletal colossus in the writhing heavens, crowned with starlight, circled by planetoids of intersecting bone and crystal and coruscating lightning, yada yada.” Or “From below, one assumed that inside [the building] would be like any other spire: a hive of apartments and offices, restaurants, and health clubs, chained djinn furnaces, portals to frozen hells for air-conditioning, nutrient tanks for zombie labor, a Muerte Coffee or seven, everything one might need …” If a book can give me passage like that, then I say screw plot and character and screw Mark Twain. I’m in. I’m all in.

Now, that isn’t to say that Gladstone eschews either plot or character. They’re both here in spades. But man, this world with its juxtaposition of the cosmically epic and the quotidian, this writing with its seamless shifting amongst beautifully lyrical and laugh-out-loud funny and bitingly incisive, I’m honestly not sure I needed the plot and character, though I greatly appreciated their presence. And both are strongly executed, as I’ll go into below. But really, he had me at giant skeleton king fighting in the sky . . .

As for that plot, Wicked Problems picks up shortly after the events of its predecessor Dead Country, and we’re basically presented with three plot aims. One is to prevent the end of the world via the star/civilization-devouring skazzerai, who are fast approaching (think Galactus if he were a giant spider and there were a whole bunch of them). Two groups are trying to defend the world, but each in their own way and thus we get the the second plot goal, which is to prevent the other group from doing what they’re trying to do to stop the skazzerai. And the third plot goal is basically forming the groups in true “let’s get the band together” fashion, if doing so involved not a few phone calls but a high-security-prison break, “seeing a man about a god,” waking up a pair of gods (and they tend to be grumpy when they’re woken), dropping from the sky, walking through a plain of fire, and, well, you get the idea. The plot is exciting, tense, compelling, and varied in tone and style. Sometimes we get a mass battle, sometimes we get an uber-tense one-on-one scene, sometimes a quiet moment of introspection or relationship-building. All peppered throughout with enough humor that the approaching apocalypse doesn’t weigh the whole thing down overmuch.

As for the characters, I loved seeing the gang all together in one book, even if they’re playing in different bands. In my review of Dead Country, I said it made a surprisingly excellent entry into Gladstone’s CRAFT series despite it coming so late into the series. But I’m going to reiterate my advice at the end of that review (and argue it more strongly) that it’s best to read the books in order anyway, because here the sheer readerly joy of being reunited with these characters just won’t hit the same way. And who are they, for those lucky enough to have read the series already? We’ve got Tara, Abelard, Caleb, Kos, and Kai in one group and Dawn (newly introduced in Dead Country) leading the other group of Temoc (Caleb’s estranged father newly broken out of prison), Mal, and The Arsenal, a group of tough mercenaries picked up early in this novel.

It’s a complex weave of plot, character, and alliance/confrontation, particularly with relationships that cross group borders, the existence of a common enemy, and an understanding that both groups are aiming at something they believe will save the world, or, in one character’s more precise phrasing: “You’ve seen this world. Do you think saving it and fixing it are nearly the same thing?” And therein lies the other rub (besides the different methods of fighting off the apocalypse): what does saving/fixing mean, exactly? This is no simplistic “hey kids, let’s get the plucky underdogs together and defeat the Dark Lord who wants to turn the world Dark because he’s, you know, Dark,” kind of story. All sorts of thorny, deep, hard-to-wrestle-with questions present themselves in terms of how this world, or its various parts, constructs itself and to the benefit of whom.

One character muses,

What will [the skazzerai] find when they arrive? We have chewed the world for them, like a mother bird . . . Made ourselves useful instruments. What remains? What terror, joy, or wonder, when even the field of honor has become of quotas and efficiencies … They waited for us to do their work. Now it is done.

Another thinks,

The world is full of people who think they can do better. And it still looks like this.

Yet another makes a plea that

we have to change. Not just you and me, but, people. We hurt each other so easily. Our power grows, and so does our power to inflict harm … There has to be another way.

And if all that seems abstract or removed, here’s one more:

It seemed unreal, but that was wrong. There was only one world. It was all real. And one reason Kai’s part of that world functioned, her house and toddlers and her beachside drinks and all the rest of it, was that it was very good at distributing the blood and broken teeth and abandoned toys far away from the places where it kept its wealth.

I defy anyone conscious to read that and not think of our iPhones and Priuses (Priusi?) and out-of-season fruit and and and and, and all that is behind them: the forced child labor/slavery, the blood, the early deaths, and and and. This novel bites as often as it soars.

The difficulty of these questions, the refusal to make them simple or to provide simple, feel-good answers, is nicely mirrored in the characters’ relationships: estranged faith and son, former lovers, mentor and mentee, former adversaries now allies. Gladstone weaves a tangled web, an enthralling, compelling, thought-provoking, funny, scary, tense, insightful, spirited, action-packed, moving, and overall fun web. I’ve loved this series throughout, and Wicked Problems maintains the series’ high quality. I can’t wait to see where it goes next. After all, as Mark Twain once said, “If you’ve got dead flying gods, skeleton kings, and giant planet-eating spiders from the void between the stars, you’ve got yourself a winner!”

~Bill Capossere

Published in April 2024. A deadly force has been unleashed into the world. With apocalypse on the horizon, a girl and a god have joined in order to turn back the coming end. Young, brash, and desperate, they are willing to destroy anything and everything that stands between them and their goals. The structures of the Craft are theirs to overturn, with billions of lives in the balance. And it is all Tara Abernathy’s fault. The battle for the world of the Craft is heating up. A dead god will rise. A mountain will fall. Ancient fire will be stolen. And while Tara races to stop Dawn’s plans, the end draws ever closer, skittering across the stars to swallow the world. The Craft Wars enter their second stage in Wicked Problems.


  • Marion Deeds

    Marion Deeds, with us since March, 2011, is the author of the fantasy novella ALUMINUM LEAVES. Her short fiction has appeared in the anthologies BEYOND THE STARS, THE WAND THAT ROCKS THE CRADLE, STRANGE CALIFORNIA, and in Podcastle, The Noyo River Review, Daily Science Fiction and Flash Fiction Online. She’s retired from 35 years in county government, and spends some of her free time volunteering at a second-hand bookstore in her home town.

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  • Bill Capossere

    BILL CAPOSSERE, who's been with us since June 2007, lives in Rochester NY, where he is an English adjunct by day and a writer by night. His essays and stories have appeared in Colorado Review, Rosebud, Alaska Quarterly, and other literary journals, along with a few anthologies, and been recognized in the "Notable Essays" section of Best American Essays. His children's work has appeared in several magazines, while his plays have been given stage readings at GEVA Theatre and Bristol Valley Playhouse. When he's not writing, reading, reviewing, or teaching, he can usually be found with his wife and son on the frisbee golf course or the ultimate frisbee field.

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