Throwback Thursday: Three Parts Dead

Book cover: Three Parts Dead - Max Gladstone (a black woman with awesome hair and a black skirt suit leans against a wall holding a shining knife)The fires of Kos Everburning, last surviving god of Alt Coulumb, have gone out. Necromantic lawyer Tara Abernathy and her boss Elayne Kevarian must find out what killed him – and resurrect him before the church’s creditors claim the spoils, and the city is left to freeze and riot…

I’ve been sat on Three Parts Dead for years, for no particular reason. It’s one of those books I meant to read, but somehow always ended up passing over for something else (in spite of its magnetic cover art. That face. That gaze. That knife). This summer I finally did the right thing, and devoured it in a day.

If you’ve ever stopped to wonder why there are no fantasy novels about lawyers (what, just me? huh), then this is the book for you: a legal thriller where case law is intertwined with magic and gods have contractual obligations. It’s a fast-paced, unforgiving narrative – Max Gladstone takes his world-building at breakneck speed and doesn’t pause for breath until his tale is done.

Tara Abernathy was a gifted student of the Craft until she stood up to her mentor Alexander Denovo and was cast out of the Hidden Schools (quite literally, and from a great height – but at least she graduated first). Elayne Kevarian is a senior partner in an international law firm, who rescues Tara from an accidental lynch mob and gives her a chance to prove herself. But this may be the trickiest case since the resurrection of Serit at the end of the God Wars – and both Kevarian and Denovo were heavily involved in that casetoo.

There’s an awful lot for a first-year associate (and first-time reader!) to get to grips with: a new boss who clearly isn’t sharing all she knows; a Church struggling to come to terms with the death of its god; the murder of the judge expected to rule on the god’s estate; the return of the gargoyles who once served the dead goddess Serit; and the appointment of her nemesis, Alexander Denovo, by Kos’s principal creditors…

Thankfully, she has help – because good as Tara Abernathy is (…and she’s very, very good), even she can’t handle everything herself. Enter Abelard, the acolyte on whose watch Kos died, struggling with his faith (and the impact of his 3-5 packs a day smoking habit); his friend Cat, a black-suited agent of Justice addicted to vampire blood, who wants to help – probably – when she’s not on duty; and a down-to-earth vampire ship’s captain who definitely wasn’t involved in any of this, and is mostly too old for this shit.

But Tara is the undeniable star of the show: what she lacks in subtlety (and spatial awareness), she makes up for with ingenuity and grit. Under pressure, she always come up with a response – if rarely one that you can second guess (would you consider hoodwinking Justice by removing somebody’s face and popping it in your handbag?) – completing the image of ruthlessness and amoral self-interest that fits neatly into her role as witchy corporate lawyer.

It’s up to Abelard – and the highly compromised Cat – to push Tara to question her attitude towards the gods (a Craftswoman’s natural enemy) and look harder at the consequences of her assignment. There’s plenty of layers to peel back regards the ins and outs of the God Wars and the world that has developed in their aftermath. By the end, Tara’s chosen profession seems a good deal less inviting – and she has gained a new appreciation for other points of view.

As with any good legal thriller, there’s double-crossing and corruption to confront along the way, as well as more original ideas than you can shake a stick at – from faith as science to applied theology as corporate finance and magical practice as a route to eternal life (of sorts).

That said, I didn’t find all this quite as absorbing as it sounds – I actually think I would have done better to read it more slowly, to give myself time to take everything in – and I am giving extra marks for excellent concepts, strong characters and inventive world-building. I found the climax a bit too theatrical and deliberate (although I loved the scenes with the gargoyles; the plot about the fate of Serit and the nature of Justice was by far my favourite aspect of the narrative), the characters’ actions feeling a little manufactured rather than natural in extremis.

Regardless, this is a highly impressive debut – and I’m certainly intrigued to dip into Gladstone’s world again in future.