Three Parts Dead by Max Gladstone

‘To fear love is to fear life, and those who fear life are already three parts dead.’
Bertrand Russell – Marriage and Morals (1929)
That use of the word parts in that Bertrand Russell quote should be read as quarters. Fearing life is to be three quarters dead already. Undoubtedly the source of the title for Max Gladstone’s debut novel Three Parts Dead, it offers some interesting insight into the purpose behind this legal thriller vis`-a-vis´ fantasy.

Kos the god of fire, is dead. But, in Alt Coulumn, death doesn’t have to be permanent. No longer responding to His faithful nor fulfilling His contracts, the firm of Kelethres, Albrecht, and Ao have been called in to represent the Church in Kos’s resurrection and restructuring of His obligations. Without Him, the metropolis’s steam generators will fail, its trains will cease running, and its four million citizens will riot.

“. . .When a god makes deals with other people, deities or Craftsmen, they borrow his power, his blood, through those holes. Out when it’s paid out, and in when it returns, increased by the terms of the contract.”

What appeared on the surface to be an accidental death is in truth much more and Tara, a first-year associate necromancer, soon finds herself in the middle of a murder investigation.

Anytime a story involves gods, particularly at the microcosm level portrayed in Three Parts Dead, there’s going to be some discussion on the nature of belief. Informed by the Bertrand Russell quote that headlines this review, I interpreted that discussion to be the conflict between idealism and pragmatism. Russell being one of the founders of the so-called ‘revolt against idealism’ I found of particular interest. Reinforced by the modern wave of cynical fantasy, most identified with Joe Abercrombie, today’s fantasy tends to argue that ideals only bring bloodshed and disappointment and pragmatism is a nice way of saying self preservation.

Gladstone takes a different approach, identifying and demonizing the all encompassing soul searing obsession, while reaffirming the importance of actions informed by belief. This discussion is linked most closely to Tara. Beginning as a student, cast out of school for failing to conform to the rules, she returns home to find herself too large for the small town life. Picked up by Elayne Kevarian, senior partner in the firm, she’s given a chance to become the detached gun-for-hire where she’s exposed to Kos, His church, and those who believe in Him.

Three Parts Dead seems even cleverer title with that in mind, indicating not only the transient nature of death in Gladstone’s world (i.e. – nothing is ever 100% dead), but the three stages of Tara’s arc: her “birth” as an independent agent, her action as a self-interested actor, and her ultimate denial of its appeal in favor of ‘meaning’. All that juxtaposed with the legal thriller, a subgenre of fiction that also tends to diminish idealism, it works beautifully as the driving force behind the narrative.

Gladstone’s uses dynamic prose and a unique voice to communicate that intent. It’s poetic at times, and laconic at others, switching between the two, and in between, depending on the point of view from whence the story is told.

She was simultaneously a tiny feather of a body drifting slowly down to a rolling ocean, and a diffuse cloud of soul, one with the sky, one with the wind. A thousand prickling tender touches lit upon her, as if she was caught in a rainstorm and the raindrops were love.

Combined with the interesting narrative undertones, I was well on my way to dubbing Gladstone’s debut one of the year’s best until it ended. What seems to be a well paced and sewn together novel up until that point becomes muddled as Gladstone loses sight of Tara’s journey so focused is he on tying together his loose threads. It felt over worked (like this review, ironically) and a little forced, as though the author were bumping up against a word count he didn’t want to cross.

Another stumbling block is Chris McGrath’s cover. Beautiful as it is, it does a poor job of capturing the novel’s tone. Communicating gritty and action oriented urban fantasy, Gladstone’s novel is much closer to a smoothly paced mystery, creeping through shadows and threatened violence. While the characters are raw and edgy, something perfectly captured in the painting, and on the book’s cover copy, little time is given to giving the world that same texture. A swift plot, and too frequent point of view shifts provides little opportunity to wax about Alt-Columb and her eccentricities. It’s the area most rife for exploration in the sequel, which I understand is already finished and under contract with Tor.

For fans of the legal thriller, and they are legion in the fiction marketplace, Three Parts Dead is an intriguing starting position for a fantasy enfilade. Elements of mystery, verbal fencing, and suspenseful confrontations stand tall throughout, set neatly into a fantasy world. I have concerns that traditional fans of fantasy may feel some frustration about the lack of development in Gladstone’s setting, but his excellent characters and interesting plot carry the day, making it a novel I can easily recommend.

Written by Justin Landon

Justin Landon

Justin Landon is the Overlord of Staffer’s Book Review. When he’s not writing things of dubious value to the world, he’s at the gym or being a dad. You can follow him on a multitude of social media, which is strongly suggested lest you miss out on vital information that could someday save your life.