ARC Review: Last First Snow

Disclaimer: I received an ARC of this book from tor.com’s Sweepstakes. This has in no way affected my review. It’s just a great book.

Anti-warning: Last First Snow is the fourth book published in the Craft Sequence, but it occurs before the first three chronologically and can safely be read as a standalone without any context, and thus it—and this review—will not spoil the other books.

LastFirstSnow

From Goodreads:

Forty years after the God Wars, Dresediel Lex bears the scars of liberation—especially in the Skittersill, a poor district still bound by the fallen gods’ decaying edicts. As long as the gods’ wards last, they strangle development; when they fail, demons will be loosed upon the city. The King in Red hires Elayne Kevarian of the Craft firm Kelethres, Albrecht, and Ao to fix the wards, but the Skittersill’s people have their own ideas. A protest rises against Elayne’s work, led by Temoc, a warrior-priest turned community organizer who wants to build a peaceful future for his city, his wife, and his young son.

As Elayne drags Temoc and the King in Red to the bargaining table, old wounds reopen, old gods stir in their graves, civil blood breaks to new mutiny, and profiteers circle in the desert sky. Elayne and Temoc must fight conspiracy, dark magic, and their own demons to save the peace—or failing that, to save as many people as they can.

Last First Snow both is and is not a prequel in the traditional sense. It chronicles the story of some of the main characters of other books in the Craft Sequence before they appear in their own books—though I won’t say who, in case you’ve not read those books yet—but it also has its own completely self-contained story-line which wraps up quite well by the end of the book and while it shapes the history of the later books and their world, it’s not the “How things came to be” story that, say, the Star Wars prequels tried to be.

I think it benefits from this, as well. Gladstone allowed himself a fairly free canvas with his characters and his plot, and while he did have end some of the storylines in particular ways to set-up for the other books, he had a lot more freedom to make the plot match the character decisions and who they really are, instead of the other way around, the trap I feel most prequels fall into.

It feels like I’m repeating myself over and over again when I talk about how interesting Gladstone’s wildly varied cast of characters is, but it always bears repeating. In Last First Snow, we follow a magician/lawyer, an undead skeleton, and a priest of dead gods along with those they are working with, including a man who reminded me of Iron Man every time he was on-screen, two cooks, and an insurance agent. Getting to know this new cast—and the familiar characters at a different point in their lives—was, as always, a pleasure, and something I have come to expect from a Gladstone novel.

The beginning of the novel is incredibly strong, and within the first 30-40 pages we’re introduced to all of the major players in the novel and the main conflict—and at that point, I wanted to root for all of them. The set-up utterly hooked me, and the gray moralities it teased at were fully realized by the end of the book—with elegant shades of subtlety that made me look at old and new characters in quite a different light.

The plot, too, drives itself along quite nicely, and I never found myself bored, and it was difficult to put the book down to make myself dinner. (The nap I accidentally took while reading was due purely to walking 10 miles in Texas summer heat, not the book.) But the book isn’t just driven by its plot, and it combines that plot with a brilliant, powerful ending, which had some truly awesome surprises, and made it one I would love to see on screen some day.

One of the other ways in which Gladstone continues to improve is his prose, and there are a huge number of great descriptions and otherwise highly quotable lines in the book, though I managed to limit myself to only quoting a few of them on Twitter this time.

In summary, Last First Snow by Max Gladstone is a great starting point for the Craft Sequence—or if you already love the previous books, you really have to pick this one up because it is undoubtedly my favorite one so far. The plot moves nicely, the characters are as diverse and interesting as I’ve come to expect from all of Gladstone’s work, and the ending is a truly spectacular showdown that I sadly can’t talk about too much because spoilers, and the book remains intensely quotable. I give it five of five stars, and I’m anxiously awaiting more entries in the sequence.

Max Gladstone.

Goodreads.

Amazon.

Book Review: Full Fathom Five

Semi-Warning: This book has some characters and references from the first two books, so it will mildly spoil you for them (including who lives/dies in some cases), but they’re not necessary background reading for this one.

FullFathomFive

 

From Goodreads:

On the island of Kavekana, Kai builds gods to order, then hands them to others to maintain. Her creations aren’t conscious and lack their own wills and voices, but they accept sacrifices, and protect their worshippers from other gods—perfect vehicles for Craftsmen and Craftswomen operating in the divinely controlled Old World. When Kai sees one of her creations dying and tries to save her, she’s grievously injured—then sidelined from the business entirely, her near-suicidal rescue attempt offered up as proof of her instability. But when Kai gets tired of hearing her boss, her coworkers, and her ex-boyfriend call her crazy, and starts digging into the reasons her creations die, she uncovers a conspiracy of silence and fear—which will crush her, if Kai can’t stop it first.

Full Fathom Five takes the Craft Sequence to yet another new location, this time to an island kingdom reminiscent of the Hawaiian islands. However, the series as a whole is starting to feel more like it is coming together. Instead of one or two mentions of the locations of previous books, characters from both books play a major role in this one, and events are directly referenced and discussed.

Despite this, though, Gladstone has written another novel that works spectacularly well on its own, something that few series writers can manage these days. Even my favorites almost always write books that require you to read in order unless you want to miss a lot of information and have major spoilers, and it makes for a very different read.

With a largely new cast of characters–including a completely new set of viewpoint characters in each novel–Gladstone has to do different work. Instead of building upon the ideas that we already have for these characters, he has to start over from ground zero, building new and interesting–and different characters, for us to watch through the eyes of.

And he does a great job. Our new characters are another brilliantly varied set including a demoted priestess, a street thief who tells too many stories, a poet with some very strange inspiration, and a blind golfer.

And I’m glad we had such an interesting cast of characters to meet–and Gladstone’s skill with introducing new characters every book is apparent, as I really enjoyed meeting this new set and getting to know their quirks and eccentricities.

If you’re new to the Craft sequence, or even if you’re returning, you’re in for a bit of a treat with the world-building as well, as both the visual and theological aspects of the volcanic island of Kavekana are brilliantly done.

I feel that, for much of the first part of the novel, it’s the worldbuilding and the new characters that really hold it up, as things do not make a lot of sense among the numerous plotlines until near the end, again, and I was confused by/bored of the plot at several places. But the plot is worth it in the end, and I consider the ending of Full Fathom Five to be on par with the first book in the series, Three Parts Dead, and more twisty and interesting than the second, Two Serpents Rise, which had a stronger plot and was more exciting, but lacked the surprise at the end.

One of the ways in which this books improves in its predecessors is in the prose. There are many lines here that are incredibly quotable, and it took more self-control than I usually have to exert to not tweet another quote every few minutes while reading. Gladstone really has a way with really cool turns of phrase, and it makes other writing seem dull and utilitarian.

In summary, Full Fathom Five is a generally enjoyable third novel in the Craft Sequence–or first, if you’re inclined to start there–with another brilliantly diverse set of characters, vibrant setting, and if the plot drags in the middle, it more than makes up for it by the end, which has several surprising twists and turns and wraps itself up quite nicely. The prose helps drive it along, and while it may not be my favorite of the series so far, it’s still a solid entry and I give it four out of five stars, and I’m looking forward to reading the next entry.

Max Gladstone.

Goodreads.

Amazon.

 

Book Review: Two Serpents Rise

Unwarning: Despite this being the second book in the Craft Sequence, there are no characters from the first book in this one, or plot spoilers, so you’re perfectly fine reading the review–and the book–if you’ve not read the first one yet.

TwoSerpentsRise

From Amazon:

In Two Serpents Rise by Max Gladstone, shadow demons plague the city reservoir, and Red King Consolidated has sent in Caleb Altemoc–casual gambler and professional risk manager–to cleanse the water for the sixteen million people of Dresediel Lex. At the scene of the crime, Caleb finds an alluring and clever cliff runner, Crazy Mal, who easily outpaces him.

But Caleb has more than the demon infestation, Mal, or job security to worry about when he discovers that his father–the last priest of the old gods and leader of the True Quechal terrorists–has broken into his home and is wanted in connection to the attacks on the water supply.
From the beginning, Caleb and Mal are bound by lust, Craft, and chance, as both play a dangerous game where gods and people are pawns. They sleep on water, they dance in fire…and all the while the Twin Serpents slumbering beneath the earth are stirring, and they are hungry.

Two Serpents Rise overcame many of the issues I had with Three Parts Dead, the first book in the Craft Sequence, with only a single change: Instead of trying to fully use half a dozen viewpoint characters, Two Serpents Rise limits itself to one, with a few other characters getting supporting viewpoints near the end of the novel. I felt that this really streamlined the reading experience, because it gave us a lot less character overhead we had to get to know. It also lowered the immersion time at the beginning of the novel—no skipping around just as you’re starting to get accustomed to the person whose head you are inside. I really liked the change, especially for the length of book that Gladstone writes.

But that doesn’t mean that the other characters are simple shoved to the side and undeveloped. The cast here, while perhaps not quite as brilliantly varied as the first novel, still rises to a level above that of most other books. Our main characters this time include a gambling addicted yet risk averse man, his father, who is the last of an ancient sect of sacrificial priests, his best work friend and her slightly crazy artist girlfriend, his undead skeleton boss, and his crush, who happens to have some very interesting secrets up her sleeve that I don’t want to spoil for you.

And they’re all vividly developed and quite well done. Gladstone had to do a lot of heavy lifting here, as this novel has no characters in common with the first one, and so he has to introduce us to his all-new cast and get us familiar with them, something he does with grace and precision.

The uses and ways of the craft are different here as well, and the magic and the world of gods and demons, dragonfly transports and flying houses, might as well be a character in and of itself, one which shares little with the first book, but just enough that we have a grounding in the magic and not quite as much reintroduction is needed. Gladstone continues to take the approach of knowing what all of the rules of his system are, but not revealing them all to us, giving it an interesting feel that I’m still not entirely comfortable with, but can definitely accept and know is pretty darn cool.

Thanks largely to the single main viewpoint character, the plot of the novel is even more interesting than that of the first book, and I found myself devouring the pages during lunch breaks to try to read more of this amazing book. The stakes are suitably high, and by the end, I was on the edge of my seat. The climax was satisfying, as long as I accept that there will always be another aspect of this magic system that I don’t fully understand, though I was also a little disappointed that we didn’t have as many twists and character based surprises as the first one, but again, that is a minor complaint.

In summary, Two Serpents Rise is a worthy successor—but not direct sequel—to Three Parts Dead, and I thoroughly enjoyed reading it thanks in large part, I think, to its restricted focus on a single viewpoint character which streamlined the plot and made it considerably easier to understand in 350 pages, and Gladstone somehow managed to do this without sacrificing the coolness, diversity, and depth of his cast. While the conclusion is not quite as twisty and exciting as the first novel, it’s still very satisfying and wraps up the threads started in this one, leaving me excited and wondering where Gladstone is going to go with the third novel. A solid Four of Five stars, and I’m looking forward to starting Full Fathom Five on my lunch break today.

Max Gladstone.

Goodreads.

Amazon.

Book Review: Three Parts Dead

ThreePartsDead

From Goodreads:

A god has died, and it’s up to Tara, first-year associate in the international necromantic firm of Kelethres, Albrecht, and Ao, to bring Him back to life before His city falls apart.

Her client is Kos, recently deceased fire god of the city of Alt Coulumb. Without Him, the metropolis’s steam generators will shut down, its trains will cease running, and its four million citizens will riot.

Tara’s job: resurrect Kos before chaos sets in. Her only help: Abelard, a chain-smoking priest of the dead god, who’s having an understandable crisis of faith.

When Tara and Abelard discover that Kos was murdered, they have to make a case in Alt Coulumb’s courts—and their quest for the truth endangers their partnership, their lives, and Alt Coulumb’s slim hope of survival.

“An author’s ability to solve conflict satisfactorily with magic is directly proportional to how well the reader understands said magic.” — Brandon Sanderson

Three Parts dead could have benefitted from a bit more reader understanding of the magic system, before it was used to solve all of the problems. I spent large parts of the book being intrigued by the magic, but never quite getting enough explanation of how it works, and what it really can and cannot do, to satisfy me. I’m fine with vague magic not explained to the reader when it’s not used for many of the various plot events, such as in The Lord of the Rings, or A Song of Ice and Fire. But here, the Craft, as it is called, is one of the only tools the main characters use for solving their problems.

That’s not to say it’s a bad magic system, though. It seems, from the hurried glimpses we caught of it, to be internally consistent and intricately cool. I’m fully expecting to learn more about it in the future volumes in the series, and I hope that, once the rules are more defined, I will even come to enjoy the system. I just felt like the book wasn’t long enough for all the complexity we were supposed to get from it.

The plot is really cool, and I enjoyed how it was handled, with lots of twists and turns and unexpected happenings. And it felt very much like the bad guys were moving during the book, instead of having their plans set before the book began. This is a feeling that I don’t get from a lot of other books. There are several times where a scene happens, and we think it’s the climax of some kind of plot, but instead, turns out just to be another machination… I found this sense really cool, even though I can’t describe it properly. Perhaps the best description I can give is that the reaction scenes were also action scenes.

The characters in the book are an incredibly diverse cast of interesting people, not only in their physical makeup, but also their professions. Our main character is a disgraced student of the Craft school, trying to get a job with an imperious boss who is immortal. Her encounters include her old school teacher, a shape-shifting gargoyle, a bumbling underpriest with a smoking problem, a vampire, and a street-girl always searching for her next high—which she gets by either turning into an extension of the justice system of the city or having a vampire drink her blood.

The characters are incredible. The world-building is off the charts, and the magic system has so many cool intricacies.

I just felt like it was too much for the few pages the story fit into. This is one problem I’m really hoping will be fixed as we go along, now that we’ve had an introduction to the world, and I’m really excited about the later books.

The plot itself is really cool, and the climax was understandable, which surprised me in a good way. Everything is explained really well, though many of the events that happened I did not know were possible until they happened, giving it a slight Deus Ex Machina feel in places. Despite that, it had enough twists and turns to keep me suitably engaged, and I thoroughly enjoyed it.

In summary, Three Parts Dead is too short, and tries to cram too much really cool worldbuilding, characters, and intricate magic into its pages, but the parts that do come through are brilliantly done, and I’m excited to get more in this world in the reminder of the books, which I am going to be starting this afternoon. With the fourth book coming out soon after this review, now’s a great time to catch up on this series, and I give the first book a solid four of five stars for its really cool ending.

Max Gladstone’s website.

Amazon.

Goodreads.