Two Serpents Rise, the second volume in Max Gladstone's Craft Sequence, continues to blend of fantasy and suspense in a world where religion and Craft - faith and magic - are sometimes complementary, and sometimes drastically opposed. In the first volume, we saw religion and Craft co-existing in relative harmony, in a city controlled by a god but depending on Craft to assess the situation when things go terribly wrong. In this installment, a practitioner of Craft fought with and destroyed a god, taking control of the territory it ruled for himself, driving the old priests underground. Where the god of Alt Coloumb was a relatively benign god, asking only the standard tribute of prayer and devotion, the gods in this case were of the sort that demanded ritual sacrifice, living hearts cut from human bodies and offered to the gods. The King in Red, the Craftsman who killed the gods, lost his lover to the altar stone.
The setting is the vast city of Dresediel Lex, built in the desert, dependent on the Craft of Red King Consolidated, its leading Concern - a magical conglomerate of people, energies and legal bindings - to supply the water its people need to survive. In order to expand its power base, RKC is on the midst of negotiations to merge with Heartstone, another Concern that manipulates the energies of two bound and sleeping demi-gods who take the shape of giant serpents.
When one of the the main reservoirs the city relies on is magically infested with tzimet, monsters that could poison the water and kill millions, Caleb Altemoc, one of RKC's risk management team, is called in to deal with the situation and ensure that it does not damage negotiations with Heartstone. He has several suspects to follow up on: the old priests, who have been waging guerilla warfare against the new order, and whose leader, the firmer high priest, is Caleb's father; and a mysterious 'cliff runner' - the ultimate in parkour - named Mal, who turns out to be a senior official with Heartstone. The problem is, both insist they are innocent. As incidents threatening the water supply multiply, it's up to Caleb to discover the truth behind them. And save the city.
It took me a little longer to get into this novel than the previous one in the series, probably because of the father-son conflict - it is such a common trope that I've developed a bit of an allergy to it through overexposure. But as the story developed and other layers were added, I became quite happily engaged with the story and its themes.
And I'm becoming quite intrigued with the ideas that Gladstone is working with in these novels. So far, in addition to the obvious question of the role and importance of faith in human nature, there are definite issues of the nature of good governance and the way that people, governments, financial systems and ecologies are interconnected. The legal language of the Craft and the flows of energy, devotion and 'soulstuff' in the novels are literalisations of the way that multiple systems in societies, and multiple societies, are entwined and affect one another. Very interesting stuff.