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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.

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The world of Max Gladstone's Craft Sequence fantasy novels is a unique one, where black magic, religion and law are intertwined, and the practices of both faith and Craft rely on a structure of legal contracts that bind both human and divine energies. There are real gods (though not so many as there once were, since the God Wars) whose obligations to and receipt of devotion from followers are bound by contracts, contracts to grant power in return for worship. Craftsmen and Craftswomen are magician-lawyers who use their own human energies to work magic, and who are called on to execute, negotiate, record, oversee, and when necessary litigate contract issues involving both humans and gods. Using the language of law, with its complexity and precision, to describe and constrain transactions of magical and divine power reminded me of Diane Duane's Young Wizards books, where a kind of symbolic mathematics is used in much the same way.

Three Parts Dead is the first novel written in the universe of the Craft, but not the first chronologically. However, Gladstone informs his readers that the novels can all stand alone - and the fact that he has built such a following of fans while writing the books out of chronological order supports this - so I'm exploring the series in publication order.

Just as Gladstone's Craft universe is a unique blend of magic and law, Three Parts Dead is a fusion of fantasy and the kind of legal thriller one expects from a John Grisham. Criminal investigation, interrogation of witnesses, following up on clues, and courtroom strategies mingle with magicians, gargoyles, vampires and gods.

Kirkus Reviews summarised the basic premise of the novel more succinctly than I could: "The God Kos has died in the city Alt Coulumb, and the international necromantic firm of Kelethres, Albrecht and Ao has been tasked by the Church to resurrect the god before panic and chaos causes the city to inevitably collapse upon itself. First-year associate Craftswoman Tara Abernathy and her senior-partner boss, Elayne Kevarian, travel to Alt Coulumb to bring the god back to life only to find out that Kos was, in fact, murdered. Tara leads the murder investigation, aided by Abelard, a chain-smoking priest, and his friend Cat, a junkie-cum-policewoman. As the trio navigates the ups and downs of Alt Coulumb, they are immersed in its history, politics and religious system." (https://www.kirkusreviews.com/features/max-gladstones-delightfully-misleading-three-parts/)

Gladstone's prose sings, carrying the reader deep into his world of gods and Craft. His characters are for the most part strongly realised and well-developed - though the villain of the piece came across as a bit too much of a mustache-twirling megalomanic. The plot is wonderfully twisted, with unexpected turns and sudden reversals and all the trappings of a superior suspense thriller. And the conclusion is quite satisfying. I'm looking forward to further exploration of the Craft Sequence.

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