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Three Parts Dead by Max Gladstone

Three Parts Dead - Max Gladstone

This book will make many readers happy, particularly those who enjoy plot-driven, worldbuilding-heavy fantasy. Three Parts Dead has an alternate-world, urban steampunk setting, and features a murder mystery surrounding a dead god, seemingly limitless magic, some paranormal elements (including vampires, but no romance) and a megalomaniacal villain. If this sounds like your dreams come true, don’t let me discourage you from reading this book. But those, like me, who enjoy character-driven fiction may be left dissatisfied.


The plot is simple enough: Tara, a recent magic school graduate, is hired by a necromantic firm to help unravel the mystery of the death of Kos, a fire god who powered the metropolis of Alt Coulumb. Gods in this world owe their existence to an intricate system of faith and contract law, and by all rights Kos should not be dead. Also involved are a small number of other people, including Abelard, a novice priest; Elayne Kevarian, Tara’s boss; Cat, an addict who moonlights as an avatar of Justice; Alexander Denovo, a creepy professor; and a bunch of angry gargoyles.


It’s hard to find fault with the writing or pacing of the novel; its failure to truly engage me lies with the characters. They are people of action, drawn with a broad brush: Tara loves working magic; Abelard is devoted to his god; there’s little more to say. What are their flaws, who are the important people in their lives, what do they do when they aren’t working? The reader doesn’t know. Compounding this problem is the fact that the success or failure of Tara’s mission means little to most of the characters. She’s just doing her job; the author tries to raise the stakes by suggesting she must succeed to be permanently hired, but it’s an opportunity that simply fell into her lap and she’s clearly resourceful enough to find another one. Abelard is the only major character deeply invested in Kos’s death and revival, and his devotion seems largely due to the fact that he hasn’t gotten out much. Elayne Kevarian revives gods all the time, apparently. How can I invest in a story of minimal importance to its own protagonists, who themselves aren’t even fully fleshed out?


That’s the crux of the problem, though there are other plotting issues. The author tries to write the characters as renegades when it makes no sense (in an especially odd scene, Tara and Cat blackmail a librarian into handing over documents, although they are the official investigation). A key segment of the plot rests on a gambit of the “I knew that if I did X, Person A would do Y, and I did Z so that Person B wouldn't blurt out the truth until C showed up…” variety, which sounds clever on paper and is thus beloved of fantasy authors, but would never survive contact with real people in chaotic situations. And the “court” scenes are actually cage matches with magic and/or standard villain confrontations, in which case, why call it court?


All that said, the book does get points for originality in its worldbuilding. It feels fresh, with its own take on gods, vampires, and the like. Also interestingly, it is a world where neither race nor gender seems to have any cultural significance whatsoever. Information about the world is generally not spelled out for the reader; you jump in and figure it out as you go. I’m taking this up to 3 stars because it was reasonably entertaining, but I don’t plan to read the sequel.