"Why ‘Three Parts Dead’ Is One Of The Best Fantasy Novels You’ll Read This Year"
I got an early birthday present today with the publication of Three Parts Dead, the first novel by my friend Max Gladstone, and a book I’ve gotten to read in various iterations over the years. It’s the story of Tara Abernathy, a necromancer who gets hired by a McKinsey-like firm called Kelethres, Albrecht, and Ao, and for her first assignment, finds herself staffed to a city called Alt Coulumb, which has a rather significant problem: God, specifically Kos the Everburning, who keeps Alt Coulumb powered, is dead. With the help of her boss, Elayne Kevarian, an anxious junior priest named Abelard who was on watch when Kos died, a vampire, a cop with an unfortunate addiction, and some gargoyles Tara gets to know Alt Coulumb, a rich and fully-realized fictional city, and learns a lot about the nature of faith.
That latter aspect is a significant part of what makes Three Parts Dead so excellent. The novel and the world it explores is based on an economic understanding of faith, and the relationships between gods and their worshippers, as well as between humans themselves, are significantly governed by contracts freighted with power and significance. Max writes:
Gods, however, made deals. It was the essence of their power. They accepted a tribe’s sacrifice and in turn protected its hungers from wolves andw ild beasts. They received the devotion of their people and gave back grace. A successful god arranged to receive more than he returned to the world. Thus your power and your people grew together, slowly, from family to tribe, from tribe to city, from city to nation, and so on to infinity. Nice strategy, but slow. Theologians centuries back had developed a faster method. One god gave of his power to another, or to a group of worshipers, on a promise of repayment in kind, and of more soulstuff than had initially lent. Gods grew knit to gods, pantheons to pantheons, expecting, and indeed requiring, their services to be returned. Power flowed, and divine might increased beyond measure. There were risks, though. If a goddess owed more than she could support, she might die as easily as a human who shed too much blood.
After Tara’s graduation from the Hidden Schools, a magical academy inspired in part by Max’s wife’s experience in law school, and before she joins Kelethres, Albrecht, and Ao, she works as a country magician.
“Ned Thorpe lost half the profit from his lemon crop every year, due to a bad arbitration clause in his reseller’s contract. Ghosts stole dead men’s bequests through loopholes in poorly written wills,” she reflects of her work. “Shopkeeps came to her to draft their pacts, farmers for help investing the scraps of soulstuff they eked out of the dry soil.” But she’s something of an atheist. “Millions of people live without gods,” she reflects. “They live good lives. They love, and they laugh, and they don’t miss churches and bells and sacrifice.” When she gets to Alt Coulumb and starts sorting through the web of contracts Kos signed before his death, the contracts she has to maintain, and her understanding of worship, gets rather more complicated.
One option, she explains to Abelard, is that she and Mrs. Kevarian can create a new god out of the remnants of Kos’s body—the same thing that one of Tara’s teachers at the Hidden Schools did when Alt Coulumb’s other deity, Seril, died on the front line of a war between gods decades earlier, reforming her as an entity called Justice. “We can make something from this body that will honor Kos’s obligations, but we will have to cut out other parts of him,” Tara tells Abelard. “Alt Coulumb will be warm this winter, and the trains will run on time. Gods and Craftsman throughout the world will continue to draw on the power of Alt Coulumb’s fire-god, but the entity you call Kos is gone.” But to Abelard, Kos’s contracts, the tangible things that the priesthood and Alt Coulumb’s residents get in exchange for worship, aren’t the only things that matter. “What will be different?” he wants to know. Tara doesn’t have much to offer him. “It sounds like Kos was a hands-on deity,” she explains. “Knew the people of Alt Coulumb by name. That will change. He used to visit your dreams, in the long nights of your soul. I imagine the faithful felt his radiance throughout the city. Even his voice won’t be the same.”
If Abelard is unenthusiastic about that prospect, his dismay is informed by the experience of his friend Cat, who worships Justice, the remnant of Seril that remains to keep order in Alt Coulumb. Justice keeps order in the city through a deal with her worshippers: they give themselves up to possession by her when she needs crimes investigated or order kept, and in turn, the experience of possession results in a kind of euphoria and connectedness that can feel addictive. Cat’s torn between two compulsions, her love of service to Justice, and a craving for the feeling of vampire bites. Before Seril was reformed into Justice after her death, her primary worshippers were gargoyles, who were banished from Alt Coulumb after Seril died, and treated as if they were enemies of the city. Tara asks Abelard at some point whether Cat “hates the gargoyles because they betrayed the city she tries to protect?” “Maybe,” Abelard explains. “Sometimes I think she hates them because they had a goddess, and she doesn’t.”
Both Abelard and the gargoyles experience something pure and profound in their worship of Kos and Seril, an experience beyond the contractual. “The parts of Kos I cared about, heat, steam, flame, passion, they don’t die,” Abelard tells Cat, who struggles with her relationship with Justice. “Since I know Him, and since I loved Him, I’ll still see Him in everything I love. Seril died long before our time. You never knew her.” But the gargoyles who did know Seril before her death have an experience of her that Cat has been denied, and that Tara finds almost inexplicable. “You kept the rituals, worshiped her, sacrificed to her, to keep her alive. Even though she could do nothing for you, whatsoever, other than love you and be loved by you,” she asks the gargoyles? “Is that strange?” their leader, Aev, wants to know.
That question of what is strange, and what is possible, and at what point we suspend logic and skepticism and take off into belief is at the heart of Three Parts Dead. It’s a luminous, wonderful book. And I hope that if I’m lucky, for a future birthday, Max will take me back to Alt Coulumb.