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.