Summary: Shadow demons plague the city reservoir, and Red King Consolidated has sent in Caleb Altemoc — casual gambler and professional risk manager — to cleanse the water for the sixteen million people of Dresediel Lex. At the scene of the crime, Caleb finds an alluring and clever cliff runner, crazy Mal, who easily outpaces him.
But Caleb has more than the demon infestation, Mal, or job security to worry about when he discovers that his father — the last priest of the old gods and leader of the True Quechal terrorists — has broken into his home and is wanted in connection to the attacks on the water supply.
From the beginning, Caleb and Mal are bound by lust, Craft, and chance, as both play a dangerous game where gods and people are pawns. They sleep on water, they dance in fire… and all the while the Twin Serpents slumbering beneath the earth are stirring, and they are hungry.
Thoughts: It’s always interesting to come across a series that’s all connected by the same world but are still independent stories, able to be read entirely out of order because one isn’t a continuation of the other. I still prefer reading them in order; chalk it up to me being rather picky about some things, I guess. Some books, however, will claim that and yet the best introduction to the work is the earliest book, when the world gets established and explained in more detail and you get that nice feeling of newness that tends to fade when both authors and readers become more familiar with the material. There can be this assumption that even though the plots aren’t connected, readers have still read earlier works and so know how this interacts with that, or why one thing works but another doesn’t.
Two Serpents Rise is, happily, a proper standalone that really could be read before Three Parts Dead. There’s nothing I saw in this book that relied on a pre-existing understanding of anything established in the previous novel, the only real exception being some degree of context for the talking skeleton known as the King in Red. It’s not essential to understanding his character, but there’s more information for the Deathless Kings in Three Parts Dead, so it’s certainly possible that some people may find themselves unable to decently understand him without that context. Having read the first book first, though, I didn’t encounter that problem, so that’s merely conjecture on my part.
The story in Two Serpents Rise focuses mostly on Caleb, employee of Red King Consolidated who can play a mean game of cards and who has serious issues with religion. After demons are found in the city’s water supply, Caleb meets Mal, a woman with a taste for adrenaline and who seems to end up in the wrong place at the wrong time more than once. The two strike up an odd friendship which turns to romance, which creates more than a small conflict of interest when growing evidence emerges that Mal is involved with more than just a demon-infested water supply. Add to that the growing unrest in the city over religion versus enforced secularism, and what you get is a tension-filled plot that keeps you turning pages.
Gladstone is a highly skilled writer, and it shows powerfully in Two Serpents Rise. There are some tough issues being juggled here. Aside from the usual issues of trust and betrayal and an onslaught of demons, I loved seeing how religion versus no religion was handled throughout the book. Caleb is very much anti-religion, and he’s quite happy with the way deity worship no longer has a place in society. And he has his reasons, most of them stemming from abuse at the hands of his father, Temoc, a priest of the old ways and someone who deemed sacrifice for the greater good to be more important than the notion that ritually killing someone so that others can live peacefully might not necessarily be a good thing. But as is so often the case, Caleb swings as far from religion as he can, seeing anyone with religious faith as backwards and foolish, and he has no patience for anyone who might draw comfort and strength from religion. He’s in favour of mandatory secularism, and is as rigid on that belief as Temoc is about his own. It created an interesting dichotomy, the two of them playing off each other whenever they were in scenes together, and I love the way that neither one was presented as being more right than the other. Both have their place, both have their benefits and drawbacks, and both, depending on the situation, can be necessary. It takes a lot of skill to so deftly portray both sides of the argument as potentially and equally valid. Temoc’s ways may be brutal at times, but Caleb was also stubborn and outright cruel himself in his dismissive views of religion.
I also have to praise Gladstone for managing to play with tropes in such a very entertaining way. Two Serpents Rise is, at its heart, a mystery. Who poisoned the water with demons? Who caused such destruction and terror? Who is at the heart of the plots against the King in Red and his concern? Mal is, at first, the obvious suspect. Too obvious. It’s a mystery; the perpetrator can’t be the obvious suspect, or there’d be no more mystery! You discount Mal pretty early on for that reason. Then, as it turns out, she’s far more involved in things that you ever saw coming because you spent so long discounting her and looking for someone else to be central to the whole plot. It both played the trope straight and played with an inversion of it, relying on the assumption that of inversion to hide the truth in plain sight, and I love how well that was all pulled off.
The one large downside I experienced was that it was hard at times to really get into the flow of the story and not let my reader-brain tell me that things were different than they appeared. There’s a large confrontation in the middle of the book that looks, in many ways, like Mal and Caleb will stop the insane woman who caused all of the problem with the water supply. Only you know that can’t actually be the case, because it’s only halfway through the book. So much tension drained away from what should have been an amazingly tense high-action scene there, because of that. Also, as the book went on, Caleb and Mal’s relationship appeared more and more one-sided, and it was hard to keep that suspension of disbelief intact as to why Caleb doesn’t see that Mal’s just not as into him as he’s into her. It makes sense, because emotion like that can blind someone to all sorts of things they don’t want to see, but it was hard to feel much passion about certain passionate scenes when you see all that coming.
These things, though, are pretty subjective, and are small complaints when compared to the intricate whole that is the rest of the novel. They were irritations rather than outright problems, most of the time, and other readers may have the opposite experience if they can shut up that part of themselves that goes, “You know you’re just reading a book, right? None of this is real, you don’t need to get so into it.”
(Brains can be so annoying at times.)
Urban fantasies set in secondary worlds don’t come along that often. Mysteries that involve corporate espionage and conspiracy don’t tend to entertain me, but this one most certainly did. Two rarities combined into a single novel make for fantastic reading, and I found myself loving the Craft Sequence even more after another dive back into it. Gladstone’s writing is phenomenal, his ability to write incredibly believable and interesting characters is to be praised, and I definitely want another return to the world. Thankfully, there’s still one more book on my shelves that I can do so with. If you enjoy unusual novels with great style, books that combine elements in new ways and that make art from speculative fiction, then look no further than this series. They’re easy to pick up, hard to put down, they cheerfully claim just a little bit of your soul in the process.
(Received for review from the publisher.)