Full Fathom Five, by Max Gladstone

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Publication date – July 15, 2014

Summary: On the island of Kavekana, Kai builds gods to order, then hands them to others to maintain. Her creations aren’t conscious and lack their own wills and voices, but they accept sacrifices, and protect their worshippers from other gods—perfect vehicles for Craftsmen and Craftswomen operating in the divinely controlled Old World. When Kai sees one of her creations dying and tries to save her, she’s grievously injured—then sidelined from the business entirely, her near-suicidal rescue attempt offered up as proof of her instability. But when Kai gets tired of hearing her boss, her coworkers, and her ex-boyfriend call her crazy, and starts digging into the reasons her creations die, she uncovers a conspiracy of silence and fear—which will crush her, if Kai can’t stop it first.

Thoughts: The third book of the Craft Sequence, Full Fathom Five takes us once again to a new place, the island of Kavekana, based pretty obviously on the Hawaiian islands. Which is right away something that I noticed about this book that sets it apart from many other fantasy novels; for all that Hawaii has a really interesting history and culture, it’s another one of those places that doesn’t get much fantasy based upon it. So it’s got that going for it.

The story alternates back and forth, for the most part, between Kai, a priestess who works with idols, and Izza, a street girl trying to achieve something else in her life. Kai’s life changes after she attempts to save a dying idol and finds signs that it’s become sentient, something which isn’t supposed to be possible given the way idols are made. Izza’s life changes after one of her gods dies, and she decides she wants something else beyond living on the street and telling secret stories of forbidden gods to other street kids. Throw in a few surprise cameos from characters we saw in other books in the series, and the stories converge into something that could rock the entire Kavekanese culture to its core.

When I first started reading this series, I was told that for the most part, it’s a series of standalones, that you could jump into any book in any order and not feel lost. There were a few bits of the second book that were richer for having read the first one, but in the beginning, I agreed with that summation. But here, with 3 characters from previous novels making appearances and referencing events that happened before and elsewhere, the series is starting to come together more as a whole. I suspect you could enjoy this book without having read the previous ones, but knowledge of the other two books in the series will make more than a few character motivations and actions make more sense. Why does Cat have a weird silver suit? What business brought Teo to Kavekana, or gave her the scars she’s so touchy about? These aren’t important plot points, but they seem like unaddressed issues that are brought up and then discarded without explanation, unless you already know the answers.

I love the story that Full Fathom Five tells, though it’s really difficult to talk about it and avoid spoilers at the same time. Suffice it to say there’s a good deal of religious debate, looking at the value of gods and worship, and now that I’m typing that out, it sounds an awful lot like things you could say about, oh, the rest of the series. Which is one great reason why I do love the series so much. But in Full Fathom Five, there’s a flat-out debate over the relative merits of atheism versus religion, and whether one is better than the other. I love the way it doesn’t dance around heavy-hitting subjects like that, and I love the way the debate didn’t reach any real conclusion. There are pros and cons to both sides, and neither one is more right than the other.

It’s also worth saying that unlike most fantasy novels, the majority of the characters here are women. It’s rare to see this. It’s rarer still to see all the women be strong, capable, independent women, doing what they need to do when they need to do it. Kai is probably the most influenced by the men in her life, from Jace to Claude to even Mako, but she doesn’t lean on them for support, and she doesn’t defer to them when she knows she’s right.

Kai also deserves a mention for being a trans woman, too; also an uncommon occurrence in fantasy novels.

Whenever I make note of such things, like gay characters, or trans characters, or women who can be awesome without needing men to encourage said awesomeness, I always wonder whether that really needs to be mentioned. Whether or not I’m doing more harm by bringing up how different it is that all this stuff is presented as normal, a part of someone’s life but not the ultimate definition of their character. An aspect rather than a limitation. But then again, no, it still does bear mention, because the number of books that give this treatment to minorities are still vastly outnumbered by the books that don’t. So yes, this book has some awesome women and a really great transgender female lead character, in addition to being a fantastic story.

There’s a lot to Full Fathom Five, plenty of intelligent plotlines and conspiracies and the usual theology-combined-with-law that makes the Craft Sequence books so unique. It’s a wonderful continuation of the series, a testament to Gladstone’s strength as a writer and a storyteller, and the kind of novel of which there can be no imitation. It stands above the crowd, and justifiably so. Definitely worth reading, and I can’t wait to dive into Last First Snow next.

(Received for review from the publisher.)

READALONG: Full Fathom Five, by Max Gladstone: Week 4

Here we are. The last week of the readalong, the last chapters, the last set of questions for this novel. It’s been a fun ride!

This week’s questions are brought to us courtesy of Lisa from Over the Effing Rainbow!

1. So Jace was in fact responsible for the rogue Penitent, and for what was happening to the ‘idols’… And my guess last week regarding his reasons (that it was bad for business) wasn’t far off the mark… What did you make of his confrontation with Kai and his justifications?

You know, in a weird way, I think he thought he was doing the right thing. Seeing signs of change that threatened their way of life, and taking steps to remove those changes. Never mind that the change could bring improvement, or that the change was part of what the whole island was waiting for in the first place. Sometimes people get more caught up in the actions than the meaning of them, and I think this was Jace’s flaw. He really did see himself as doing the right thing, even if it involved being ruthless and taking the burden of responsibility on his own shoulders.

And as for it being bad for business, well, he’s right. If people found out what was going on, all the security of his promises would mean nothing. No guarantees, no clients, no business. Even if you ignore the farther-reaching cultural implications, getting rid of blips in the data serves to make your data look wonderfully streamlined, all the flaws rendered moot. And who wouldn’t trust such steadiness?

I disagree with him. But I can see how he came to his conclusions, and from his own standpoint, his argument was pretty flawless.

2. Mako’s involvement in the subsequent events was a bit of a surprise. Or was it? Did you expect the old man to be involved at all, much less the way he was?

Page 338. That was when I figured out who Mako was. When he said that he knows Penitents and they know him. It clicked right then, and all of his previous actions in the story made a lot more sense. It wasn’t that they hadn’t made sense before. But there was a new layer of significance to them now.

That reveal made me want to read Full Fathom Five all over again, just to read the sections that involve him, so I could appreciate it all on a different level.

3. Izza steals a goddess! What are your thoughts on the way her story ends (or begins, as the case may be)?

You know, depending on your interpretation, Izza didn’t steal a goddess. She liberated one. That goddess belonged, in part, to a lot of different people, as much as any deity can, and Izza was freeing her from chains more than she was actually being a thief.

Semantics. Aren’t they great? :p

I kind of like how Izza’s story ends, actually. She didn’t get to do what she originally set out to do, but I think she found something much more meaningful to stay for. And I think that right from the beginning she was looking for a reason to stay, too. She has a strong sense of duty, sure, which is why she wanted to take care of the kids she’d leave behind, why she helped care for Cat, why she did all the things she did. But speaking as someone who’s had to cut a few ties in order to stop being held back for the sake of others, sometimes when you have to more forward, you have to leave everything behind.

And I don’t think that Izza quite realized that. Or if she did, she was deliberately delaying her departure, needing to do this or that before she moved on, and that was what got her tangled up in everything to begin with. She could have washed her hands of everything early on. But she didn’t.

4. We leave the story with Kavekana “waiting for the world to come”… Do you think this particular ending is for the best, or would you have preferred to see the island remain apart, and peaceful?

The world never stands still. Isolation always comes to an end, one way or the other.  While there is some appeal in the island remaining apart from the rest of the world, true to itself and its own culture and needs, that couldn’t happen forever. Not without stagnation, and not without dissent.

So on the whole, I think it’s best that things ended up as they did. They were bound to at some point, after all. There’ll be some resentment, I’m sure, and some people will fight against the changing of the only way of life they’ve known, but that’s part of progress.

I’d be interested to see how Kavekana changes over time, actually, for this very reason.

Well, that’s the end of Full Fathom Five. There’s been some talk of a similar readalong for Last First Snow, and I’ve been putting off reading that book for this very reason, so I hope it begins soon.

My overall review of this novel will go live later on in the week. Until then, happy reading!

READALONG: Full Fathom Five, by Max Gladstone: Week 3

Week 3, and we’re now three-quarters through the novel and the readalong. This week’s questions were provided thanks to Heather of The Bastard Title.

1. Kai and Izza finally meet face-to-face. What do you think about their confrontation? Did it go as you expected, or did they surprise you?

Well, I certainly didn’t expect them to meet the way they did, but I can’t really say it surprised me, either. Izza’s definitely the type to do what she did, when the need arises, and given what she’d just seen with Margot, and seen his connection to Kai, it’s not entirely surprising that she jumped to the conclusion she did.

And it was definitely more dramatic than, say, having them bump into each other on the street, or to have Margot connect the dots and arrange an introduction for them both, or some other such thing. And it definitely provided Kai the incentive to let Izza explain her side of things!

2. Poor Margot. Do you trust that Claude just did a stupid thing and didn’t believe Kai when he needed to, or do you think he has a bigger role in the conspiracy? And who is behind the mysterious murdering Penitent?

You know, I think I do believe him. The impression that I got from him in previous scenes wasn’t one of general maliciousness, or even specific maliciousness. I think he just acted thoughtlessly because he didn’t really take Kai seriously. Which seems to be a bit of a running theme with those two. So while I think he’s innocent of deliberate wrongdoing, I still think he bears a bit of blame for what happened. Culpability rather than guilt, if that makes sense.

As for the Penitent, I have no idea who could be behind that. I have a handful of different theories, and too few facts to actually lean toward any more than others. It could be a deliberate order coming from someone in law enforcement. It could, weirdly, be someone disguised as a Penitent, because there was definitely something weird about it beyond “Penitents don’t kill people,” and it killing someone. It could be that Penitents do kill when ordered, but that’s not widely publicized because that would make citizens too fearful and it might be deemed completely unjust to force the people inside to experience the kill.

It could be that it wasn’t a Penitent at all and it was a god that looked like one. Hell, maybe it was Smiling Jack!

Yeah, I’m going to sit back and let the book explain this one to me outright, rather than theorize any more.

3. Kai and Teo’s conversation about evolution and creation myths, science vs. belief, was really striking. Which side of the philosophical argument would you lean towards?

Let me just say that I loved that argument. I love debates like that, ones that look at both sides of a coin and yet neither of them is right nor wrong. They’re each arguing a different side like it’s the whole truth, and missing the fact that they’re still arguing about a coin in the end.

Personally, I’ve always tried to meld science and religion, at least when it comes to my personal religious beliefs. So in that regard, I can see both sides. Teo’s absolutely right that you can’t really refute all the scientific evidence regarding where humanity came from, where we were and how we got here, if you look at history and fossils and all that stuff. But Kai is also right, I figure, by interpreting humanity in a different way that Teo. She made a very good point when she said that sure, people were all over the place way back when, but when people got to Kavekana, then somehow they became human, as they know humans. And that reconciling that is exactly what her job as a priest is: to fill in the gaps with spirituality when other evidence can’t give you answers.

Here’s what I think regarding creation myths: they’re not meant to be taken literally. Religion is couched in metaphor, and always has been. Those myths are our way of trying to make sense of the world around us, to answer questions we have that we have no real way of discovering. So we see what we have and we go, “Aha, that must be tied to how we were made!” Interpreting it literally is pointless, because there’ll always be tons of evidence to the contrary, and easy-to-find stuff to boot. But taken metaphorically, understood as a historical interpretation of spirituality and physicality, it’s easier to understand sometimes. Maybe some myths say we came from a deity diddling himself because early humans understood that was related to life.

Or otherwise, melding that with Kai’s comment about Kavekana being where people became human, looking at creation myths and all the different ones all over the place makes sense even then. It’s established that there are different gods in the world of these books, and there were more. Who’s to say that all the myths aren’t true, exactly how they’re told? That god’s eventual people lived in spiritual darkness until whatever the creation myth says happened happened, and then people were enlightened and understood things and could comprehend deities at all. To those people, wouldn’t that sudden epiphany look like the world hadn’t existed before that moment?

(This is giving me flashbacks to a philosophy course in which I attempted to show why Christianity and evolution were largely incompatible, because any melding of the concepts would prove that God is a giant monkey. Amazingly, I got pretty good marks on that essay… :p)

And that’s my religious diatribe for the day!

4. So we know now that all of the idols and Izza’s gods are different facets of a single goddess. How do you think this development might affect the different characters, and Kavekanese society as a whole?

I think it’ll blow a whole lot of minds. Kavekana’s not supposed to have any gods at the moment. The idols filled a need, in a way, but definitely weren’t gods. And suddenly there is a god, one that’s been there for a long time now, existing under everyone’s noses and nobody knew about it. I think that’s going to cause some major upheaval.

Some would deny it. Some would try to destroy the god that rose from the idols in an attempt to keep the land pure. I’m sure some would insist that this new god is their old god returned, just in a different form. It’ll be divisive and scary to a lot of people, because it overthrows something that people were adamant about for so long.

5. Why do you think Teo threw her bracelet into the pool?

Now, on this I actually have no idea. I thought at first it might have been just to get Kai’s attention, but that seemed an odd thing to do when Teo could just talk to her. Maybe to get her attention silently because Jace was there now? I don’t know. Weirdly, I was on more solid ground for the creation myths question than this one.

6. Uh, oh, Jace. All signs are starting to point to Jace being the architect of this conspiracy. Signs can be wrong, of course. But where do you think we’ll go from his surprise appearance? If he did know about the goddess in the pool all along, why do you think he would have covered it up?

If he did arrange all of this and he knew about the goddess in the pool, it makes sense that he’d want it covered up. For one thing, there’s the bit about Kavekana not having gods, and the goddess would throw a monkey wrench in that belief. For another, the idols were never supposed to gain sentience. They were designed to not have sentience, to not be another more than little mini-myths and soul storage. If that were revealed, everything about idols would be called into question, as well as the people who created them, and the whole arrangement would sink in a heartbeat. From a business standpoint, it makes sense to cover up blips in the data, to make the business model look as secure as it’s ever been.

I don’t think he knew how large it had gotten, though. I think he knew about some idols seeming to gain sentience, and arranged to have them terminated accordingly, but not that they’d all linked together and were facets of one larger deity. But I guess this last part of the novel will show if I’m right or not.

Bonus (silly) question: what possible reason could a skeleton Craftsman have for poolside tanning?

Bleaching. Everyone knows that pale is in this season.

READALONG: Full Fathom Five, by Max Gladstone: Week 2

It’s time for another Q&A session for the Full Fathom Five readalong! This time, we’re looking at chapters 14-32, and this week’s questions are brought to us by Lynn from Little Lion Lynnet’s.

1) So Margot too is hoping that Izza can lead him to the Blue Lady. What do you make of his vision? Especially in relation to the nightmares that Kai is having. Do you think they’re related?

I hadn’t thought about the two being connected until reading this question, but really, it wouldn’t surprise me. There’s definitely more going on here than either side of the triangle is seeing, though Margot comes closest to seeing it all. He’s talked to Izza about the Blue Lady, and he’s heard Kai’s tale that he somehow managed to siphon energy from the idol, though I suspect he hasn’t really put the two things properly together at this point.

But that’s the part of this mystery that’s intriguing me most of all. If Margot’s vision really did come from the idol, then it gained a level of sentience that it certainly wasn’t intended to, and not only that but was able to reach outside its very limited sphere of influence and give inspiration and strength to someone in need. Essentially, it was like a mini god.

Which brings up thoughts and theories I’ve been having since I read the premise of this book. What’s the difference between an idol and a god? If idols are just made things to hold soulstuff, which is essentially life and essence and all that comes with it, isn’t it entirely possible that an idol with enough soul would gain a degree of sentience and power and become like a small god, because enough people worshipped it and gave it the power to do so? Where’s the tipping point?

2) Teo! Did anyone expect to see Teo? What role do you think she’ll play in the rest of the story?

I didn’t expect to see her at all! This is starting to become the cameo novel!

Much like with Cat, though, I had a moment of wondering if this was a new character that coincidentally had the same name as another character. Not everyone in the world can have a completely unique name, after all. You’d think I’d have learned better by now…

Knowing Teo, she’s probably going to be the stubborn element that aids Kai in getting closer to the truth of the whole matter. Probably in ways that are less than safe and ideal. But therein lies the fun!

3) Kai is worried that Mara has set her up. Do you think it likely?

I’m not sure, at this point. It’s also possible that Mara planted some evidence for Kai to find. Not to set her up, but to give Kai a clue that there’s something going on that Mara isn’t in a position to investigate but that Kai is. I’m leaning more in that direction, honestly, though I couldn’t quite tell you why. Too little evidence in the story so far, and it’s just a hunch.

4) It seems everyone is having discussions of faith with one another. That’s not particularly surprising given the tenor of the books, I know, but still. How does what we’ve learned from Cat and Margot in these chapters affect your feelings on the idea of gods, Craft or Idols that Allie asked?

I’m mostly fascinated with the difference between gods and idols at the moment, and that hasn’t changed from earlier chapters. I do love how everything in this series gets revealed little by little, peeling back the layers until you have the whole picture. Or until you think you do, and then some other new piece of info is given to you that forces you to readjust what you previously were so sure of.

Much like real life, actually…

5) We’re getting a better idea of what Penitence means for the people of Kavekana. What do you think of their idea of punishment now that you have a better idea of how it works?

Penitence scares the ever-loving crap out of me! In a purely practical and unemotional way, I can see why it would work as a punishment. Rightminding while still being useful and productive to society. You commit crimes, you get punished, and you come out the other side as a more law-abiding citizen with plenty of incentive not to commit crimes again.

On the other hand, I’m not a fan of brainwashing or torture, which is exactly what Penitence is. It’s a twisted punishment, one that really doesn’t fit the crime, and it makes me feel a little bit sick to think of people going through that.

6) Kai has built up an idea of what’s going on, but what do you think happened? Did Margot really steal soul without realising it or is there something else going on?

Something else going on. Without a doubt. We only have pieces of the puzzle at this point. Margot definitely did get soul that wasn’t his to take, but what’s strange about that is that a) there’s a record of it, and b) it was directed by somebody (himself, the idol, or a third party). Even if it was a pure accident, that still leaves Margot in the awkward position of having done something that was supposedly impossible, and there’s got to be a good explanation for that. He may have taken it by accident, not meaning to, but the channel to do so had to be opened somehow. Malice or negligence: either there’s some loophole in the idol’s design and contract that allows this, or somebody with the authority to do so sent the soul Margot’s way.

There are questions unanswered (obviously, since the book’s only half done), and no good book gives away everything at the outset.

And we know this is a good book!

READALONG: Full Fathom Five, by Max Gladstone: Week 1

The group is back together for a readalong of Max Gladstone’s Full Fathom Five! This is the third book in the Craft series, which I’m loving a whole lot, and I enjoy sharing the experience with other readers like this. This week’s questions are regarding the first 13 chapters, and come to us courtesy of Allie, from Tethyan Books.

1) Kai kicks off the story by risking her life in an attempt to save the idol Alpha Seven. Why do you think she chose to try? Do you think idols truly non-sentient?

First off, Kai just seems like the kind of person to do that. It’s revealed a little later that she’s exactly the sort of person who takes those risks, who does what other people don’t typically do when she feels a thing is right, and she didn’t want to give up on Alpha Seven. (Side note – Does this mean there was an Alpha Five? Is anyone else having Power Rangers flashbacks?)

Second, at least at this point, it wouldn’t surprise me to find that the idol influenced her in some way. I don’t think the idols are truly non-sentient. Sporadic rudimentary intelligence, perhaps, but that’s still something.

Either way, I think at this point, I have too few details to make a clear judgment as to why she might have. I get the feeling there’s a piece of the puzzle I’m missing entirely. Not just something that’s only been mentioned in some vague incomprehensible way. Something that hasn’t been mentioned at all. I guess I’ll have to see if the book bears me out on that one.

2) I think this is the first time we’ve seen idols, and they have their similarities and differences to gods and craftsmen. Do you think they serve a useful purpose? If you were in this world, would you prefer faith, Craft, or idols?

I suppose it would depend on what I’m looking for. Idols seem comparable to a bank vault, whereas gods are somewhat comparable to an investment strategy. With gods, you get payoff. This for that. With idols, it seems like a stopgap solution to provide an outlet for religious leanings without actually being religious, to let that side of a person out and to put a little of your soul where nobody else can get it.

Spiritual banking? Can you make withdrawals from idols?

3) I found it interesting that priests/priestesses are able to change or reform their bodies in the pool, during their initiation. If it were possible, would you want to make use of this power or not?

So very much. In the worst possible way. I’m one of those suckers who got dropped into the wrong sex body at birth, so I’d very much love to fix that, for starters. Fix my lousy eyes so that they can see without glasses or contact lenses. Fix my lousy lungs so that I can breathe properly without needing medication. Fix my lousy skin so that I stop breaking out in an allergic rash when I’m exposed to sunlight. (This is very much a thing. A thing that sucks.)

Erm, yes. Without going into too long a litany of my medical and physical issues, let’s just leave it at yes, there are many things I’d love to change, if I had the chance to reform myself. It goes beyond correcting a few inconveniences, and comes right down to the fact that I’m pretty uncomfortable in the skin I’m in, and I’m not the me I want to be. Having the chance to change that would be, well, a divine gift.

4) A few familiar faces show up from Three Parts Dead, Cat and Ms. Kevarian! Is this how you would have expected them to be living, after the events of that novel? [Three Parts Dead spoiler warning for answers to this question]

Not in the slightest. Well, for Kevarian, it doesn’t exactly surprise me. We haven’t seen much of her yet, but she still seems much like the character I remember. Cat, though… I was really surprised to see her show up, and I wondered for a moment if perhaps it was a different character who just had the same name.

Definitely interested in seeing more of them as the novel goes on, see how they play into this current story.

5) Izza is in a difficult situation; she wants to take care of the other street children, but she also wants to protect herself. What do you think of how she is attempting to meet both goals? Do you think she was right to stop leading the stories and rituals for the other children?

I can sympathize with Izza to a degree. She’s got a lot on her shoulders, probably more than she can reasonably take. Her loyalty to them is admirable, and it takes a great amount of strength to make a decision for yourself, and then turn around and make sure that other people will be okay while you do what you need to do.

But I don’t think what she did is a matter or ‘right’ or ‘wrong.’ I think it’s more a matter of growing up and making tough choices. It may have been hard on the children; when you’re a kid, everything seems to be how it always was, so Izza’s choice to stop the stories must have been a shock to those who had come to rely on them, see them as a point of stability and constance. No doubt in the future, someone else will take over that role, keep the rituals going, because they can and people want them to.

But I think she did what she had to do, and this was the best compromise she could think of. Not the most ideal solution, but one of the easiest ways to satisfy two opposing goals.

6) There is a lot that is hinted near the end of this section, with the line “Howl, Bound World” and the poet Edmond Margot. What do you think it is that ties together Seven Alpha, Kai, Izza, and Margot?

Honestly? Whatever I think about this will probably be proven wrong by the end of the novel anyway, because that’s just what happens in this series. It could be that the idol was more sentient than people realised and it sent out dying thoughts that certain sensitive people picked up. It could be that the thought came from elsewhere and it was just coincidental timing that Kai was trying to save the idol when it hit her. It could be something I haven’t considered yet.

Max Gladstone on writing urban fantasy in a secondary world

Max Gladstone was awesome enough to write an utterly amazing guest post regarding something that has fascinated me of late: urban fantasy set in secondary worlds. Most often urban fantasy is set in this world, the primary world, and anything set in secondary worlds usually doesn’t have the same urban feel. Gladstone combines the two things wonderfully in his Craft series. Here’s what he has to say on the subject.

Cities have always seemed fantastical to me.

I grew up all over, but my first serious chunk of childhood was in a small town outside of Cleveland.  We visited the Ground Round for the kids’ menu on Tuesdays, and I remember long roads and strip malls, but it wasn’t Suburban Wasteland by any means—there was a small stand of woods behind our house where I’d play Ninja Turtles or Star Trek.  When I was ten, we moved to a much smaller town on a mountaintop in Tennessee.  The woods spilled over the bluffs’ edge, and patchwork farms spread to the horizon.

I met New York for the first time on a trip up north toward the end of high school, and enough farmboys have written enough farmboy impressions of New York you probably don’t need to read mine—towers, avenues, lights, crowds, Times Square, Broadway, a city big enough to close its arms around a forest, the weirdness of a two-story McDonalds.  I met Beijing between high school and college, enormous sprawl and Bladerunner sky, old men kicking the shuttlecock beside a jade murk lake, old folks dancing to reedy ballgown music, a city that went on and on and on. Soon after that I met New Haven, smaller and scrappier, with a sky that reminded me of Beijing’s at night, like the line of one lover’s jaw might remind you of another.

I didn’t have a lot of experience with cities, so I couldn’t just live in them—I worked to apprehend them, to stitch together a mythology.  Building a myth of a place is a bit different from knowing that place.  They’re connected, certainly, but the New York and Paris and London and Beijing and Jingdezhen and Tokyo in my mind are dark mirrors or surrealist memories of the cities I’ve met.  I build parallel worlds as I travel.

Cities draw people together and force them apart; cities are crucibles of ideas, character, social movement—cities are the wilderness of modern life.  In fairy tales, the boy or girl sets out into the woods to find fortune, fight monsters, chase the golden hind, visit Granny; the modern version of that kid steps off the bus in the Big City, looking for—anything.  John Crowley’s Little, Big nails this change: in its second half, a young man sets off to find his fortune, and we’re three quarters of the way through a travelogue of his passage through The Wood before we realize he’s actually entered New York.  (Tina Fey loves this trope, too—it’s all over Kenny from Thirty Rock, and The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt.)

But when I started to write the Craft Sequence, I built a secondary world.  At the time, I did it because it felt cool—but “it felt cool” is a convenient clumping of deep logic that I think I can make more explicit.  Cities have mythic resonance, but secondary world fantasy provides an incredibly powerful set of storytelling tools that are hard to even approximate any other way.

In a secondary world, the writer can emphasize particular elements of history or human character that interest her, teasing out connections that might be too subtle to show in mimetic fiction.  If Ursula K LeGuin wanted to play out the fascination with names, naming, and the mutability (or immutability) of identity that underlies her Earthsea books in mimetic fiction, she’d have to take a much more oblique approach, whereas in A Wizard of Earthsea she can dive headfirst into the deepest work.  Robin McKinley, in The Hero and the Crown, forces her hands right down into the earth of family and global history, of ambition and self-deception.  Secondary worlds have limits, too—but they allow a kind of reasoning that works nowhere else.

So there I was, with a city in a secondary world.  But I wanted to bring my readers into my cities, so they could orient themselves, and understand the ways I wanted to reshape my characters—so I drew on the mythical reflections of cities in my head, the almost-New Yorks, not-quite Bostons, sideways Ulaanbataars and funhouse mirror Pragues.  I don’t know those places, not absolutely, not the way Nalo Hopkinson knows Toronto, say, but I know pieces of them, and by breaking them apart and moving them together I can build griffon-cities (lion’s head and body, eagle’s wings) that people recognize.

And once I have these systems, I set about breaking them, which is, of course, the fun part.

maxgladstoneMax Gladstone has been thrown from a horse in Mongolia and nominated twice for the John W Campbell Best New Writer Award. Tor Books published FULL FATHOM FIVE, the third novel in Max’s Craft Sequence (preceded by THREE PARTS DEAD and TWO SERPENTS RISE) in July 2014. Max’s game CHOICE OF THE DEATHLESS was nominated for a 2013 XYZZY Award, and his short fiction has appeared on Tor.com and in Uncanny Magazine.  LAST FIRST SNOW, the next Craft Sequence novel, will hit shelves in July 2015, and is about zoning politics, human sacrifice, and parenthood.

GIVEAWAY: Last First Snow, by Max Gladstone

Thanks to the forever-awesome people at Tor, I’m pleased to announce a new giveaway! This time, it’s for a hardcover copy of Max Gladstone’s upcoming Last First Snow, book 4 of the Craft Sequence.

I mean, seriously, how can you say no to that?!

Forty years after the God Wars, Dresediel Lex bears the scars of liberation-especially in the Skittersill, a poor district still bound by the fallen gods’ decaying edicts. As long as the gods’ wards last, they strangle development; when they fail, demons will be loosed upon the city. The King in Red hires Elayne Kevarian of the Craft firm Kelethres, Albrecht, and Ao to fix the wards, but the Skittersill’s people have their own ideas. A protest rises against Elayne’s work, led by Temoc, a warrior-priest turned community organizer who wants to build a peaceful future for his city, his wife, and his young son.

As Elayne drags Temoc and the King in Red to the bargaining table, old wounds reopen, old gods stir in their graves, civil blood breaks to new mutiny, and profiteers circle in the desert sky. Elayne and Temoc must fight conspiracy, dark magic, and their own demons to save the peace-or failing that, to save as many people as they can.

This series is very much worth reading, if you haven’t already done so, and I know the news about this book’s release has a lot of people on edge, waiting impatiently for the day they can read it.

So let’s make sure that one of my readers gets a copy in their hands, shall we?


  • Must have a US or Canadian mailing address; no PO Boxes
  • Must provide mailing address if chosen as a winner, which will be sent to the publisher for shipping and not retained by me
  • Comment on this post to enter; must provide valid contact info in case you win
  • Limit of 1 (one) entry per person
  • Giveaway closes at 11:59 PM, PST, Sunday June 14, 2015
  • Winners will be drawn and announced on Monday June 15, 2015

I’d like to stress that you must provide contact info in your comment in order to qualify. It doesn’t matter whether it’s an email address, your Twitter username, a link to your website, anything. Just make sure it’s there. The past couple of giveaways, the first winner I selected was for a comment that provided no contact information whatsoever, and because of that, I just drew another name. So if you don’t leave contact info, your comment doesn’t really count as an entry.

That being said, comment to enter, and good luck to you all!

Two Serpents Rise, by Max Gladstone

Buy from Amazon.com, B&N, or IndieBound

Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – October 29. 2013

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.)

READALONG: Two Serpents Rise, by Max Gladstone: Week 4

Well, we’re at the final week for the readalong. It was fun, I have to say. I enjoyed the question-and-answer posts, I enjoyed reading what other people thought about the book, and I enjoyed knowing I finally read a book that I really should have read long ago. Readalongs are great for kicking my butt into gear for things like that.

It’s time now to look at the last batch of questions, this time provided by Lynn from Little Lion Lynnet’s.

1. I think we all pegged Mal for involved with whatever is going wrong in Dresediel Lex after the way Book 3 ended last week. How do you feel about discovering how deep that involvement goes?

Yeah. It’s funny that for much of the book I discounted her, because she was too obvious a suspect. In all the right places at all the right times, so it couldn’t possibly actually be her, because if she was behind it things would actually be less obvious. Sometimes knowing the tropes can be really misleading. I wonder if that was what Gladstone was actually attempting to do, to mislead readers who knew the tropes and would discount the obvious suspect because in mysteries, it’s never the obvious suspect.

But yeah, after the ending of Book 3, things got a lot more blatant.

As for my thoughts on how deep it went, I found that fascinating. As it got clearer that she did have deep religious beliefs and held to the old ways, it became less surprising that she’d go as far as she did. I’m actually a bit impressed that she had the courage to take it so far, given what was at stake if she failed, but I guess that’s what faith and sacrifice are all about, in the end.

2. Caleb and Temoc have to work together to save Dresediel Lex (and the world) from certain destruction. Do you think they make a good team?

They make an… interesting team. Let’s put it that way. Both of them are the kind of people who want to do things their way at any cost, which makes them awkward partners. While they both have that kind of mentality, they will get things done, but if anything should happen where their methods differ (such as, well, when their methods differed in how to stop the rampaging Serpents), they’ll act against each other and waste time.

Spoilers: I honestly expected that Caleb would end up too late to save Teo and that Temoc’s sacrifice of her would be what eventually quelled the Serpents. Thus leading to Caleb having to come to grips with the notion that religion has power and that some objective good can come from sacrifice even if it’s subjectively very bad.

So assuming their goals and methods align perfectly, then yes, they make a fantastic team. Otherwise, I’d say there are better partners.

3. What do you think of the narrative’s overall treatment of Teo? Especially in light of her role in the finale?

I’m not entirely sure what the word is for what I feel, to be truthful. On one hand, it skirts dangerously close to ideas that women shoulsd sacrifice themselves for the benefit of men, as well as brushing by the notion that women are generally useless. Teo found herself in both positions. She was about to be sacrificed, but was saved and then that setup pretty much came to nothing. She was a side character, and she had some development but not very much, given that she wasn’t central to the plot.

On the other hand, from a logistical standpoint, not every female character can get thrust into the spotlight and save the world when everyone’s backed into a corner. Nor did I expect that to happen.

I don’t really know what to feel about Teo in a lot of ways, and I know some of that is very personal because she reminds me a lot of a friend of mine. So, weirdly, I’ve attached to her various attributes and characteristics that she doesn’t actually have, just because said friend does have them. It makes it very difficult for me to pin her character down in an objective way.

4. In the epilogue Caleb seems to have found a way to compromise between the ways of his father and the new world brought about by the God Wars. Do you think he’ll succeed in his goals?

I’m not sure he’ll succeed, but I’m damn curious to find out how it goes! He’ll have a lot of opposition from multiple sides, and it’ll be an incredibly hard road, as walking the middle ground often is. But I’m fascinated by that decision, and I’d love to know how it all plays out.

I know, I know, that’s not a very satisfying answer, but when it comes to awesome books, I’m usually far more interested in the journey than the destination.

READALONG: Two Serpents Rise, by Max Gladstone – Week 3

The story’s really gathering steam, and I’m almost 3/4 through Max Gladstone’s Two Serpents Rise. And loving every moment, unsurprisingly. Plenty of excitement, interesting plot developments, and, as usual for the readalong, plenty of questions along the way, this time brought to us by Lauren from Violin in a Void.

1. After the fight at Seven Leaf, Caleb apologises to Mal and they finally start dating. What do you think of the way their relationship has developed? Do you agree with Mal that Caleb chased her because he needs gods in his life?

Right now I have the impression that their relationship is quite one-sided. I don’t think Mal’s as into things as Caleb. I could be wrong, it could just be that she’s far more reserved about relationships than he is, and that they have some issues between them that he finds it easier to put aside for a while than she does. But the more the book goes on, the more convinced I am that she’s actually more involved in the main mystery than I first gave her credit for.

I’m not sure about her statement that Caleb needs gods in his life. However, there are some things that we can’t always get away from when it was fed to us as children. Some old habits linger, even when we don’t mean them to. Case in point, Caleb invoking the names of gods when he expressed awe, entirely unthinkingly. I’d say that Caleb might have chased her because he saw in her some aspect of what he grew up with, those old thought patterns written deep, but given that he didn’t know any of that stuff when he first got interested in her, I doubt it. It might be part of the reason why he remains so obsessed. But I think at the core, he just found her interesting, something different rather than familiar, and the fact that she ran such risks and was, for a time, unattainable, fed his desire.

2. This section has been quite philosophical. Where do you stand on the debate – gods, no gods, or some kind of compromise? Do you agree with Caleb’s idea of sacrificing your morality because the religious alternative is even worse?

What I found fascinating is the idea of sacrifice that comes up so often. I agree that there’s a big difference between sacrifice and payment, for one thing. A sacrifice that isn’t worth much isn’t a sacrifice at all. Payment, though, is a simple exchange, one thing for another, and it’s a king of sacrifice though it carries different connotations. Payment implies equal worth between the things being exchanged, where a sacrifice is a willing loss with nothing implicitly gained in the process.

Problem I find with Caleb’s argument is that it’s very personal, and he’s applying his personal experiences to the whole. Religion gave him problems. And I’m not trying to minimize the effect of those problems. But a lot of his arguments seem to come down to the insistence that because it was bad for him, it’s bad for everyone. He’s in favour of enforced secularism rather than free choice, and I disagree with that.

Enslaving or subduing the gods doesn’t get rid of them. And from what I’ve been able to grasp from Gladstone’s books so far, nor does it stop new deities from being born if the need for them arises and enough people believe. They’re all doing the very human thing of assuming it has to be one way or the other, that a compromise can’t be reached and so nobody tries for a compromise, always stuck in favour of whatever would just benefit themselves the most.

(Speaking of getting philosophical…)

3. Gladstone is still unveiling amazing things in his world, like a sport based on myth, the eclipse festival, walking on water, and a half-dead sea god whose heart is being used for desalination. What interested you the most?

I can’t say that any one things interested me the most, because they’re all threads in a rich tapestry of worldbuilding. The way gods are used has fascinated me since the first book, though; the way they take something metaphysical and do very physical things with them. It requires a weird mental twist to wrap my head around sometimes, but in doing so, it makes sense. I may not understand it entirely, but it fits in well with the world that Gladstone has made.

But I’d say the thing that interests me the very most is the way Gladstone is capable of pulling so much inspiration from underappreciated cultures in the real world and turning them into a beautifully rich and complex fantasy world, without going over the top and making everything stereotypical. Every little piece of the world that gets unveiled is, as I said, another thread in the tapestry, and I love seeing what it all expresses.

4. Mal has noted twice that they don’t have much time, and she apologises to Caleb while he sleeps on the ocean. Then Alaxic kills himself and tries to kill Temoc – the last two priests of the old Quechal. What do you think is going on here? Any speculation about how it might turn out?

It was that event which convinced me that Mal does have more to do with everything than I first suspected. I figured early on that she was too obvious a suspect, but now I wonder if Gladstone tripped me up with that one. She was too obvious for me to suspect her, so in discounting her, I actually discounted her as not possibly being involved. The trap of knowing too many tropes, I guess. I still don’t think she’s at the core of all this, but I think she’s more involved than I first gave her credit for.

However, as to what exactly is going on, I’m only just starting to formulate suspicions, and I have too many ideas with not enough info to back any of them up, so I’m just going to wait and see how it all plays out. We’re getting to the last quarter of the book, things are coming to a head, and it’s time for so much to be revealed. Can’t wait to dive back in!