Two Serpents Rise, by Max Gladstone

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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!

READALONG: Two Serpents Rise, by Max Gladstone – Week 2

This week I continued the readalong for Max Gladstone’s Two Serpents Rise, and as with last week, I’ve got some questions to answer. This week’s questions have been provided courtesy of Lisa at Over the Effing Rainbow.

1)  So we’re halfway in, and we seem to have uncovered the culprit already… What did you make of the confrontation at Seven Leaf?

Well, I’d say the fact that we’re only halfway in means we haven’t uncovered the culprit. What a boring second half the book would have then!

Though that does bring up an interesting point on perspective. From the viewpoint of the characters, they think they’ve solved the problem. We as readers know that they can’t possibly have, or at least that there’s a larger connected problem, because of where the confrontation happened in the book. I find this similar to problems that arise with first-person narratives. Knowing that a book is told from behind the eyes of a character takes the edge off some of the action, because you know they have to survive to be telling the story. Here, it was an interesting event, but from our standing-back perspective, we know that it can’t have been the end of things, so the weight of the event is lessened.

Of course, Gladstone being the fantastic writer that he is, he’ll probably make me eat my words with some amaing plot twist later on.

2)  Temoc is still turning up at random, and still protesting his innocence. Doth he protest too much…?

Not really. Well, actually, it’s hard to say. Much like with Mal, I don’t think he’s behind this directly, because he was too obviousd a suspect. But it wouldn’t surprise me if someone influenced by him has a bit of a hand in all this.

Maybe it’s all misdirection and smoke-and-mirrors, but weirdly, he seems too honest to be lying. I know the best liars always do seem honest, but he seems like he wears his heart on his sleeve, and really, what would he have to gain by lying? Seems to me that if he is behind a lot of this stuff, intentionally if indirectly, he’d want to draw sympathetic people to his side and make proclamations. “Look at what our faith can do!”

3)  The Red King. Discuss.

Well, that’s not at all vague! :p Honestly, he doesn’t interest me that much. Or rather, I don’t find him as compelling as other characters. He has a powerful presence and his fingers in many pies, and there’s clearly more to this RKC-Heartstone deal than appears on the surface. But while he plays a large part in directing events, it’s thus far been largely from the shadows. He’s a mysterious figure without much mystery to him, and I find him good as window dressing, but so far I’m more interested by Caleb than by the King in Red.

4)  And let’s not forget Mal! I confess, I did not see any of those surprises coming. What do you think of Caleb’s ‘sweetheart’ now?

Mal’s a really interesting character because she’s got so many layers to her. She’s very real, very flawed, and absolutely fascinating. I can’t wait to see more of her revealed. I’m especially interested to see more of her religious background come into play, since that little gem was handed to us near the end of this section, and religious integration fascinates me.

READALONG: Two Serpents Rise, by Max Gladstone – Week 1

I forgot to mention it before now, but I’m participating in a readalong for Max Gladstone’s Two Serpents Rise, book 2 of the Craft Sequence. I enjoyed the first book, Three Parts Dead, a while back, and this readalong gave me the perfect motivation to stop procrastinating and to read the rest of the series. And though I’ve only read less than a third of it so far, I’m not regretting that decision.

This week, we all read the first 15 chapters plus the first interlude, which sounds like a lot until you realise that the chapters are short and that this was less than 100 pages. Not too bad a requirement for a week, really, in between the other reading I do. As is typical in a readalong, we all have some questions to answer. This weeks questions are courtesy of Susan over at Dab of Darkness.

(Sidenote – Does anyone else in readalongs with questions like this ever feel self-conscious answering them? We’re all talking about speculation and unknowns and our theories when other people reading this may well have read the book and know what happens, and they’re probably sitting and thinking, “Haha, those answers are hilarious in their ignorance!” Seriously, am I the only one who feels this way?)

1) Poison in the Bright Mirror reservoir! What are your thoughts on the infestation? Then an explosion later on! Any ideas of who is the culprit yet? Are the two events related?

I think it’s safe to say the two events are related, though I’m not sure how yet. I don’t think Temoc is behind it, though. Someone like him, yes, and probably inspired by him, but not him. He’s too obvious a suspect to actually be the culprit, I figure. Ditto Mal. This is a mystery, and in mysteries, the truth is never so easy to spot. My money’s on the King in Red, just because it would be a twist and he could stand to gain a lot from events he controls like that.

2) Let’s talk about Mal and the sport of cliff running. Care to compare this sport to one here in our real world? What do you think Mal gets out of the sport?

Since cliff running is a thrill-seeking thing, it comes across very much like skydiving. You get the adrenaline rush, and if you screw it up, there’s the potential for massive bodily damage. Can you call skydiving a sport, though? Still.

Honestly, Mal may just be an adrenaline junkie looking for another fix, and that’s why she does it. But much like with the previous question, I don’t think so. At least, I don’t think that’s all of it. She seems like there’s more to her than just that thrill-seeking behaviour.

3) Are you enjoying the deities and culture this book is infused with? Has any of the architecture wowed or frightened you?

Absolutely. I love the way deities seem to work in this world, the way they’re powerful but not necessarily divine, depending on how you view the idea. They’re a hard thing to wrap my head around properly, and that’s part of what I like so much about them.

As for culture, well, I’m a culture geek myself, and I love seeing amazing worldbuilding like this. Real-world analogues that aren’t medieval Europe are awesome to see in fantasy, and generally speaking, urban secondary-world fantasy isn’t exactly common, so the novelty of it really interests me, alongside the awesome culture stuff.

Can’t say I’ve been wowed much by the architecture. I probably would be were I seeing it right in front of me, though.

4) The Red King is a pretty serious guy. Will he make the deal with Alaxic concerning the powerhouses known as Achel & Aquel?

Probably. It likely wouldn’t have been brought up as a plot point were it not going to develop further. I definitely think there’s more to that deal than meets the eye, though, but I couldn’t say just what that is.

5) Finally, Caleb has a wealth of scars, linguistic skills, and a complex relationship with his father. Discuss!

Caleb’s an interesting character. I like that complex relationship with his father, since there’s clearly a great deal of animosity there but the two are still very much on speaking terms, albeit a strained and mistrustful one. There’s clearly a lot of backstory there that hasn’t been revealed yet, and I’m curious to see the layers peeled back.

And being a language geek as well as a culture geek, I always love multilingual characters.