It’s 2023 and we are finally getting another Craft novel by Max Gladstone. For those unfamiliar, The Craft Sequence is a confusingly laid out set of books set in a modern fantasy setting about corporate employees using magic to fight gods and horrors in a terrifyingly broken world. I feel comfortable saying the setting is truly one of a kind as Gladstone has built a world that feels both familiar and otherworldly with plots that feel very relevant to this day and age. The first five books of the series came out in random order and can be read how you please. They all have self-contained stories that build out the world’s identity with some overlapping characters. Now, Gladstone is trying to add some chronological direction to his story and upset its status quo, something I am very much here for. Ruin of Angels (2017), the sixth Craft Novel, was a standalone meant to be read after the original five novels, and now we are getting a trilogy set after Ruin. The first book in this trilogy is Dead Country, and it tells a sequel story of Tara, the protagonist of Three Parts Dead. Hopefully, you can now see why I said this series was chronologically confusing.
Dead Country is a homecoming story about Tara going back to the small desert town she abandoned. Tara starts the book by receiving a letter that her father has died and that she needs to come home for the funeral. The town she is returning to ran her out with pitchforks when she revealed she could do craft magic, a form of fractal sorcery that can steal the light from the stars and bend it into reality-shattering conjurings. So, this homecoming is tense and fraught with subtext. On the way home Tara stumbles upon a young woman named Dawn who has had a similar experience being attacked by her town for the manifestation of the craft. Tara picks up Dawn and decides to teach her as an apprentice, adding complications to her trip home. These complications are multiplied when she returns home to find the town under siege by cursed raiders that Tara must deal with. Will Tara save the town that ran her out from unseen horrors? Will she be able to help teach Dawn with the hindsight of someone who has been in her situation before but has the benefit of the passage of time? What mysteries will Tara uncover returning home with her growing power?
Dead Country is a lot of things, all of them complicated. The first is that this is a Craft novel, and like all Craft novels, it is crammed full of imaginative magic and settings. The world Gladstone has built is fascinating in its brokenness, and every time he turns over new stones to show the reader new horrors it is a delight to the senses. Everything and everyone in this world is interesting, the idea of being mundane is foreign. This trend continues with Dead Country, along with Gladstone’s penchant for spectacular action sequences. The craft feels both structured and unstructured at the same time, so seeing it in action feels like your mind is being stretched and twisted. If you are a fan of this element of these stories, do not worry, they are all still there.
Yet, Dead Country also has a number of new elements that aren’t present in its predecessors. The book is clearly a focused attempt by Gladstone to add linearity to the timeline and the flow of the story both improves and suffers for it, which isn’t unexpected. The forced direction gives this entry bigger and better stakes. It feels like the characters might actually be able to change things, affect the world in some way, and no longer be prisoners to the twisted landscape they live in. At the same time, the enormous ambiance of uncontained exploration that pervades the other Craft novels is diminished. There are a number of callbacks to previous novels, particularly Three Parts Dead, and they feel forced. Three Parts Dead didn’t do any of the heavy lifting to set up a sequel story, so in making one Gladstone has to do the lifting for Dead Country in Dead Country. This can make some scenes stick out like nails that beg to be hammered down.
At the same time, being a sequel story means that we get a much deeper look at Tara’s character than we have before. Tara feels like she has newfound depth and her foiling against Dawn makes her character growth that much more apparent. Tara’s struggle returning to her close-minded town of origin is something that is not hard to relate to and adds wonderful context to the events of Three Parts Dead. The new characters, particularly Conner, are delightful and bring a Hallmark small-town wholesome vibe to the Craft that feels like new territory. This is a story that wants you to swim in its characters’ stories and does a great job of easing you in.
There are, however, some issues to go along with all this good. Dead Country felt very repetitive to me, which was surprising given the other Craft novels and damning given the book’s shorter page count. I felt like I kept reading the same conversations with no progression in many instances in the book. The Craft novels are always hyperbolic and bombastic, but this is the first instance where I felt disconnected from the prose. I think it has to do with this being the first book in a trilogy instead of a standalone novel but I did not feel emotionally connected to some of the huge speeches the characters gave. Their intense reactions to circumstances felt over the top and hard to parse. I think I needed more page time with them before I could match their intensity in numerous scenes.
Dead Country is a very exciting book, and it represents a thrilling new direction for the Craft. But, the transition to this new style of storytelling could have been more graceful and I found myself wondering why this book feels so short on content. I was a little disappointed in Dead Country but I am still very excited to see where Gladstone is taking us next.
Rating: Dead Country – 7.5/10
An ARC of this book was provided to me by the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The thoughts on this book are my own.