Two Serpents Rise – This Sequence Gets Craftier

2sr-coverMy father was 60 years old when I was born. Kind of an odd thing to start a book review off with, but those of you who are the guessing sort are probably guessing that this will be tied into the review later on. Bonus points for you. As for the rest of you, just bear with me. 60 years is a long time, and when you think about how much of a generational gap there is between those of us born on the cusp of the millennium and those born as recently as the early 80s, one can imagine just how different my father and I were. I loved him dearly, but we had what some would call a tempestuous relationship. It’s something that I regret, but am unable to change since he passed.

I touch on this because the story in Two Serpents Rise, the second book in The Craft Sequence by Max Gladstone, is a departure from what was the main theme of book one, Three Parts Dead. The first book in the series, as you can read in Andrew’s review here, was an exciting and satisfying look at difficult workplace dynamics. Two Serpents Rise, on the other hand, examines how we can deal with the family we’re born into, and how important it is to build another family for ourselves through our friends and loved ones.

Caleb Altemoc, the protagonist of this book, is a risk manager and avid card player working for Red King Consolidated. For those of you new to the world of The Craft Sequence, the gods fought a battle with some powerful sorcerers known as the Deathless Kings…and lost. As you can probably guess from the name, RKC is run by the Red King, a skeletal sorcerer of immense power. After an infestation of some frankly horrific water demons (they take the form of arachnids, imagine drinking some water infested with them and having them form inside your stomach…shudder), Caleb is embroiled in a variety of plots as he tries to keep the city of Dresediel Lex, and the company he works for … afloat (I had to).Caleb interacts with his boss frequently, and The King in Red is an absolutely fantastic character. We are given some incredible insight into what could drive someone to become something so inhuman, and how underneath all that…bone…is something that was human once and may be human still. I think the scenes where we learn about the Red King’s past and his history with the city of Dresediel Lex are some of the strongest in the book.

The city of Dresediel Lex and its history is as large a character as any of the human/skeleton/whatever(s) in the book. Drawing heavily from mesoamerican history and mythology, Gladstone has created an incredibly unique city, at least in terms of fiction I have experienced. I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve been exposed to cities in fantasy that were influenced by Aztec culture, and even fewer of those that weren’t simply relegated to “BLOODTHIRSTY GODS WANT BLOOD”. While human sacrifice is definitely something that is explored, the conflict of what constitutes true sacrifice and how those sacrifices are offered is a huge aspect of the book and I thought it was handled very well. I also want to really quickly touch on how unsettling the bug taxis are. They’re giant dragonfly-type things that suck your soul out as taxi fare. I am so uncomfortable thinking about that, just the description gave me shudders every time.

The conflict between Caleb and his father, Temoc, is one of the main driving forces of the book. His father is an Eagle Priest, a powerful and uncompromising worshipper of the old gods of Dresediel Lex. He is very much of the old guard and his belief that human sacrifice is an absolute necessity to appease the gods is in direct conflict with Caleb’s views of it as murder by another name. The descriptions of the arguments they’ve had playing out for the thousandth time reminded me a great deal of my relationship with my dad, and I was left upset and shaking my head when I saw myself in Caleb’s shoes, unable to understand his father and unable to make his father understand.

My only real complaints with the book come from the pacing and the climax. In terms of the pacing I was left feeling like more time had passed in the world than made sense for the story, though that could be a personal gripe. In addition, I felt the climax was rather abrupt. While the end of the book was exciting and certainly not short of spectacle, the actual final showdown with the ultimate enemy of the book was over very quickly and felt almost glossed over. I was expecting more going into it than I received, and while this is an issue, I think it’s a minor one when considering the story as a whole.

Two Serpents Rise is most definitely not the book I was expecting when I started it. After the funny and quirky romp that was Three Parts Dead, the introspective nature of this story really surprised me. I think, though, that the mileage of this story may vary for readers that aren’t in my shoes. In our book club discussion of Three Parts Dead, the ratings varied along the lines of those who enjoy their work and those who don’t. I Imagine that ratings would vary similarly in readings of Two Serpents Rise for those who have difficulties dealing with parts of their family and those who don’t. Regardless of that fact, though, Two Serpents Rise is an enjoyable read that I would recommend to anyone who enjoyed the world of The Craft Sequence and wants to delve further into this land of gods and the people who live with them.

Rating: Two Serpents Rise – 9.0/10


Wish Fulfillment – Living Vicariously Through Protagonists

cover_ukA short while ago, I wrote about Three Parts Dead, and spoke about its special brand of workplace wish fulfillment. In that piece, I mentioned that I wanted to do a post on wish fulfillment in general, and how the ever popular Kingkiller Chronicle employs it stealthily to great success. Well there’s no time like the present, so let’s talk about one of the most powerful writing techniques for immersion – wish fulfillment.

Wish fulfillment is one of the easiest way to drive immersion in books. It takes your hidden fantasies and secret desires and projects you into the life of a book character, letting you live out your dreams. One of the most common types of wish fulfillment in fantasy is the farm boy with a destiny trope. A seemingly ordinary farm boy discovers inner greatness and goes on to become the most important person in the land. It is not a stretch to say that most people have felt they were ordinary, and desired to go on to do something great. These books allow you to fulfill that fantasy, and that projection is what makes them so immersive and beloved. One of my favorite things in stories are magical schools. When I was a child I never could get enough of academics (I was one of those), and I love taking trips back to campus in fantasy books that let me relive those glory years. No matter how old I get, a magic school never seems to cease to enchant me.

However, many argue that wish fulfillment is a cheap trick used in the place of actual writing. By tapping into the secret base desires of everyone, readers are often much more forgiving of book’s flaws in their read through. This causes many critics and fans to claim books with wish fulfillment are of a lower quality than others. I believe that is pure nonsense. To demonstrate my point, let’s talk about The Name of the Wind, a book many regard as incredibly well written, and talk about how it’s one of the most clever forms of wish fulfillment I have seen.

There is a really interesting effect in psychology when you ask people to rate themselves on a variety of skills. We all like to believe we are talented, though most people are semi-realistic and understand that they aren’t the best at everything they try. However, there is an interesting effect where people almost always tend to rate themselves as “above average” at everything. No one likes to be in the bottom 50% in life, and while it is hard for people to lie to themselves that they are great at everything, it is easy to believe you are at least decent at most things.

Kvothe, the protagonist of NotW, is a representation of this is the mentality . Kvothe is not the best at anything, constantly coming up in second and fading behind the leaders. However, there is nothing he ever seems to be bad at. Anything that Kvothe picks up he is good enough at to dazzle and wonder, but never so good that he draws an inordinate amount of attention to himself and spoiling the illusion. In this way, Kvothe is relatable to the reader, fulfilling that deep held belief of accomplishment the reader has, when in fact he is alarmingly skilled in a way none of us are.

Now this in no way means I think that Patrick Rothfuss is a bad writer. Kvothe’s ability to tap into a primal form of wish fulfillment without the reader realizing is incredible. It is a smoke and mirrors trick I have never seen before, and it took a truly talented writer to pull it off. It shows you the absolute power of building in wish fulfillment into a book and hopefully helps explain why I was so impressed with Three Parts Dead, and its own form of workplace wish fulfillment.

Three Parts Dead – A Gift I Didn’t Know I Needed

threepartsdead_150You can probably guess I enjoyed this book a lot from the title. One of my favorite things when reading is to stumble onto a book that gives me a new experience. It isn’t required for a book to be great, but it can rapidly catapult a book to the top of my reading list. If you create something that I can get nowhere else, I am willing to forgive a lot of flaws in an author’s written prose, and if there aren’t a lot flaws then you have written something that will sit in my top tier of books. So what is Three Parts Dead, and what does it offer that I haven’t seen before? Read on to find out.

Let’s start with the what; Three Parts Dead is the start/middle of the Craft Sequence series by Max Gladstone. I say start/middle, because it is both the first published book in the series and the middle chronologically of the story. This is confusing as all hell, but Gladstone published a piece apologizing for it and explaining about the reading order here and you can learn more about the pros and cons of reading in chrono vs. publish order here. In a one line summary, Three Parts Dead is about necromantic lawyers hired to resurrect a recently deceased god. The book follows two major protagonists, the first being Tara, a recent graduate of magic college who has just been hired on at a large law firm and is out to prove herself. The second is Abelard, an entry level initiate in the faith of Kos Everburning, a deity who governs and powers a major metropolis, and who has just keeled over. Tara essentially partners up with Abelard as a key witness, and the two of them set out to discover a) how the god was murdered and b) if they can bring him (or something that resembles him) back. They are supported by a cast of side characters who are also phenomenal, and while you spend a chapter here and there in their heads, the book primarily is kept between Tara and Abelard.

Which is fine, because those two are fantastic. The character building in this book is deep and captivating. On top of our multidimensional protagonists, the antagonist is one of my favorite of all time (the smarmy teacher/boss you have always wanted to punch in the face as hard as humanly possible). The magic in the book is unbelievably complicated, but Gladstone takes the time to lay down some ground rules and guide you through. This is important, because the lawyering is also done to an impressive degree and fits rather nicely within the confines of his magic system. The world building is also fantastically well done, with Gladstone constantly name dropping places, people, and things with enough exposition to get you craving more details, but never explaining everything. However, all of this falls short of what this book does best – workplace wish fulfillment.

Being an adult can be truly terrible. When I am not writing this blog, I am working full time in an office at a job I love, but which can be unbelievably frustrating. In addition, I have had other jobs that I did not love, working with people who were impossible. This book is the first fantasy/sci-fi experience I have had that gives you workplace wish fulfillment – dealing with shitty bosses, succeeding at a new job, getting back at the impossible client. It fulfilled a lot of deep workplace fantasies that I didn’t even know that I had. Wish fulfillment is a really powerful force when it comes to enjoying a book. Someday I will write a piece on how I think The Name of the Wind is successful because it is a giant wish fulfillment without you realizing it. Wish fulfillment lets you fulfill deep fantasies and experience your ideal life, and it is usually contained to being a child with a destiny of greatness in fantasy. Three Parts Dead instead focuses on two new hires trying to make it at two different companies of sorts, and the trials they go through on the job. Reading this book made my job more enjoyable for a decent period after it. The antagonist I mentioned before was the perfect strawman for every bad boss I have had, and several passages gave me satisfaction that I felt deep in my soul. If you have ever had a job you didn’t find completely fulfilling (so all of you over 21), this book will likely speak to you.

Amongst all this praise there were two areas I would like to see improved as I move into the sequels. The magic system was interesting and detailed, but at its core Three Parts Dead is a murder mystery, and I did not feel like I had all the tools to solve the mystery myself, This meant that the book became more about waiting to be told what happened, rather than trying to figure it out myself, which is always part of the fun in mysteries. The second complaint, is that Gladstone introduces an incredibly interesting city for the stage of Three Parts Dead, but does not explore it nearly enough. We get to see several key areas, but I was left wanting more as I failed to get a great sense of the city as a whole.

Other than those issues, the book is a blast from cover to cover and has one of the most satisfying endings I have read in awhile. I am extremely confused by the order of the books and hope that the overarching plot line does not suffer from all of the shuffling. However, with its focus on creative magic, the Craft Sequence is off to a strong start for making it into my top tier of books. The Quill to Live absolutely recommends you go out and pick up Three Parts Dead right now.

Rating: Three Parts Dead – 9.0/10