the Little Red Reviewer

Three Parts Dead by Max Gladstone

Posted on: April 21, 2014

three parts deadThree Parts Dead by Max Gladstone

published in 2012

where i got it: purchased new

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What happens when your God dies? When your city, your world, depends on the protection of your patron god (in exchange for your prayers and devotions, of course) this suddenly becomes a very important question. I’m absolutely fascinated by cultures and stories in which the deities interact with normal people in a somewhat normal way. How would it change your outlook on life to have a conversation with someone who was all knowing and immortal? More on this in a future post, actually. It’s just too fun of an idea to leave alone.

In a bit of a mash up of Law and Order (or maybe Castle?) and Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, Three Parts Dead throws us into the city of Alt Coulumb, where exactly that has happened: The patron god, Kos Everburning, God of the sun, of fire and of anything that could burn, has died. The Church does the only thing they can do: they hire the best there is, the necromantic firm of Kelethres, Albrecht, and Ao. Part lawyers, part investigators, part necromancers, and part thieves of godly powers, the necromancers job is to find out how the God died. And then the haggling over what’s left of him can begin.  The contracts of a god aren’t unlike those of a corporation. When the contract holder dissolves, who gets the properties? Who gets the contracts? This isn’t the first time something this has happened in Alt Coulumb.

Three Parts Dead is easily one of those most unique novels I have read in a long time. It’s one thing to give us a fully drawn world full of living Gods who make bargains and contracts with mortals (so much protection for so much devotion, and the like), but it’s a whole ‘nother story to show us the dark sides of those bargains. What happens when the Gods can no longer keep their own promises? What happens when they are quite literally, dismantled, as corporate lawyers might dismantle a bankrupted business? In that way, Gladstone weaves a surface plot that’s nearly mainstream. Got a friend who enjoys James Rollins style thrillers and won’t touch a fantasy novel?  This could be their gateway book.

Tara  was lucky enough to get a job offer with Kelethres, Albrecht and Ao right as she graduated from the Hidden Schools. She was also unlucky enough to be thrown bodily from said school at said graduation.  She survives the fall, manages to limp home, and learns the hard way that a woman with her education would be bored senseless in her backwater of a hometown. Maybe she better take that job offer in the big city before the ignorant villagers burn her as a witch. Her very first assignment with Kelethres, Albrecht and Ao? Assist her boss Ms. Kevarian with the Kos investigation, of course.  Their mission is to learn how and why he died, and resurrect him, if possible.

And let’s talk about Tara for a minute, shall we? She’s headstrong, smart, a risk taker, doesn’t care what people think of her, knows her shit, and stands up for what she believes in. That’s pretty damn kick-ass. I also got a snarf of a laugh out of the “female gaze” bits. Early on in the story, she comes into contact with two young men, one of whom becomes an important character later on.  In her first seconds of meeting these guys, her first reaction is to size them up. See how they look. Decide if they are physically attractive or not. There’s no real romance to speak of in the book, but like I said, I got a laugh out of these very quick little scenes that a lesser author wouldn’t have even put in. It was a nice a flip of the often-used (although not as much anymore) scene where a male main character meets a female character with whom there will be no romance with yet still looks her up and down, and thinks about some possible, future potential.  It’s the details, you know?

Like the best of stories, nothing in Three Parts Dead happens in a vacuum.  There is a lot of history here, and Tara will need to learn all of it if she’s to have any chance of understanding what happened to Kos and why. I do love it when an author makes me shout outloud “when is the damn prequel coming out! I need to know all this awesome everything that happened before!”, and Gladstone had me saying that more than once.  Here’s a taste of what I’m talking about –

Kos didn’t always rule alone. He once ruled along side Seril, who was defeated on a field of battle. After she was destroyed, her property, agreements, and contracts were divided up.  They tried to save what of her they could. Seril, the Goddess of stone and night and order, became Justice, the cold eyed goddess of truth and order. Fragments of Seril are alive in Justice, and Justice rules  by taking over the bodies of her adherents, some of whom become physically and psychologically addicted to being that close to their goddess, even though she hasn’t been fully Seril for some time.

I know I was meant to love Tara, but Abelard the young priest of Kos and Cat of Justice were the characters I most connected with. Tara is learning, she is following her ambition, the world is opening for her, things are going pretty well for her (aside from the getting beat up all the time and the assassination attempt). But for Cat and Abelard, their lives are getting smaller and narrower, and in very different ways everything is going wrong for them, getting harder for them. Cat needs her own book, is what needs to happen. When I read Three Parts Dead again (and this will be a book I reread), I’ll be reading it for Cat.

So Gladstone gets about a billion points for uniqueness of world. He gets twice that many for story development, and three times that many many points for characterization. in fact, forget the world, or the characters, forget all the details,  because that’s not what’s important.  This is what’s important: Three Parts Dead is everything that’s right about how to make a fantasy world work and feel completely real. It’s everything that’s right with what you can do with writing and plot, and history, and character, and how to be fresh and unique. This is the debut novel that makes other debut novelists quake in their shoes.

I haven’t told you much about the plot itself, have I?  Well, it’s awesome, and damn it’s fast!  the entire story takes place over just a few days. Tara gets involved with the right people, and gets into trouble with the wrong people, and just in time manages to put the right puzzle pieces together. In that way, it felt a little like an episode of Law and Order, where everything comes together mostly smoothly and a smidgen too fast.  You know what? If the book had been 200 pages longer, or the story taken a few more days to unfold, this reviewer would have been a very happy camper.

18 Responses to "Three Parts Dead by Max Gladstone"

That is a whole lot of billions of points.

Bought this one just a few days ago when someone pointed out that it has been on kinda a perma kindle deal. Nothing but praise, all over. Honestly have not seen a single bad review.

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I bought it based on a ton of positive reviews, so now i am passing that on to you! also, kindle deal is nice too.😀

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I really REALLY enjoyed this book, and it’s also the only novel I read last year that I still haven’t gotten around to writing a review for, mostly because I just didn’t know where to start. So many interesting ideas and concepts in this, the SHEER imagination and creativity. I needed time to really let my thoughts settle…and they are still in the process of settling.

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SHEER imagination

you said it! i’ve read some good urban fantasy police procedural/investigative thrillers, and I’ve read great fantasy. This is the first time I’ve seen it together, and done so flawlessly. why can’t more books be this good?

if it helps any, i started my review with “this is fucking fantastic”.

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Great review Andrea! This has been on my wishlist for what feels like forever – I’m very excited to be bumping it up to the top of the pile right now.😀

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thanks, I happy you liked the review! Yes, definitely read this, and soon!

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I read it last year as part of the Hugos since Gladstone was up for the Campbell award. I loved that the main character was a woman of colour, and loved, loved, LOVED that the book unequivocally passed the Bechdel test. So if those things happen to be important criteria for other readers of this blog, you’re in for a treat here.

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i’m happy he’s up for the Campbell again this year. Makes me wish I’d read this last year, because now I’m really going to have a tough time deciding who to vote for!

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Maybe things come together too quickly in the end…but that makes the novel lean, mean and very tasty. The audiobook is very good too–it was part of my listening last year on my Colorado driving trip.

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ooh, who did the audio? i bet this would make a great audio, since lots of the characters have sarcastic lines (or at leasst, I read them that way).

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I’m afraid the cover put me off so much I didn’t even want to read the reviews on this one.

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My husband kept calling it the “vampire hunter girl” cover art, and I kept telling him “it’s not a vampire book!” even though there is one guy who is a vampire.

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This is the second review I’ve read this lunch break of something that now needs to be read. Ack. So far behind.

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you should see the stacks of books in my bedroom. and then i bought 3 more books last night. i am a bad, bad girl.

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[…] –The Little Red Reviewer reads Three Parts Dead by Max Gladstone (Tor 2012). “A mash up of Law and Order (or maybe Castle?) and Neil Gaiman’s American Gods […] Gladstone gets about a billion points for uniqueness of world. He gets twice that many for story development, and three times that many many points for characterization. in fact, forget the world, or the characters, forget all the details,  because that’s not what’s important.  This is what’s important: Three Parts Dead is everything that’s right about how to make a fantasy world work and feel completely real.” […]

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Hell yes it would totally make other debuts quake in their knickers – because it was just that awesome. I love your comparison to Law and Order (haven’t watched that in ages) but yes it was so amazing how he mixed that element into his magic. I’m utterly in love with these books!

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I hadn’t watched Law and Order in forever either, but was hanging out with my Dad, and he likes it, so we watched an old episode together.

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some of the books reviewed here were free ARCs supplied by publishers/authors/other groups. Some of the books here I got from the library. the rest I *gasp!* actually paid for. I'll do my best to let you know what's what.
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