Three Parts Dead is Max Gladstone’s debut novel from Tor. I’m classifying it as epic fantasy, though in some ways it feels more like urban fantasy—largely the book takes place in and revolves around the affairs of one city. It’s even got some steampunk elements in there, so Gladstone really just pulled out all the stops.
Gladstone adopts a lot of tropes readers of SFF will recognize: God Wars, craftsmen, zombies, vampires, and gargoyles (I do love reading gargoyle stories), sun and moon gods, power armor, etc. But he’s doing something new with every single one of them, and combining them in really unexpected ways. I mean, power armor and gargoyles and god wars? Who does that? Gladstone packed as much awesome as he could into one world, and it totally paid off.
One reason I’m calling it epic is because the scope of the world is vast. With so many things to explain, Gladstone was wonderful with exposition. I wanted to know many things before I learned them, but I learned them exactly when I needed to know. Because of the scope, there were times when it felt like too much to process at once, but that’s what comes with having a new, innovative world. Even if I didn’t understand everything right away, by the time I needed to put the pieces together the information had been well-integrated.
We don’t learn everything about the world, but we learn enough to suggest how big it is. We learn about the economics of paper, and how communication in the city setting differs from other places, and what transportation regulations people keep in mind.
Another reason I’m calling it epic is because of the multiple POVs. I loved that a majority of the POV characters were female, because I don’t see that enough in epic fantasy. Each POV character behaves intelligently given the information they have, and even when they disagree with each other, they give sound arguments. When two academics debate, they reference dense theoretical arguments. When an academic and a clergyman debate gods, they have trouble relating to each other. Each POV character comes from a different perspective, their scenes are written accordingly, and that also fleshes out the world more.
For the magic system, the readers get a sense that there are limits to what an individual craftsman can do with craft, but we don’t really know what the limitations of craft itself are. There is some basic theory on how craft works, enough that we believe there are rules, yet its workings remain numinous. This if my favorite kind of magic in books.
The book gets theoretically dense, which is fascinating, and packed with all kinds of ethical issues. I appreciated the underscoring themes about failure, addiction, lines that cannot be uncrossed and lines that can, the strength of platonic love rather than romantic (come to think of it, there isn’t really a romance subplot, which is kind of refreshing), and dozens more besides.
What really makes this book isn’t the world-building, though; it’s that all of the POV characters are set up as competent in some ways, but by the end they all must do the thing they believe they cannot do. Every single one of them. The moments of epic just pile up until the very final scene, which is pretty much the best ever.
I can’t find any information on whether this is stand-alone or the first in the series. Gladstone resolves all the promises he made to the reader, so Three Parts Dead works as a stand-alone, but he did set up a lot he can play with later. I’m really hoping it’s the first in a series, because I absolutely loved it.
UPDATE: Happily, there will be more books set in this world, though not necessarily with the same characters. The next one comes out this summer!