Review – Three Parts Dead by Max Gladstone

Three Parts Dead by Max Gladstone

The first sentence of this book convinced me that it was worth getting:

When the Hidden Schools threw Tara Abernathy out, she fell a thousand feet through wisps of cloud and woke to find herself alive, broken and bleeding, beside the Crack in the World.


Compare this to the first sentences (after two prologues) of superstar Brandon Sanderson’s The Way of Kings, which is the first of a projected ten-book series, and about whose pages my Kindle app this morning displayed 13% – Page 134 of 1007 – Location 2357 of 183224:

 ‘I’m going to die, aren’t I?’ Cenn asked.

The weathered veteran beside Cenn turned and inspected him. The veteran wore a full beard, cut short. At the sides, the black hairs were starting to give way to grey.


Sanderson is a creative, prolific guy whose prose is sort of like a ham sandwich. I will always be grateful to him for rescuing me from the death swamp that was Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time, Books 7-11. I will probably finish The Way of Kings at some point.

I started reading Three Parts Dead by Max Gladstone because it clearly has some style. It feels like the author is trying to pull the genre up to his level. Within the first fifty pages the main character, Tara Abernathy, sucks life from some plants near the aforementioned Crack in the World to stay alive, eats a vulture, raises a few people from the dead, and joins a firm of necromancers, whose newest client needs their help in resurrecting a god, Kos Everburning, because He recently died, and a whole city used to rely on Him for power. Tara then meets a gargoyle, rips his face off, and stuffs the face in a notebook.


It’s worth mentioning that there is a lot of courtroom drama and legal maneuvering throughout the book, because the Craft (the magic of gods and men) is all bound up in contracts, obligations, and transfers of power between entities. The plot also revolves around a murder mystery. I liked it.

Around February every year I feel an urge and download a fantasy book or five, to be consumed like Tic Tacs. This one began differently and I suspected I had found something great. There was something ballsy in its tone. Casual resurrection of deities and paying for a taxi ride with pieces of your soul.

About halfway through, the plot takes over. Or rather, most of the world-building finishes, so you realize there’s nothing much to look forward to but the plot. Tara is cool, and so is her boss (Gandalf!), but nobody else is very interesting. They also make strange decisions. One character breaks the neck of another, for no apparent reason. Gladstone also starts sounding like Sanderson. He interrupts the climactic action sequence of the whole book to offer the following sidebar:

There are as many different kinds of silence as of darkness. Some are so fragile a single breath will shatter them, but others are not so weak. The strongest silences deafen.

This is unfortunate. I freely admit, though, that my eyes betrayed me and the fantasy-skimming started about fifty pages before this, when it became apparent that various plot threads were being drawn together. As expected, for what felt like all of those pages Gladstone broke up the narrative into short sections, shifting back and forth among three or four locations, until finally all the characters came together, events came to a head, and mysteries were revealed. The main mystery was actually sort of confusing, and I had to re-read the last ten pages before the Epilogue twice to understand that there had been a significant twist, upon which everything turned. Granted, I was skimming.

I don’t think excellent plot, character, and prose work against each other. It’s just hard to do all three at the same time, which is maybe why some books lean heavily on one or two. The trick with fantasy seems to be efficient characterization. That way, when you’ve run out of mysteries, you’re not left with a dead Cicada skin. Unless you’re taking the Mystery Box approach. And we all know how that turned out.

Gladstone succeeds at the beginning because his world is strange and wonderful, and he doesn’t explain much, like here when Tara is resurrecting some dead soldiers:

She drew the bent, sharp moonbeam that was her work knife from its place of concealment within the glyph over her heart, held it up to soak in starlight, and went to work on the twist of spirit and matter most folk still called man even after it had been dead for some time.

There is also a sense of play, as in the description of Tara ‘cackling’ while she works, and in the unexpected appearance of a vampire (they have those, too!). But later it’s too serious, and there’s no wonder left:

David let out a choked sound, sobbing or retching. Shale reared over Cabot’s body, blood slick on his stone hands and talons and chest. Tara saw pain in his snarl, but to someone burdened with years of hate, the gargoyle’s expression would look like a roar of bestial triumph.

The words are tired, and it’s not very much fun anymore. Gladstone sacrificed his fresh voice in the second half so that he could give the reader a more typical ending. Maybe this was an editor’s decision, not his. Regardless, I recommend this book.