Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Craft Sequence by Max Gladstone

Interesting - it's been exactly one year since my last post.  Naturally I knew it had been a while, but just couldn't bring myself over to check.  It was about that time that I was really getting concerned about the election, and then following the election I wasn't really motivated to do much of anything for a while.  Plus we had a new baby to look after, and a larger not-baby who still needed some affection and assurance she wasn't being replaced, and entropy in the house, and work, and one thing and another.  In other words, typical life stuff.  Still no excuse, I suppose.

Nonetheless in the interim I did at least read sufficient stuff for another few years of posts.  Having utterly failed to finish up the Hugo nominees of 2016 I'll just move forward and talk about something that I enjoyed immensely and didn't know that I wanted to read until I did.

The Craft Sequence encompasses five novels (for now, there's a sixth coming soon), which are written out of chronological order but have helpfully indicative titles to let you know where you stand in the order of things.  Three Parts Dead, the first written book, is therefore the third sequentially, while Last First Snow, the fourth written, is something of a prequel.  They're all available on the Kindle store at really reasonable price points.  I suppose that the genre that you'd classify these under would be "urban fantasy", but what Gladstone has done here is explicitly analogize magic to the corporate form.  I've seen books where magicians are ninjas, kings, computer programmers, even just generally geeky, but I've never seen one before where they're explicitly lawyers or CPAs.

I'm not the sort of attorney that works at a large corporation or a huge corporate firm, but I'm familiar enough with the pressure to constantly bill more hours.  Admittedly my clients pay in good old American money and not souls, but the concepts is there.  In the backstory, there were once gods that ruled the land, and granted their worshipers with various blessings in exchange for their prayers.  And, in at least some cases, sacrifice.  The priests of these gods got some explicitly supernatural powers and Applied Theology was where it was at.

Until, of course, some enterprising souls discovered that pure human will and the power of starlight was able to perform Craft, allowing the supernatural with no god required.  The subsequent God Wars saw the gods broken and many even destroyed, and the Craftspeople ascendant.  At this point they had to sit down and actually rule the land they'd taken.  The most powerful of them transcended their mere flesh and became the Deathless Kings and Queens, immortal, unbelievably potent liches of pure magical might.

Most of this is experienced from the ground level, as it were.  The main protagonist of the first novel, Three Parts Dead, is a recent <ahem> "graduate" of one of the Craft schools, owing student loans of several dozen souls and hired on to a firm to perform a resurrection of a dead god, a task she has to worry is somewhat beyond her.  An experience totally familiar to anyone in their first professional job, if not exactly in details.

What I really liked about this series is that it tries very hard to be even-handed.  The Craftspeople definitely had some legitimate beefs about the gods, particularly those where human sacrifice was performed, so it's easy to assume that they're the good guys here.  However, there's a streak of Nietzschean will-to-power pervading the practice of Craft; many practitioners aren't especially ethical or moral, and at least some of them rule as harshly as the gods ever did.  Plus Craft is really cool and all but it runs on entropy, so heavy Craft use is making the world gradually uninhabitable.  Divine magic (being magic) doesn't have that limitation.  Some of the most unscrupulous Craftspeople are actually trying to hasten the destruction and reach out to the stars - leaving the rest of us in the lurch.

One interesting geographical feature is the desert city of Dresediel Lex, formerly ruled by sacrifice-demanding gods who also enforced a strict caste system.  They probably didn't notice or even care too much when selecting the lover of some low-class schmuck named Kopil for sacrifice; if they'd known he would become the infamous King in Red they might have maybe thought about it a little harder.  But unlike the gods, the King in Red can't just make it rain by divine will and his city is constantly growing.  As a result he's burning out more and more surrounding water and hoping to continue to buy time to do . . . something.  Do Phoenix, Las Vegas or L.A. ring a bell?

Kopil's actually something of a standout character.  He's first seen in Two Serpents Rise as a generally benevolent figure, but you have to reconsider him after Last First Snow where he puts down a revolt with excessive force, albeit for somewhat understandable reasons.  Despite his incredible power he's got a bunch of complexes, and most of his friends don't call him back anymore.  If you've ever wanted to read a book about a depressed, gay, immortal skeleton mage then this is the series for you.

I do have some questions about just how powerful the practitioners of Craft can be - even fresh out of school they're so mindbogglingly tough that it borders on unfair.  And, for that matter, like most books involving magic, some of the conflicts are resolved in unsatisfying fashions by methods that weren't previously explained to be possible.  Nonetheless, I liked many of the characters, I liked the world, and I liked the idea that first-years at Craft firms have to work nights and weekends to get enough billable hours to satisfy their dread masters.  And there's enough analogy to think about but not so much it beats you over the head, or even really gives you the suggestion of an answer for that matter.  Definitely good beach reading, if there's a beach in your future.

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