Review: Three Parts Dead

Posted: January 29, 2013 by in Books We Like (4/5 single_star) Meta: Max Gladstone, Fantasy

Magic lawyers. No, not lawyers who go to court over magic, but lawyers who have magic and use it to make contracts. Gods who are real. Gargoyles. Vampires. Necromancy. A murder mystery. Trying to explain everything this novel has and is just makes my head spin.

So… maybe I should start at the beginning.

Tara is a young Craftswoman (i.e., magic lawyer type) who since being kicked out of the Hidden Schools has floundered about purposeless. Until Elayne Kevarian hires her to help on a case her firm has taken on: to resurrect the dead god Kos. But before they can do that they have to figure out how and why it happened. And they must do this before His city falls into chaos.

Quite the first case for a young woman, no matter how promising and brilliant. While Ms. Kevarian is off on her own errands, Tara is assigned to the grunt work, her only help the young priest Abelard, whose faith is on the brink. Tara goes about her work with determination and finesse. She’s in her early twenties, so it’s sometimes hard to believe that she always knows what to do. Tara hasn’t got much of a character arc, but the story is so plot/setting oriented that it would have been difficult to go very deep.

Abelard and his friend Cat have the most interesting stories and character development of the entire cast. Ms. Kevarian is cleverly drawn as the scary woman you’d want on your side and Professor Denovo is believable as the egocentric “scholar” working as counsel for the opposing clients. But I doubt you’ll read this book for the characters, as integrated as they are to the story.

What shines in THREE PARTS DEAD (Amazon) is the city of Alt Coulumb and the magic. Gladstone reveals bit by bit the world that surrounds Tara as she traipses through the streets, interviews people, does her magic, and generally tries to figure out how Kos died. No silly infodumps here, we are whisked from page one right into Tara’s story and the events surrounding the death of a god.

For example, Craftsmen: their magic is not unlike the powers that gods possess, but instead of having the magic be their divine body, humans fuel their magic from starlight. They can use it to create contracts, but also to find the loopholes and unravel them–often quite literally. Craftsmen magic is sometimes gruesome, as in the case of necromancy; sometimes it’s beautiful as in the Hidden Schools itself which floats above the earth. Sure there’s history and how-tos that aren’t really explained, but there just isn’t time. Here’s hoping he includes those unanswered questions in a sequel. (Will there be one? Wish I could say.)

Magic lawyers. Gods who are real. Necromancy. A murder mystery. Trying to explain everything in THREE PARTS DEAD just makes my head spin.

We jump into the story right from the beginning, and despite brief lulls as we learn about the case, the pace never really slows down. The conclusion is an amazing and cool, yet also tidy, wrap-up of what is an often convoluted twist of clues and revelations. Some of the revelations are a little frustrating because information is withheld from us, which doesn’t make sense considering the novel’s omniscient narrative style–it’s kind of hard for a character to not show her hand if you were just in her head. I probably would have let it slide if Gladstone had been more strict about how he switched from PoVs. But it is his first novel after all, and he’ll figure it out for next time. He seems pretty smart.

Gladstone’s prose is fluid and descriptive, and easy to read despite the density of the different elements of the novel. I loved how weird it all was, the jiving of different ideas and even genres, mixing up urban fantasy with mystery, legal thriller with sword & sorcery, and a little steampunk thrown in for flavor. I would read it again just to see if I can pick out the clues I missed the first go-around, and to savor Gladstone’s clever details.

  • Recommended Age: 15+ there isn't really any risque content
  • Language: Fewer than 5 instances
  • Violence: Some
  • Sex: A kiss and asking about lovers but that's it

You really need to read this fun debut novel.


  • DED says:

    Finally got to read this one. Loved it for the reasons you mentioned as well as the characters. Especially enjoyed the interactions between Tara and Abelard and their discussions about Craft and Faith.

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