Review: Dead Country

Posted: March 1, 2023 by in Books We Like (4/5 single_star) Meta: Max Gladstone, Fantasy

Tara Abernathy grew up in a village desert away from the big city. Now that small-town girl is one of the strongest users of the Craft, the law and rights-based magic which can transform bodies, compel gods, and shape the world. But today she is returning home to attend her father’s funeral. Knowing magic doesn’t make her popular with the local villagers, she’s concerned about her reception. But the village and Tara soon discover that her arrival is the only thing that will help the villagers survive.

Tara was an important character in other novels by Max Gladstone (such as in THREE PARTS DEAD, EBR Review), but you don’t have to have read the other Craft books in order to be able to follow what’s going on in DEAD COUNTRY. Having read them does help, and they’re absolutely worth reading, but you can treat this new Craft Wars Trilogy as a standalone series, if you’d like. Consider it dipping your toe into the big world of the Craft that Gladstone has created. But you may end up wanting to submerge yourself into the rest of it–and there’s so much out there to enjoy. Fair warning.

Tara makes a great heroine. She has ambition, understands how she relates to the people around her, has studied hard to get to where she is–and experienced her fair share of mess-ups. There are a couple of throwaway lines in DEAD COUNTRY about her overcoming a god (you’d have to read THREE PARTS DEAD to really understand what that means), which only adds to her mystique, mostly because the villagers have no idea how a regular person would be able to do such a thing. DEAD COUNTRY is told from her POV and flavored with her life experiences, reactions to the people, and her well-developed cynicism. However, she has a tender side, especially for her father, which is sweet to see, even if he doesn’t appear in the book. When she comes across Dawn–another important character–in the desert as Tara is traveling home, she discovers an orphaned young woman, whose potential for using the Craft is obvious from the moment they meet. Other characters like Tara’s mother, villager-love-interest Connor, the village priest, and various other characters, including Connor’s prejudiced father, fill out the story and all have important roles to play.

The concept of the Craft as a magic system has always been fascinating to me, and appears in most of Gladstone’s books that I’ve read (there are some without the Craft, such as his wild crazy ride EMPRESS OF FOREVER, EBR Review). In an interview, I asked him about how he came up with the concept, and he said, “Magic and law are natural twins. Rules, principles, and precedent govern both, but will’s involved too, and raw force of personality. Much detailed magic in fantasy novels ultimately comes down to a question of who can phrase the most compelling argument as to why they should win. In Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, the final confrontation is basically an argument about a fine point of property law. Modern U.S. law features legally immortal immaterial persons, and if that’s not magic I have no idea what is.” (Read the rest of the interview here.)

Max Gladstone's newest offering DEAD COUNTRY is the wild west of the Craft, and how its magic and god-based world is in peril.

In DEAD COUNTRY, we get to see this magic in action, how Tara’s understanding of property rights and law affect her ability to make the magic work. There’s more to it than that, of course, because there are gods involved and starlight and glyphs and so much more. But it’s all those elements that make the magic interesting. A fun part of DEAD COUNTRY is when Tara teaches Dawn about the Craft–at least the basics so she won’t hurt herself or others–and we learn how nuanced it really is.

Early in the story when Tara meets Dawn, she learns that raiders have been pillaging the desert settlements. That’s when Tara begins to suspect the reason for her father’s death: that he was helping protect her hometown. The raiders aren’t your standard cowboy criminals. Instead, they carry a curse that animates their mostly dead bodies and propels their minds to expand the boundaries so the curse can gain strength in numbers. Yes, it is very zombie-like, and it takes its cues from your average zombie story, but fortunately Gladstone gives it a bit of a twist. With Tara there, the village is able to survive an especially terrible attack. But when the Raiders realize who Tara is and what she can do, they want her power for themselves, and will do everything they can to take it all–magic, land, and people.

DEAD COUNTRY is shorter than most of Gladstone’s other books, so it’s a quick read because the plotline is pretty straightforward. However, he blesses us with all things weird and bizarre, which he has done with his other books (EMPRESS OF FOREVER was seriously weird in awesome ways). I don’t know where his brain comes up with a lot of this stuff. It can be a little mind-bending and very cool. The result is a story and characters that suck you in and carry you along as they struggle to survive what seems to be an impossible war.

And this is only the beginning. I can’t wait to see where this all goes.

  • Recommended Age: 15+
  • Language: A handful
  • Violence: A fair amount, but most of it isn't close-up; peril
  • Sex: A few brief scenes and several references

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