In the follow-up to Three Parts Dead, Gladstone introduces a new cast, as well as a new setting. Unlike Alt Coulomb, the city-state of Dresediel Lex crushed its bloody gods entirely; roles that were fulfilled by the gods now fall to humans and the Craftsmen and Craftswomen of the city. If the humans fumble the ball, the entire city will suffer.
Dresediel Lex is an artificial, fragile oasis in a vast desert; ensuring the water supply is even more central to it than it is to other cities. Red King Consolidated manages the water supply and until now has done an acceptable job of meeting the city’s ever expanding needs. Until now…
The first concrete hint that something has gone seriously wrong is when Tzimet demons begin manifesting in the Bright Mirror reservoir. Spontaneous demon flocks can be a symptom of mismanaged water purification magic  but it’s just as possible that someone is deliberately sabotaging the water supply.
The first suspect that comes to risk manager Caleb Altemoc’s mind is Temoc, last surviving priest of the slain gods, less because Temoc is a notorious terrorist and more because Temoc is Caleb’s father. Although Temoc is affectionate in his way towards Caleb, his way includes carving mystical symbols into his son’s arms; that and their political differences make the relationship between father and son difficult. Temoc is very open about his activities to his son and he claims to be innocent.
A tour of Bright Mirror gives Caleb a second suspect, the alluring Mal. Mal’s interests include being terribly mysterious and free-running after dark near access-restricted demon-infested reservoirs and targets of terrorist outrages. Mal also works for Heartstone, the company Caleb’s employer Red King Consolidated very much wants to acquire. After some investigation the smitten Caleb concludes Mal is, like Temoc, is being framed by some third party.
Caleb’s extremely scary boss the King in Red expects answers and has trusted Caleb to find them. It’s a bad idea to disappoint the King in Red. What would be much worse than disappointing the King in Red is allowing the other side to bring their plot to fruition. With a mystical deadline fast approaching, it is not at all clear that Caleb will be able to connect the dots in time.
This installment gives the reader a somewhat different perspective on the God Wars. Where Alt Coulomb’s Kos seemed almost amiable, the gods of Dresediel Lex demanded payment in blood for their services. The dread King in Red was not motivated to strike down the gods because the lich-mage was power-hungry. He did it because his boyfriend’s heart was cut out to slake a god’s hunger and by overthrowing the gods the King in Red hoped to end that kind of exploitation.
Unfortunately, not only is the new system as exploitative in its way as the old but it turns out that while the Craft can provide impressive short term growth it does not offer the same kind of long term sustainability divine magic did. This problem is more obvious to Dresediel Lex because it is more dependent on a fragile infrastructure than other cites but, really, the only difference is timing. All cities are artificial constructs that require constant upkeep and will have to either deal with the issues facing Dresediel Lex or collapse.
Why not let it all crumble, you ask? Because cities are wealth-and-culture generators. Without the cities, most people would die and the survivors would be abjectly poor, backward rustics of the sort who tried to lynch Tara in the first book.
My one quibble is that due to the author’s decision to make this a secondary world cribbing heavily from ours the name the protagonist’s mom hung on him to indicate modernity and rejection of the old, cruel ways is in our world an Old World one, Hebrew in origin but popular with Christian groups like the Puritans. I don’t care for the subtext, although I understand why it was a convenient shorthand.
It’s possible that Gladstone (or Caleb’s mom) picked “Caleb” because one meaning of Caleb is “faithful”; given his dad’s former occupation, that’s actually pretty funny.
It might seem to some readers Gladstone intends some kind of parallel between the Craft versus the Gods on side and late period capitalism versus the grand social structures of the middle part of the 20th century on the other. I can see it if I squint but the fact that the King in Red is actually worried that he is steering his city off a cliff distinguishes him from the clear-eyed visionaries of our world; they would not hesitate to consign the Earth to certain doom a few decades down the line if it meant a 2% improvement on the next quarter’s bottom because our ruling classes know the King in Red apparently does not; value on paper of assets that can only be realized far in the future is basically nil.
[Face-palm] The King in Red’s problem is immortality and the inevitability of living with the consequences of his actions, which blinds him to the benefits of focusing entirely on the short-term. Short of killing the poor guy, I don’t know how to fix that.
Caleb’s dad is a nice mixture of complete monster and doting dad, happy to cut the heart out of one of Caleb’s closest friends when he deems it necessary while simultaneously being genuinely concerned about in his son’s love life.
Caleb himself wasn’t as interesting as his supporting cast for some reason (and I note it’s Caleb’s Gay Best Friend Teo, who I have completely failed to mention, who shows up in the next book, not Caleb). I think for the plot to work Caleb has to be just a little bit thick in very specific ways while the other characters are in roles that allow them more freedom.
This was as solid as the first book and as entertaining. Like the first book it borrows heavily from mystery and thriller conventions, particularly bit in noir where – but that’s a spoiler. Like Three Parts Dead it works as a stand-alone but in conjunction with Three Parts Dead you can begin to see Gladstone’s greater design; I recommend reading as many of the books as you can track down before entirely reasonable investment strategies leave the Earth a lifeless husk.
- There are moments in this books where I wonder how, even with the gods and the Craftsfolk, humans survived for any length of time in this world.