The thing to bear in mind about Gladstone’s Craft series is that while it has an internal order, that’s not the order in which Gladstone is publishing them. The titles suggest an internal chronology, but the title of 2015’s Last First Snow is a bit ambiguous on that point.
It is forty years after the God Wars, when craft-wielding mages overthrew the gods. The city of Dresediel Lex is a well-ordered oasis in the middle of a vast desert. It is a city freed from the superstitions of the past and from the oppression of chattel slavery, a vibrant community whose economy is growing quite nicely. At least that’s the point of view of the King in Red, the skeletal autocrat who runs the city. If you cannot trust your dictator, whom can you trust?
The one sore point in the King in Red’s otherwise satisfactory eldritch post-life
is the Skittersill slum, a relic of the bad old days. It lies within ancient wards, which were shaped with an eye to keeping the ward’s inhabitants poor and safely contained. The obvious solution is to tear down the wards and redevelop the whole district. However, if the craftsfolk bungle replacing the old wards with new ones, demons from the stars will descend and eat everyone. That would be bad. Craft-worker Elayne Kevarian is tasked with replacing the old wards with new ones, ideally without letting any demons into the city.
The biggest problem is resident resistance. Skittersill’s residents suspect (for good reason) that there’s no place in the new Skittersill for their community or the people in it. The city of Dresediel Lex might get a shiny new district, but all the people of Skittersill can expect from redevelopment is exile from the only homes and community they’ve ever known.
The King in Red’s administrative technique doesn’t involve listening to a lot of back talk. Of course, any member of the lower orders is free to complain to the magically-enhanced Wardens, who will deal with the complaint. With a bout of invigorating police brutality. The only way to get the King in Red’s personal attention is to speak as a community, to present him with a mass protest even the King in Red cannot ignore.
Temoc Almotil is the last of the Eagle Knights, a survivor from the losing side of the Gods War, someone widely respected in the Skittersill community. Although those of his gods who survived are much reduced, Temoc still serves them in his way. A married man, Temoc really, really doesn’t want to get crushed between the Skittersill mob and the King in Red. At the same time his ingrained sense of duty to his home district won’t let him turn down the opportunity to negotiate on behalf of the Skittersill community.
Unfortunately for the King in Red, Temoc, Elayne, and all the people of the Skittersill, there’s another player in the game, someone whose interests are best served if mutual distrust and frustration turns into open warfare. Someone who would happily watch the whole district burn.
Someone who has gone to extraordinary lengths to light the fires of riot and rebellion at Chakal Square.…
This … was somewhat less upbeat than the previous Craft books.
The Big Bad in this book is an ambitiously venal monster, but he could be handled by one sufficiently motivated critic armed with a pillow and enough body mass to hold down the pillow over the Big Bad’s face. My real ire is reserved for the King in Red, because not only does it take surprisingly little provocation to nudge him from “bother; someone disagrees with me,” to “what this situation needs is mass murder, ideally carried out as I laugh maniacally amid the flames,” he’s a willing patsy. He lets the Big Bad manipulate him into atrocity because, deep down, the King in Red loves breaking stuff.
The events in this book make me wonder about the King in Red’s grand justification for the Gods War. If the King in Red’s lover hadn’t been fed to the gods, could the Gods War have been prevented? Or would the megalomaniacal craftsman who became the King in Red just have looked for a different excuse to test himself against the most powerful beings around?
Mass murder is nothing new for F&SF, but this is one of the few books I have encountered in which the author uses his undeniable skill to show us just how nasty massacre can be. He seems to hold the odd belief that atrocity is wrong, even when the victims are poor and uppity. The sympathy shown by the text towards people who aren’t rich (or demigods) is ideologically suspect — as is the fact that community organizing isn’t denounced as clearly socialistic. Gladstone has an strange viewpoint for a spec fic writer; all too often other authors would be cheering for the King in Red. Never mind the Collaterally Damaged Citizens.
This is a prequel to Two Serpents Rise and anyone who has read that (and you’ve all read it, right? I’ll wait here until you do) has a pretty good idea where poor Temoc’s aspirations as a community leader and peacemaker are going to take him. The pathway between beginning and destination has some interesting twists, twists that cast a new light on what Temoc’s son Caleb believes happened before the events of Two Serpents Rise. I really want to reread Two Serpents Rise to reevaluate it with this book in mind. No time. No time.