book report: Two Serpents Rise
 

I came into Max Gladstone's urban fantasy series, called the Craft Sequence, from the middle; the first one I read is #3, Full Fathom Five.  In my defense, when I went to get the book signed, I asked Max if the books could be read out of order or if I should obtain #1 first, and he said they should be readable out of order.  So I did.


I am accustomed to reading sf/f series out of order.  It was a fact of life in South Korea; in fact, I was frequently lucky to get all of a series at all.  During the school year, my sister and I had access to the library's offerings, but during summer break, we only had our own collection and whatever we could scrape out of the English-language sections of the Korean bookstores.  (I'm not fluent in Korean--my education has been American--so reading Korean books was out.)  I'd hunt down books in a series, sometimes fail and sometimes succeed, grab whatever pickings I could.  And I reread books a lot more than I do now out of simple necessity, because it was either that or not read at all.  (There was a particularly bad couple of weeks where I read Jonathan Livingston Seagull maybe a dozen times because we'd just moved and for whatever reason it was the only book in the house.  It's a great book, but I have never been able to touch it since.)


Anyway, it's true that the Craft books can be read out of order; I think one probably gets some more context reading them in order, because of characters in common.  But I read them #3 (Full Fathom Five), then #1 (Three Parts Dead), and now #2, Two Serpents Rise.


The Craft books take place in a world where gods and magic (called Craft) collide and intertwine.  Craft trades in soulstuff, and the metaphor is distinctly financial.  I am still struggling to figure out the basics of things like financial instruments (still reading Niall Ferguson's The Ascent of Money--I have been slowed down by other commitments of late) so I am sure some of the author's cleverness is going over my head.  But I love that I don't need to have a degree in business (?) to marvel at the world.


And what a world!  Undead Craftsmen and Craftswomen, demons, contracts, cities where you trade fractional bits of soul for water.  The setting uses our world as a starting point and remembers that our world is gloriously diverse.


Two Serpents Rise takes place in Dresediel Lex.  Its protagonist, Caleb Altemoc, is a risk manager who gambles in his spare time.  He finds himself caught in the risk management situation of his life when there's an attack on his company's water supply.  You see, Dresediel Lex is a growing city, and its thirst for water requires Craft to sustain.  He meets and pursues a mysterious woman, Mal, who may know what's going on, and whom he falls for in more ways than one.


Dresediel Lex may run on Craft nowadays, but before the God Wars, it ran on human sacrifice to the gods, including the twin Serpents of the title.  (I presume this is based on Mesoamerican history, but I can't pin it any further than that.)  While the old priests and their followers were broken by the Craftswomen and Craftsmen, a few survived.  And one of the survivors, and a rebel still, is Caleb's own father, an Eagle Priest.  Caleb has what one might call a fraught relationship with his father, having thrown in with the victors; he is vehemently against a return to the days of human sacrifice.  Unfortunately, human sacrifice is a known way of dealing with the disasters that shake the city...


So much for plot; I was also entranced by the prose.  I am not visual (I have aphantasia or the next best thing) and most visual descriptions leave me very confused.  But Gladstone's prose sings.  I stopped every few pages to savor the words, the knife-vivid language.  For example:


"Death and rebirth became him, a cycle of time stretching back past Dresediel Lex to the Quechal homeland sunk below the sea, and further still, to men and women weeping over a grave in a trackless wilderness, bedraggled creatures with bedraggled gods, haunted by ghosts of language and ceremony."  (292)


The prose made me feel like I was there.  I almost never get this feeling from prose, because most writers rely on visuals and I can't "see" in my head.  But Gladstone's prose is constructed so that even I had an entry point into the setting, and I really appreciated that.


I really enjoyed this, which is not a surprise; I had also really enjoyed Three Parts Dead and Full Fathom Five.  At some point I'll be looking forward to reading Last First Snow, which is #4.


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And for fellow Americans, Happy Fourth of July!