Full Fathom Five, the third entry in Max Gladstone's Craft sequence is a modern fantasy thriller that has some interesting things to say about the world around us, and it's one of the best fantasy novels of the summer. Spoilers below...
Gladstone's new novel isn't a sequel to the first two books in his Craft Sequence, Two Serpents Rise and Three Parts Dead — it simply exists in the same world, working in much of the same, superb world building and writing that's gotten him nominated twice for the John W. Campbell award.
In this book, he introduces Kai, a Craftswoman, whose creation, code named Seven Alpha, is scheduled to die. The Order creates the idols for a variety of purposes: they're essentially financial instruments for faith, commissioned for a variety of purposes. When she jumps into the pool to attempt to save this idol, she's reassigned, with her mental health in question. Across the island, the God worshipped by a street urchin named Izza has been murdered, the latest in a string of murders. Kai knows that there's something more to the death of this idol, and her hunt for answers leads her into a conspiracy that shakes the island to its foundations.
Gladstone's take on fantasy is an interesting one, one which reminded me a bit of Blake Charlton's Spellwright and Spellbound: magic as a tool for wielders, rather than a mythical, unknown force that a privilaged few can utilize. Clarke's Law talking about sufficiently advanced technology feels as though it applies in this instance: the novel feels much like that of a cyberpunk thriller wrapped in the trappings of an urban fantasy story.
The result is fantasy on a technical, corporate level, set in a modern fantasy world that isn't too dissimilar from ours. People hold office jobs, file reports and paperwork, almost as if Gladstone's asking us a simple question: aren't we really living in a fantasy world? Wall Street uses blazingly fast algorithms to conduct trades, the sleek, black phones in our hands can do just about everything we can imagine, and so on.
And this book explores something I've wanted to see in a novel for years: how would a society develop using magic every day? The answer: It would develop a world that's just as strange and recognizable as ours. It's a little like that (unjustly) canned TV show, 17th Precinct.
And what a world it is. Characters remake themselves - Kai herself reformed her gender after being born in a body that didn't quite match. Massive Penitents roam the streets - golem-like geode constructs designed to reform prisoners - enforcing law and order on the streets. Orders like Kai's create Idols in the absence of Gods to keep things running smoothly. There's a vibrant arts scene, and street crime. Gladstone's world is astonishingly vibrant, terrifying and wonderful to behold as you turn the pages. Gladstone didn't expend all of his energy on the setting, however: his cast of characters, namely Kai and Izza, as well as a host of supporting figures who're all fleshed out expertly.
Gladstone also knows where to twist the characters and readers around. One of the best elements in this novel is the Penitents, the lumbering defenders of Kavekana. They're mentioned throughout the novel, wailing prisoners caught inside. Gladstone holds off on explaining anything about these constructs, allowing them to run around in the background until he reveals their purpose – and the experience of the prisoners inside – and it's worse than anything you might have imagined in the pages before. It's one example of excellent storytelling, and it's an element that still has me slightly horrified, long after I put the book down.
This all operates as Gladstone throws his characters across the island after the death of Seven Alpha. Kai is questioned by the Idol's commissioners, curious about her behavior, and after recovering from her injuries, she questions the motivations behind the death of the idol, running into a complicated tangle of faith, corporate goals and a deeper conspiracy around the very nature of the Idols they create. Gladstone paces the central mystery slowly, and lets things play out effortlessly as the book plays out. In doing so, he weaves together a story that feels refreshingly modern and relevant. At the same time, it's not so intent on delivering a Message about the modern world that it doesn't forget its own.
In Full Fathom Five, Gladstone's secured his place as an author to watch in the coming years. He's ably demonstrated his skill as a storyteller in his Craft novels, and this latest shows that he's at the top of his game. This novel is an intelligent, entertaining and gripping thriller that has me all the more excited for a return visit.