Max Gladstone: Full Fathom Five

Earlier this month, I reviewed the first two books in Max Gladstone's Craft Sequence. I have now, finally, finished reading the third, Full Fathom Five. I say finally; it was only released on July 15th. But two weeks is a long time for me to take to finish a book - I was savouring it, stretching it out, and making it last, which I almost never do.

Some minor spoilers follow; nothing you wouldn't find in the first few chapters.

Full Fathom Five is a magnificent continuation of the series. It brings together elements and thinking and characters from the other two books in a way that makes sense, and I think it can probably be read as a standalone novel just as well; the point of view characters are new. It brings closure for some characters, and leaves others open to continue. I know there are at least two more books coming in the series, and that makes me happy.

I am trying hard to make up my mind on whether the central premise of Gladstone's world is "religion works like science" or "religion works like economics". I think it may be both, plus a few more. In this case, the action centres around a business concern that builds idols. Idols work in something like the same way as an tax-shelter offshore account does in our world, if one was dealing in soulstuff instead of money. That is, they can be worshipped - indeed, are worshipped - by specially trained priests, on behalf of clients, who reap the benefits without having to deal with the vagaries and dictats of actual gods and worship themselves. I think.

There are two notable elements I want to call out here. First is that the two point of view characters are women. One of those is transgendered, having been born male - and while the transgendered element is central to the character, it's not a plot point in any major way. Second, from eight major characters, only three are men. None of this is in any way artificial, and to be honest, I really only noticed when I was listing off major characters in notes for this review.

Second, there's a wide variety of socio-economic class backgrounds among the characters, and this is handled well. None of them are ignorant of the very existence of other classes, as happens a lot in fantasy, but all of them have misconceptions about how the others actually live. Again, this is gracefully handled and integrated into the story, and I wouldn't really have noticed if I hadn't picked up on the gender balance first. At some point, I'm going to have to pull out the Proper Literary Analysis, and read these books from a Marxist perspective. They are certainly and absolutely on the regular re-read list, at the very least.

In the same way as Two Serpents Rise was set in a pseduo-Aztec setting, Full Fathom Five is set in something like Hawai'i. It's a modern Hawai'i, though, with tourists and urban renewal in among wild areas. I'm not sure why, but I feel it works better than the pseudo-Aztec area. I don't know that I'm completely happy with the influences being as transparent as they are, though; it jars a little in a way that other good fantasy settings don't. I think that might just as well be my own lack of knowledge of those cultures and settings, though; I've never had a problem with pseudo-Norse, pseudo-Renaissance-Italian, or pseudo-Medieval-English settings. I do admittedly have issues with the pseudo-Irish ones, but that's mostly because they're (usually) broadly wrong.

I remain utterly charmed by the modern thinking over the fantasy fundamentals. There are no swords, and very little armour to be seen, but magic and the transmission of souls are an essential part of the setting. I am thinking forward to the more or less inevitable RPG set in Gladstone's world, and I really want to see it, not least for the setting details and the mechanics of souls.

Posted by Drew Shiel at July 30, 2014 11:05 AM

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