Book Review: Last First Snow
by Max Gladstone
The winningly unconventional narrative chronology Max Gladstone is using in his “Craft” sequence of fantasy novels is at work again in his latest book, Last First Snow: in all these novels, he’s unfolding the story of Dresediel Lex, a hot, arid city of skyscrapers, step pyramids, and vaguely Aztec-flavored technology and magic – and of its inhabitants, from ordinary citizens living ordinary lives to business-class workers in the sorcerous Craft to the enigmatic figure at the top of the food chain, the skeletal and yet disarmingly human King in Red. The power-wielders of Dresediel Lex fought the calamitous God Wars in order to throw off the bloodthirsty deities who once ruled the city and gridded it with magical “wards” to keep the populace in check, and Gladstone’s narrative departure in his series is to hop around the time-line of his creation. The events in the new book, Last First Snow, for instance, take place about twenty years before the events related in 2013’s Two Serpents Rise.
It’s a very smartly-done strategy, doing more to guarantee that each book is a separate starting-point for new readers, but it must make for some nightmarish cork-board plot-outlines.
In Last First Snow, the God Wars are forty years in the past. Kopil, the sorcerer who’s traded his very flesh in order to become the King in Red, was the victor in the city’s fight to kill its old gods and has become its de facto ruler. As in all the novels in the Craft sequence, the city of Dresediel Lex virtually acts as a character in its own right:
Industry and the fumes of fourteen million people hazed the city’s dry blue skies. Pyramids jutted from the earth, man-made mountains mocking the crystal knives of skyspires suspended upside down in the air above, and the modern land-bound towers of glass and steel below. An airbus passed overhead, and the city’s faceless Wardens flew by on their Couatl mounts. More Wardens stood guard outside the Court, humans with heads an faces covered by silver cauls. They bore ceremonial pikes to signify danger to those who didn’t know the Wardens themselves were weapons.
But while the old gods are gone, their magical wards still remain, including the one imposed on the working-class neighborhood of Skittersill that keeps it poor and peasant-like. Craftswoman Elayne Kevarian has worked hard to broker a deal between a consortium of powerful land barons and the King in Red that would allow for the re-working of Skittersill’s wards and the development of the area, but the city’s high judiciary powers are worried that such development will be seen as heartless, money-grubbing gentrification by the dockworkers and union members of Skittersill itself (the judiciary is less worried that such a perception would be entirely accurate – they’re watching out for riots, not social justice).
And so, to save her deal, Elayne Kevarian must visit Skittersill, where Craftswomen are viewed with suspicion by the ordinary folk and outright contempt by the adherents of the older magics practiced under the old gods. Elayne’s first exposure to this kind of crowd grumbling brings back bad memories:
She remembered that tone of voice – an echo of the time before the Wars, before her Wars anyway, when she’d still been weak, when at age twelve she fled from men with torches and pitchforks and hid from them in a muddy pond, breathing through a read while leeches gorged on her blood. Memories only, the past long past yet present. Since that night of torches and pitchforks and teeth, she’d learned the ways of power.
The single occurrence of that cliched “torches and pitchforks” is unfortunate, and two occurrences in three sentences is even more unfortunate, but the vivid energy of Gladstone’s storytelling more than compensates for the somewhat lazy prose that surfaces more in this volume than in any of the previous ones. As usual in these terrific novels, there are hidden agendas and believably compromised characters layered into what seems at first like a fairly straightforward story; Gladstone is by now a master of expanding a somebody’s-poisoning-the-reservoir or the-old-neighborhood’s-gentrifying plot into the amber-tinted end of the world, and as in all his previous books, his characters-crafting is his strongest suit in Last First Snow. This has now become a series no self-respecting fantasy reader can knowingly skip.