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Book Review: Two Serpents Rise

By (December 25, 2013) No Comment

Two Serpents RiseTwo Serpents Rise cover

by Max Gladstone

Tor, 2013


A small practicality first: you need not have read Max Gladstone’s 2012 novel Three Parts Dead in order to enjoy the hell out of his new novel Two Serpents Rise even though it’s set in the same fictional landscape, an urban-fantasy re-imagining of Los Angeles in the form of the sprawling city of Dresediel Lex. The two books share evocative Chris McGrath covers, and they share the intriguing conceptual backdrop Gladstone has created, a hot, hedonistic world in which incredibly powerful sorcerers won a war against the world’s corrupt gods and established themselves as the power in the land.

Caleb Altemoc, the cynical but pure-hearted hero of Two Serpents Rise, works as a trouble-shooting “risk manager” for Red King Consolidated, a powerful corporation headed by one of the most infamous of those god-defeating sorcerers, the King in Red, a deadly, imposing figure Gladstone never fails to evoke effectively:

The King in Red moved among the cubicles, wreathed in power. The taps were his triple footsteps: the bones of his heel, the ball of his foot, the twiglike toes striking in sequence. “As you were,” he said. No one stirred. Sixty years ago, the King in Red had shattered the sky over Dresediel Lex and impaled gods on thorns of starlight. The last of his flesh had melted away decades past, leaving smooth bone and a constant grin.

He was a good boss. But who could forget what he had been, and what remained?

Caleb has been called in to investigate the attempted poisoning of the massive reservoir that supplies water to Dresediel Lex (in one of the book’s many completely distinctive fantasy touches, someone has infested the reservoir with Tizmet, ravenous creatures themselves composed of water), and while he’s walking around the now-contained site, he has a brief, tantalizing encounter with a ‘cliff runner’ (think of a combination of parkour and black magic) named Mal. Caleb is immediately, irrationally attracted to her even after she eludes him, to the point where he can ask “So I want to know – am I telling the truth? Is this something I need to do? Or am I about to commit suicide because I want to get in this woman’s pants?”

The sabotage of the reservoir not only threatens a lucrative business deal Red King Consolidated has in the works, it also seems to involve the embittered, terrorist adherents to the old gods destroyed by sorcerers like the King in Red, and those terrorists happen to be led by a powerful priest of the old order – Caleb’s father.

It’s a very satisfyingly complex storyline, and the best, most assured thing about it is how smoothly Gladstone works in what is after all a fairly large amount of exposition without disrupting his narrative. This is a crucial skill for ‘urban’ fantasy fiction of this type, since it’s only in the more lore-oriented style of J. R. R. Tolkien that you can believably have professor-type characters willing to dispense exposition at the drop of a wizard’s hat. In the absence of such figures, in a hard-nosed, vaguely noir world of tough guys and smart cookies, nobody’s going to stop the action and intone “In ye olden days…” Fortunately, Gladstone has the alternative down to a fine art. Watch how adroitly he handles things during Caleb’s second all-out chase of Mal, this time across the very rooftops of Dresediel Lex:

Dresediel Lex was built of stone, glass, and contracts – promises stronger than steel, tying the city together by pledge and payment. Bonds of contract were invisible, unless you looked at the world as Craftsmen learned to look, with eyes closed and mind open.

Falling, Caleb grabbed silver cord.

Scars all over his body burned as they woke and drew on the cord’s power. He shot forward, dragged by a line of lightning. Cold fangs sank into his arm. His eyes snapped open from the speed, and the visible world resolved blue around him again. The contract cord had carried him almost a hundred feet; he flew over the stockhouse’s rooftop. With a shout of triumph, he released the cord and fell to the gravel, landing with knees bent. The chemical stench of close-kept pigs enveloped him; wards burned off most of the stink, but not all.

Caleb’s story is refreshingly complicated by both lust, mightily strained filial devotion, and of course the most besetting of all gumshoe traits, the inability to turn off his investigator’s instincts, even when they begin to work against his own interests. Even brief walk-on characters are brought to life by Gladstone’s skill with dialogue, and his main characters are vividly three-dimensional. Three Parts Dead was a terrific debut, and Two Serpents Rise is even better; this is an impressive career taking shape.