Apr. 12th, 2016

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Just finished Max Gladstone's second book, Two Serpents Rise, and it lives up to the high standard set by his first book. Gladstone has a gift for dropping you into a complex and fascinating world with just a few deft strokes of the pen, and once you're in, draws you along the road to the denouement with nary a detour and precious little padding. Lots of information ends up being delivered on a complex milieu, but never at the cost of infodumps. Smooth!

Two Serpents is kind of like the love child of Michael Moorcock and John Grisham. Imagine, if you will, a world after the Craftsmen (powerful sorcerors) have stood toe to toe with the old gods and defeated them, replacing a world of superstition and blood sacrifice with a world of "scientific" magic, bound together by a web of powerful sorcerous contracts both among people and between humans and extradimensional horrors (demons and the like). But of course, just because (most of) the gods are dead -- except for those that have gone into hiding or been chained and used to supply mystical power for the new society -- this doesn't mean they're all dead, nor does it mean their followers are willing to accept defeat.

Into this situation comes Caleb, who straddles the two worlds: his father is one of the last Eagle Knights, defeated but not yet ready to quit and lurking in the shadows, striving to restore the old ways -- or at least protect those who cling to them. Caleb, on the other hand, stands firmly in the "modern" world. He doesn't precisely hate his father, who is striving to bring the old ways back, but resents him and doesn't quite trust him, seeing him as a relic of an older, not very nice age. Enter Mal, a woman who Caleb meets while she's doing this world's equivalent of parcours (aka "parkour" or "free running") -- but who's also a powerful Craftswoman. They're immediately struck by something special about each other, thrown together and then apart by events, and a difficult and thorny romance ensues. But both members of the couple have secrets, and things don't go quite as you'd expect. (Or perhaps they do, since all the surprises stem from well-prepared leads. But no spoilers here!)

Gladstone writes economically, but with occasional flashes of humor and beauty. There's a ton of delicious weirdness, such as "dragonfly" taxis: you wave an arm to summon them, they carry you off, and they take a bit of your soul in payment. Buried beneath a compelling thriller plot are some interesting messages. First, and most obviously, there's the important point that if you give up one form of sacrifice, you need to carefully consider what is taking its place. Second, there's the issue of ecological sustainability, since the Craftsmen are more about economics than they are about ecology, which provides an uncomfortable parallel to our modern world. But it's all submerged beneath a great story, so it's never preachy.

Brilliantly done, and pulled me through the book so quickly I almost regretted when it was over. But then, I have two more of his books on the way. Stay tuned!

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