One of the reasons I love the speculative fiction is the constant addition of new twists and ideas from other genres. Nowadays you can get books sci-fi westerns, or historical fiction fantasy to sate your every niche genre desire. Some of these combinations make more sense to me than others. If you had asked me if I would enjoy a fantasy + legal thriller combo, I may have laughed in your face. The last legal thriller I read was a Reader’s Digest John Grishman novel I found at my grandparents’ house. It was also the last legal thriller I remember reading. However, In Three Parts Dead, Max Gladstone manages this genre amalgamation in superb form, offering a fresh twist to habitual fantasy readers and a gateway to fantasy for legal thrillers fans.
Three Parts Deads begins in the city of Alt Columb, with the dead of a God. This lacks the finality you might expect in a world with necromancy. The dead God’s church hires the necromantic firm of Kelethres, Albrecht, and Ao to resurrect Kos and restore His divine being. Tara may be the firm’s newest associate, but it quickly becomes clear that the knowledgeable-yet-inexperienced Craftswoman will ultimately be responsible for the success or failure of the resurrection. You know, along with help from a chain-smoking priest, an addiction-fueled Blacksuit (think divine policewoman), and an unnerving-yet-weirdly-supportive boss lady.
Delving further, the book is about Tara’s struggles as a recent graduate to define herself professional and overcome the adversity that once got her thrown out of school. Well, thrown off of school to be more specific. Tara is tossed over a thousand feet in the air with less than a 50/50 chance of survival. The Nintendo Switch may be designed to withstand a thousand food fall, but humans are not. Even magical humans struggle, and Tara’s survival of this is an emblem of her talent and determination. Throughout much of the book we see Tara attempting to define herself against her literal and metaphoric fall, while also navigating a new career and her first case.
Items of Note
As a Craftswoman, Tara’s career is a meaty combination of lawyer and witch. Power is sold, bought, and given through contracts between humans, Craftspeople, Gods and Goddesses with the unending goal of acquisition. Tara is qualified to arbitrate these contracts and agreements, and additionally shape the world around her with the power of the moon, stars, and occasionally her own soul-stuff. The book showcases the different aspects of her job well. Half of the battle to resurrect Kos takes place in archives and the courtroom, while the other half relies on Tara’s quick wits to solve unexpected mysteries and get herself out of scrapes.
That two genres of fiction can be combined into a single job description so fluidly is a testament to the writing of this book. In Three Parts Dead, Gladstone envisages a magical world, sneaks in familiar bits from ours, and combines them to create something new and brilliant. Tara’s first court scene is a solid example of this. While the fantasy setting gives the court building a few magical elements, the initial set up feels like something from Law and Order. Each side provides opening statements and then the real trial commences. The initial familiarity of the trial setting sets a baseline of expectations that readers assume the trial will follow: lawyers will argue and the best argument will win. Gladstone uses that formula, but so completely re-defines the way Tara and her opposing council argue that the scene transcends both of its composite genres.
On a personal note, I easily related to Tara’s struggles as a recent graduate finding her footing in the professional landscape. I graduates with my Master’s degree in Popular Culture in 2013, and struggled to find my footing. Like Tara, I even went back home to re-group and lick my wounds before making another big step forward. While I didn’t personally encounter adversity in my graduate program, it is easy for me to understand empathize with the “my professor plagiarized me” narrative that occurs so often in graduate school, and which Max Gladstone deploys so fantastically in Tara’s development. Despite the completely “other” setting of the book, the character’s struggles were immediately digestible because they are so ordinarily human.
I usually give out qualifications when I’m recommending Urban Fantasy to people. There are often books with fresh ideas (and poor writing), or books with solid writing and re-hashed narratives. Three Parts Dead delivers both with it’s fresh take on Urban fantasy and the strong writing style of Max Gladstone. Anyone who can seamlessly combine genres to create a necromantic steampunk urban fantasy legal thriller is OK in my book.