I’ve seen Max Gladstone in person several times now, at Pandemonium Games and at Arisia, and I’ve enjoyed hearing him speak… and now I’ve finally read one of his books (besides the wonderful stuff he has on Serial Box). I’m glad to say that I liked Three Parts Dead, and I’m planning to read more of Gladstone’s novels. I’m curious to see where his books go, and how they transform, from the perspective of several years in the future.
Three Parts Dead is a fusion of contractual magic, legal thriller, and the detective genre, and it works startlingly well as a combination of those three. It doesn’t quite fit the more emotionally and character-internally focused current science fiction and fantasy I’ve been reading of late—it hews closer to genre-story patterns instead of resembling literary science fiction—but it’s still a damn fun read.
Also, I hate that “literary” is the term d’art for this distinction, and will grump loudly about “literary” vs “genre” and the role that critics play in that dichotomy at some other point.
I will say, I think the lack of examination of gender and race in this story feels odd after having read so much by Ann Leckie, N.K. Jemisin, Becky Chambers, Nnedi Okorafor, Seth Dickinson, Yoon Ha Lee, etc. But also, this story doesn’t feel reactionary or regressive in the same way that so many others in its genres do (ahem, Dresden Files). It’s a pleasure to be able to read and enjoy a weird, fantastical, legal thriller / detective story without having to mutter “problematic” to myself the whole way through. Though I should note, if villainous nonconsensual mindfuckery is a strong nope for you, maybe look for something else.
Honestly, this book has made me think I might enjoy other legal thrillers. I developed an aversion to them while volunteering in Circulation at a library as a kid, around the same time that I became overly judgy about romance books; I remember checking in and alphabetizing row after row, stack after stack of John Grisham and Danielle Steel novels, and I grew to dislike them about as much as I disliked the overly-worn Harlequins they traveled with. Maybe I never gave legal thrillers or romance novels enough of a chance.
Maybe I’ll try one and be disappointed that they’re not as good as Gladstone’s.
Speaking of which, there’s something profoundly refreshing about Three Parts Dead that I want to mention. It’s a teeny bit of a *SPOILER*, so if you’re entirely averse, shield your eyes and skip this bit.
There’s no romance plot among the protagonists. There are female and male characters, they work together, some of them are friends… and at no point does the narrative demand they fall in love or have sex. It’s not that they don’t experience attraction or desire—it’s that these main characters don’t feel forced together (romantically or sexually) by weird artificial plot-constraints. This made me very happy. I really appreciated this being a genre story in which the characters could exist as professional acquaintances, and as old friends, without bizarre plot threads forcing them to fuck.
If anything, this made the creepy mindfuckery of the story’s villain all the more palpably bad. And it better fit the tone the book set on the topic of consent, which was excellent.
So. Do I recommend Max Gladstone’s Three Parts Dead?
Yes. It feels a lot like Scalzi’s treatments of other old genres that badly need their manky old dead wood replaced (“canon” though it may be). It’s a romp that expanded my genre-horizons. I had plenty of fun with it, and I hope that you will too.