It’s not a kissing book.
I feel I have to mention that because both people who saw me reading it at work said the title sounded like a romance. Since one was reading A Game of Thrones, I was a bit surprised at her lack of knowledge about Gladston’s standout fantasy series, The Craft Sequence. It deserves far more recognition among fantasy and sci-fi fans than it currently receives. My best guess is that Gladstone is such an unusual writer, he travels above and below the average radar. The series has a setting that feels vaguely urban fantasy, language that reminds me of Kay, and complicated concepts found more often in conceptual science fiction. Honestly, his writing hits so many of my satisfaction points that I’m resisting skipping my review in favor of starting a series re-read.
“There would always be a spider who bargained with a fly, there would always be two sisters who played ball with demons, there would always be monsters who tried to eat the sun, even if marrow and majesty seeped out from the myths.“
It is a book about relationships in the most philosophical sense of the word, the ways of faith, money, fidelity and love and the agreements made between them. Oh, and a bit of revolution, urban decay, gentrification and the aftermath of war. One of the main characters is Temoc, warrior high priest of a god banished from the city during the god wars forty years ago. Without sacrifice and followers–a contract of belief, if you will–the gods lie dormant, and weak. Temoc has been practicing a peaceful way of life, living in the Skittersill district with his academic wife and his pre-teen son Caleb. It also follows Elayne, a Craftswoman, magically skilled in a secular form of power that has risen to prominence after the god wars.
In the poor district of the city, the Skittersill, god-created protections are decaying, leaving the district vulnerable from fire, pestilence and disease are failing. Elayne is trying to negotiate an acceptable contract between the Red King Consolidated and the merchants that want to buy and raze the Skittersill. Elayne has a eye out for trouble and tries to warn both parties: “‘You’ve not accounted for all the factors.’ ‘Between the King in Red and Tan Batac’s merchant collective, we control property use rights in the Skittersill. Who else is there?’” How about the residents who want to prevent their homes from becoming unaffordable? Temoc becomes involved by believers in the district, and by his old enmity with the Red King. The powers that come from his belief could be all that stands against a successful resolution–or that creates one.
If you’ve been following the series to this point, you’ll recognize both Temoc and Caleb, a good ten years earlier than the events in Two Serpents Rise, (my review) and Elayne from Three Parts Dead (my review). It is worth taking a moment to admire Gladstone’s writing genius. These people are going to survive, because we’ve seen them in their future, yet the certainty does not lessen the tension of Last First Snow. I’d compare it to hearing a story from my father about Vietnam: I know the ending–I know he’s here, and the general kind of person he is now, but that doesn’t make hearing about the experience less tense or less interesting (insert carol’s rant about the concept of spoilers).
Narrative is third person omniscient focused on a handful of characters; Temoc, the priest; Elayne, the Craftswoman; Chel, a dockhand in the Skittersill, with the occasional thoughts from a few others. Elayne is particularly admirable as she tried to find the balance between legal responsibilities and ethical principles. As a Craftswoman, she’s destined for existence beyond the flesh, but instead of giving her arrogance, it leaves her grasping at compassion: “Elayne was still human enough to give the other woman space, to let her stand and watch the blood and read the letter with her hand clenched around the railing. Elayne was still human enough to leave.”
Both Elayne and Temoc fought in the wars forty years ago, and both reflect on their reactions now versus their actions then. In some ways, it is a book grounded on the dilemmas that come with maturity; once you have lost the righteousness of youthful activism, how do you navigate the obligations of real life–family, profession–with passion, belief and ethics? Temoc, technically part of the ‘losing’ side of the war, recognizes that the history of a place he has known intimately has grown into a modern presence: “Temoc had not left his city. His city left him, replaced by another. He been born scant miles from the spot, yet felt a half a world away from everything he knew.”
When the scale is a revolution, it’s easy to lose humanity, and perspective. A little judicious humor occasionally lightens the mood:
“Air filters be damned: in Dresediel Lex, to run was to invite the city into your lungs, and the city was a drunken guest who like to trash the place.”
“Elayne briefly considered gutting the man, and decided against it. In her experience spraying a Court hallway with blood and other humors was rarely a good idea. That one time in Iskar had been a special case.”
There are a few shortcomings, but honestly, I think that’s because I’m comparing Gladstone to the greats in literary fantasy. No mere beach read, this one engaged my brain as much as my heart, and I was vaguely anxious as the events cascaded.
Immensely engrossing, what I really wanted after finishing was to go home and read the series from the beginning again, just so I could see the echos from Temoc, Elayne and the events of the Skittersill reverberate through the earlier books. At least my Game of Thrones friend related to that feeling.