If I were to say, “I have a great urban fantasy series you should read,” you might smile and reply, “That’s great. I have read many wonderful urban fantasy series. Lay it on me; I’m sure I’ll love it.”
When it comes to the novels in Max Gladstone’s Craft Sequence, a series with both stupefying depth and edge-of-your-seat storytelling—not to mention the hallmarks of about a half-dozen SFF subgenres mashed up to perfection—that reply may not be sufficient.
You would most certainly enjoy this series. That is not in question. But to compare it to other urban fantasy isn’t wholly accurate. They are so hard to categorize: similar to other books, and yet unlike anything you’ve ever read—they even change it up from book to book, with first installment Three Parts Dead flavored with different spices than the fourth, Last First Snow, out this week.
In Gladstone’s intricate and extensive world—explored through a different lens in each of the books so far—the gods are dead. The old world, in which humans offered up sacrifices to gods in exchange for their livelihoods, was destroyed by the God Wars, when human sorcerers mastered otherworldly magic—in a system they named the Craft—and rose up, rather devastatingly. The result: a world in which mystics go to work at office jobs, much like our own in every way except for, well, all the magic.
Last First Snow opens 40 years later, and the scars of that conflict can still be seen in cities like Dresediel Lex, its poorer wards still bound by the laws of dead gods. Into this environment steps Elayne Kevarian, a Craftswoman and a corporate mediator, who must find a way forward for the city that brings peace to all—and fight off any demons unleashed in the process.
If that description hasn’t sold you, consider these four additional points.
You can read them in any order.
Last First Snow is the fourth published book but it’s the first book chronologically. Gladstone eloquently explained his strategy last year, revealing that his book titles outline the series’s chronological order. If you really want to read from the beginning of the sequence, start with Last First Snow, then read Two Serpents Rise, followed by Three Parts Dead (the first book released). At this point, I suppose you’d need pause to wait for a book with “four” in the title, before finally indulging in Full Fathom Five. (But that’s just silly. Don’t do that.)
Or you could forget all that, and read them in whichever order you choose. Each narrative exists in the same post-God Wars world. Each plays host to the same types of magic and wonder. But none are interdependent. References to shared places and people—Elayne herself appears in Three Parts Dead—pepper the stories, but this series can be savored as individual bites.
Diverse characters? Diverse characters.
You can tell from covers that this series is unusual. Look at all those different races, genders, and body types! Though each of the lead protagonists share mental acuity and certain talent for persuasion, none of them are much alike. Tara (Three Parts Dead) is a freshly schooled necromancer. Caleb (Two Serpents Rise) is part cardsharp, part professional risk manager. Kai (Full Fathom Five), well, she makes “gods.” (She’s also a fantastic transgender protagonist.) Elayne (Last First Snow), meanwhile, is a Craftswoman of eminent negotiating skill.
What isn’t in this series?
In a world where not only are the gods of old dead, but were killed by their upstart mortal subjects, one might expect things to be a little messy. That’s true here, to great effect. The Craft Sequence explores not only the supernatural, mystical, and mythical plots you’d expect, but opens a gaping maw of questions about morality, religion, culture, and, occasionally, zoning laws. In four different times and places (so far), we watch a world rebuilding itself after tip-toeing around the brink of catastrophe. As with any war, hard questions follow—quadruple that when you have to rebuild a society whose very foundations have been dynamited—and not everyone’s happy about it.
Golems, gargoyles, lawyers—many different types of creatures crawl around Gladstone’s expansive world. Then there are the magicians, wizards, necromancers, and Craftspeople—call ’em what you will—all educated in their own rough-and-tumble schools, all part of a capitalist economy like our own. In four books, we’ve only begun to tap into a civilization with twists in the middle of its turns.
It makes boring things sexy.
Seriously, can’t say I’d sit here enthralled with a book primarily about bankruptcy law. But when the bankrupt party is a dead god? Throw in a little necromancy and I’m all yours. The same goes for gentrification, at least when the consequences are as drastic as the ones Elayne outlines in Last First Snow: “We force the Skittersill’s transformation, the Chakal Square crowd resists, reality ruptures, unbound demons spill through, kill everything and contort local space-time into an unrecognizable hellscape.”
Toto, we’re not in Williamsburg anymore.