Last First Snow, Max Gladstone (Tor 978-0-7653-7940-5, $25.99, 384pp, hc). July 2015.I am an unabashed Max Gladstone fan. His Craft sequence, in which the use of magic is intertwined with the business of insurance, is deeply satisfying. Here you won’t find magicians waving their hands about and making grand pronouncements about who shall pass; instead, they use their supernatural skills to negotiate urban water access or actuarial tables.
Gladstone’s Two Serpents Rise, Three Parts Dead, and Full Fathom Five are each parts of the same story, more or less – but their publication order doesn’t match the internal timelines of the tale. In our world, Three Parts Dead hit the shelves first, followed by Two Serpents Rise and Full Fathom Five. What tells the reader the internal chronology of the story are the numbers in the titles. This juggled chronology is intentional. Gladstone hopes to create a narrative that resembles a mosaic, one that challenges readers’ reliance on traditional timelines.
That is all well and good. I’m all for experimentation, especially when attempted by a writer as skilled as Gladstone. While I applaud the idea, I’m not certain that Last First Snow, the most recently released but also the first title in the sequence, works. Or, at least, that it works without access to a character cheat-sheet, one that tells you who is alive, dead, or skeleton-ized at any given time.
Last First Snow sets the reader in Chakal Square, whose resemblance to Tahrir Square is not coincidental. Chakal Square is in the midst of an uprising, one in which a lower class proletariat demands that the political class stop standing on its neck. Change is in the air. There is a sub-current of tension about urban renewal; the powers-that-be want to bulldoze the place and start fresh; the folks who are currently living there think that’s a lousy idea. Tempers are heated.
Temoc, a former high priest who used to be in charge of the blood sacrifices, is the de facto leader of the revolutionaries, even though he is only in the fight to create a better world for his small child and is mostly politically neutral. Enter the King in Red, an all-powerful captain of industry (and, um, living skeleton) and Elayne, a Craftswoman of considerable skill. Add to that a well-timed shooting, and things start to fall apart, if very, very slowly.
That makes Last First Snow a less-than-propulsive read. It’s a challenge to make contract negotiations and insurance riders interesting no matter how deft a writer is with words. Add to that the heavy lifting Gladstone must do to set up the conditions we need to understand about Chakal Square and Temoc’s textually necessary detachment from anything resembling enthusiasm and we’re left with a story that takes a good long time to really start moving. Once it does, the tale unspools satisfyingly, mostly, even though it sometimes feels more concerned with placing every last tile in the proposed mosaic and it spends not quite enough time focused on what’s happening to these characters right now.