Rating: ★ ★ ★ ½ ☆
Date Read: January 8 to 13, 2019
I tried reading this book twice before with no luck, only getting as far as 10% before setting it aside. This time would have been my final attempt if I couldn’t get any further than that. Good thing I was in the right mood and frame of mind to appreciate it for what it is: a composite of magical legalities involving water distribution and municipality, and a short meditation on sustainable living and reconciling tradition and modernity in an uneasy post-revolutionary world where the gods are dead (because they’ve been killed off).
Whew. When spelled out like that, the reason I couldn’t get into this book in the past is crystal clear. I wasn’t in the right frame of mind to enjoy the satire or the weirdness.
Dresediel Lex sprawled below: fifteen thousand miles of roads gleaming with ghostlight and gas lamps. Between boulevards crouched the houses and shops and apartment buildings, bars and banks, theaters and factories and restaurants, where seventeen million people drank and loved and danced and worked and died.
The interesting thing about the world of the Craft Sequence is that it’s very much like our own reality, except almost everything about it, from laws to institutions to money to mundane everyday things like public transportation, has a weird magical bent. People there live like we do. The over-populated, desert city of Dresediel Lex is also run by corporations; it used to be run by gods, priests, and ceremonial human sacrifices. The legal system is a tangled mess. The water system is like that as well. There’s nightlife, there’s an art scene, and soul-sucking corporate jobs. Their police force is made up of cloaked, ghoul-like figures that ride barely-tamed flying serpentine creatures.
But since the story is told from the perspective of a young professional, the sights and scenes and thoughts permeating the prose are rather prosaic and pedestrian, which takes the joy and wonder out of the conglomerate, magical, world-building efforts on display.
We put a fence around history and hang a plaque and assume it’s over. Try to forget.
The post-revolution atmosphere in this Aztec-inspired city, on the other hand, is well portrayed in the book. I particularly like how everyday life is shown as normal and mundane with the general masses going about their daily business, and no one seems to be aware of the undercurrents of the side that lost the God Wars simmering beneath the surface. Just because the fight part of the revolution is over doesn’t mean the revolution is actually over.
Sixty years ago, the King in Red had shattered the sky over Dresediel Lex, and impaled gods on thorns of starlight. The last of his flesh had melted away decades past, leaving smooth bone and a constant grin. He was a good boss. But who could forget what he had been, and what remained?
“You live in a grim universe.”
“That’s risk management for you. Anything that can go wrong, will—with a set probability given certain assumptions. We tell you how to fix it, and what you should have done to keep it from happening in the first place. At times like these, I become a hindsight professional.”
The book opens up with the main character, Caleb, a risk management manager for the King in Red who currently runs the city, at a poker game. Then he is called to investigate a death at a water reserve, which kicks off the central mystery. For about 40% of the book, we follow him around the city while not much is happening. We do get to see the city up close and hear about all the things that make it tick though.
“Should I be worried that it takes demons to break you out of your funk?”
“Everyone likes to be needed,” he said.
It seems someone has poisoned the city’s water with demons, and Caleb is tasked with fixing this problem before the city runs out of water, the demons escape, and people take to the streets. During the investigation, Caleb runs into an attractive but elusive cliff runner, Mal. His instinct tells him she is somehow tied up in this thing, but his hormones persuade him to look the other way and not to dwell on the details.
Then the backup water source located outside the city is also sabotaged. The plot gets a lot more complicated, layered, and circular from here with the introduction of Caleb’s estranged father, a former priest of the old world who led multiple insurrections since the God Wars to overthrow the King in Red, and his role in this whole business. The King in Red is in the middle of acquiring a new water-related asset, Heartstone, and the deal is settled but still shaky. Curiously, Heartstone is run by another former priest of the old world order, not unlike Caleb’s father, and the old man just wants to watch the world burn. The titular two serpents do rise at the end of the book before being put back to rest. Then, in the middle of it all, there’s Mal the cliff runner who is also an associate at Heartstone.
Everything is tied up in a tangled web. By the time Caleb unravels this mystery piece by piece, it’s almost too late to save the city from itself.
Caleb almost refused on principle, but principle had no place on company time.
I realize now the reason I couldn’t get into this book in the past was because Caleb reminded me too much of myself back when I used to work for a similar soul-sucking corp. Didn’t know the meaning of “soul-sucking” until I left that job. So Caleb’s narration, the monotony of the work, the gradual grinding down of one’s self, sounds awfully familiar. The moment he chased after Mal, I got it and the book started making sense for me. He wasn’t chasing after her per se, but after a spark that made him feel something again.
For Caleb, it was Mal. For me, it was an elusive foreign account that was flirting with a possible merger. No one in my department could land it, but I thought I could because I’d needed it more than everyone else. And it was during this chase that I realized I hated the job. Hated the office culture, hated the environment that bred that kind of culture, hated the people I saw every day, hated the people I had to answer to. And I hated helping a Big 5 corp become even bigger. So I left and found a home-grown, grass-root startup that was just starting out. (Later on, it got too big too fast and had to sell out to a Big 5, but that’s another story for another day.)
Anyhow. I’d like to take a moment here to thank Max Gladstone for not killing off Teo, Caleb’s queer best friend who stuck with him through thick and thin, even when she was tied on the sacrificial alter moments before almost having her heart cut out. It’s the “little things” like this that make me have faith in an author, their writing, and where they’re taking their series. It’s what makes me want to stick around for another book, even though this one wasn’t quite an enjoyable read. I appreciate the work and creativity that went into making it entertaining though.