After the unsurprising success of the marvellously original urban fantasy, 'Three Parts Dead,' (click here for review) we just knew that Max Gladstone would return for a second dip into that universe. What's surprising is how he did so.
'Two Serpents Rise' isn't a sequel to that book and I don't think that any character who appears in it returns for the second, not even for a cameo appearance. The firm of Kelethres, Albrecht and Ao has nothing to do here and the story isn't set in the city of Alt Coulumb, though that is mentioned at one point in an aside, just as at least one character strongly featured here was mentioned in an aside in 'Three Parts Dead.'
So that's about as close as it gets to the opening salvo in his 'Craft Sequence.' Yet the two books are set in the same world. Gladstone merely followed up an urban fantasy rooted in the legal thrillers of the United States with a notably different urban fantasy sourced instead in a Central or South American country whose leaders have changed their culture for their own good.
We're in a city called Dresediel Lex, a foreboding name that presages the foreboding tone of the book. It's clearly Aztec, though the name here is Quechal, and old school Aztec at that, complete with pyramids, flying serpents and human sacrifice. Well, none of the latter anymore because during the God Wars, the King in Red fought priests, killed gods and ended the old practice of murder in the name of religion. In its place, he instituted a new structure to the city through his Concern, Red King Incorporated.
Those expecting a legal framework like 'Three Parts Dead' will be disappointed because the only time we touch on that here is when the former priest Alaxic sells his water utility, called Heartstone, to Red King Incorporated, with a contract of seven thousand pages. What we focus on is what's going on behind the businessmen and lawyers that tells us that something is up.
Our hero, if we can believe that a risk assessor could be seen as a hero, is Caleb Altemoc, a happy cog in the RKI wheel. He does have a major connection to the old world, because he's the son of Temoc Altemoc, something that resonates throughout the story because it means Caleb inherently understands the old and the new; important during a time of apparent revolution.
Temoc Altemoc used to run the city, back in what he would call the good old days when blood ran red on the sacrificial altars of Dresediel Lex. He was Temoc Godhaven, Temoc Last-Standing, Temoc who Strikes as an Eagle from the Heights, the Priest of All Gods and Tormentor of Dresediel Lex. He survived battling the King in Red during the God Wars but he lives on the run and his periodic attempts at revolution, such as the Skittersill Rising, haven't yet restored the old ways.
His son, who doesn't believe in human sacrifice, sees him as a terrorist and, when he's tasked by RKI to contain an infection of Tzimet, or dragon gods, in the waters of the Bright Mirror reservoir, he believes that it's Temoc who created the mess as one of his terrorist attacks on the city. This only escalates, as it must, to a full scale attack on Seven Leaf Lake and the cutting off of the water supply to this city of 17 million. It falls to Caleb and the mysterious cliff runner, or parkour addict, called Mal to address the problem.
I should emphasise here that this is an enticing read, even if it revolves around a risk manager attempting to restore a water supply. That doesn't sound particularly glamorous and it isn't, but it is rather jazzed up by dragons, couatls and captive gods. This is fantasy, after all, so the mundane can become a little more spectacular.
Really, what makes Gladstone's novels work so well is the way he infuses them with throwaway details that serve as brushstrokes on a vast painting. Each detail is either banal or meaningless and we skip on past the names and places and cultural snippets that are never explored but, as they add up, they show us the world that's in his head far more effectively than most writers can convey their delicious madness into our minds.
Dresediel Lex is a glorious reimagining of Tenochtitlan, with Kopil, the King in Red, a strange reinterpretation of Hernán Cortés, its Spanish conqueror. Both Kopil and Cortés replaced the religion of the cities they conquered, but the former kept his city intact, both ruling it and serving it according to his vision, more like a latter-day dictator than a conquistador.
I love the idea of sixty-storey sacrificial pyramids nestled amongst more modern skyscrapers. I'd love to see Dresediel Lex painted or, even better, translated onto film; this story could be read as a Mexican 'Akira.' I'd love to see the couatls fly, these creatures of horror from movies such as 'Q: The Winged Serpent' translated into the equivalent of police cars, just as opterans, four-foot dragonflies, work as personal flying taxi cabs.
I wouldn't mind either seeing a visual attempt at the sport of ullamal, which wasn't invented by Gladstone but merely changed a little from the ancient Aztec sport of ullamaliztli. It's still played today but as ulama rather than ullamal. Like everything else in the Aztec world, it's rooted in ritual significance, a sport to mirror the heavens and the eternal battle between day and night, the ball representing the head of a human sacrifice.
The reason we might not is that this is a slower read than the first book, with its energy and drive replaced by a weightier, older and more patient tone. While Alt Coulumb wasn't new, it never seemed to be burdened by the passage of the ages. It was fresh and alive, in just the way that Dresediel Rex isn't. The characters carry an inevitability to them, not because anything is predictable but because they don't seem to be living their own lives but those that they were intended to lead. Fate has them by the throat and, with the gaping hole in their culture that was left by the jagged removal of their religion and the archaic languages it used, there's a sad eventuality to them. The city runs but on what William Gibson used to so memorably describe as 'a sort of elegaic sorrow.'
Gladstone endows his prose with this history, spreading it on everything he can with a sacrificial knife. As before, I loved the power of his descriptions. I can't resist a couple of example sentences, such as 'A scythe-claw rapped on the door, and Caleb heard a muffled voice like the death of something beautiful' or ''Caleb Altemoc,” the Warden said in a voice with its serial numbers filed off.'
'Two Serpents Rise' is a completely different approach to the world of the 'Craft Sequence' than Gladstone took in 'Three Parts Dead'. I'm eager to discover which directions he veered off on with 'Full Fathom Five' and 'Last First Snow'. ~~ Hal C F Astell