Three Parts Dead is a fantasy novel by Max Gladstone. A while back, I wrote an article about how good its big plot twist is. But how is the worldbuilding? Does Gladstone create a fully realized world full of living characters and fascinating mystery, or is the setting little more than window dressing for the plot? Spoiler alert: it’s the first one, and I’m happy to tell you why.
My last worldbuilding critique wasn’t exactly glowing, so it’s a nice change returning to the towering spires and thundering trains of Alt Coulumb, a city protected by none other than its patron fire god, Kos Everburning.
Three Parts Dead portrays a world where gods walk among us performing miracles for all to see, and it’s one of the few stories where that premise doesn’t go horribly wrong. That’s partly down to good plotting, but it also helps that the gods are built in from the ground up.
In a move reminiscent of Terry Pratchett’s Small Gods, the gods of this setting are created by the combined faith of their worshippers. Gods are conscious and have distinct personalities, but they’re always a bit unusual, as a god’s personality is evershifting based on the communal mood of their faithful.
This setup allows for a huge variety of godly situations. The city we spend most of our time in, Alt Coulumb, has a single god for the entire municipality. That’s because the Church of Kos Everburning is very effective in getting everyone on the same theological page. A more fractured society of the same size could have dozens or hundreds of less powerful gods.
The god’s own actions also matter. Kos repays his worshippers by keeping their city warm in winter, powering their public transit, and defending the city with overwhelming firepower. A god with more selfish or despotic tendencies could easily drive people to other houses of worship, while a god with less administrative skill would simply see less return on their investments of power.
The result is that gods function like a combination of government, corporation, and political party. The theological situation is open to change, avoiding a major weakness that usually afflicts similar settings. If gods walk the earth, it’s easy for the world to become static since everyone just does what the gods want. But Gladstone’s gods can find themselves easily toppled if they do a poor job.
The world also leaves room for characters who worship gods as bearers of divine wisdom as well as more atheistic characters who see the gods as little more than very powerful wizards. In effect, the gods are both!
One thing I didn’t expect on my first read of this high fantasy adventure was legal drama, but legal drama is what I got, and I enjoyed it quite a bit. While protagonist Tara is a powerful mage,* her main job is junior associate at a firm called Kelethras, Albrecht, and Ao. If that doesn’t sound like an expensive fantasy law firm, I don’t know what does.
How does this figure into the worldbuilding? You see, since gods and other magical concerns are powered by collective belief, they are subject to laws and regulations. Gods and mages can’t just do whatever they want; they have to abide by contracts and fiduciary responsibilities.
In particular, a god’s death is the cause of much legal wrangling. While gods don’t age, they can be killed through especially dramatic violence or accidents, and when that happens, everyone who depended on the fallen deity is left hanging. It takes time for a new god to arise naturally, even if previous worship levels remain intact, which is hard to manage as everyone panics because their god is dead.
A much more practical method is to build a new god from the old one’s remains. This new being can be fashioned to perform similar tasks to their predecessor, but since death is a traumatic affair, there’s rarely enough power to go around. That’s where lawyers come in. This is similar to what happens when a corporation or government goes bankrupt and is restructured: investors and other interested parties fight to have their concerns addressed first.
Three Parts Dead focuses on the death of Kos Everburning, with Tara’s firm representing Kos’s Church and the people of Alt Coulumb. Her job is to ensure that the resurrection process keeps the heat on and the trains running. Opposing her is a group of Kos’s creditors, who insist they be made whole before anything as minor as the citizenry’s needs is addressed. This is painfully familiar for anyone who’s watched workers fight for their pensions after a bankruptcy. It gives Tara a sympathetic motivation and helps the story stand out, as these wizards do battle with legal notices and discovery motions as much as lightning bolts and protective circles.
Like any setting that I write a glowing review of, Three Parts Dead has a deep history, and the most important aspect of that history is the God Wars. For a long time, magic was the sole domain of the gods. Powered by mortal devotion, the gods could either wield magic themselves or bestow it on their chosen followers. But eventually, human scholars wondered if they could use magic themselves without godly approval or interference.
Subsequent experiments created the first mages and immediately sparked the God Wars. Those on the mages’ side say that the gods attacked out of jealousy and fear, while the gods and their supporters say it was to end dangerous magical experiments that had already caused a lot of damage. Which side is correct? Both, of course.
The God Wars were incredibly complex, full of competing motivations and shifting allegiances. It wasn’t even as clear cut as gods being on one side and mages on the other, as combatants occasionally switched sides for their own reasons. Our friend Kos Everburning stayed neutral, more concerned with the preservation of his city than ideological arguments over power.
At the same time, the God Wars are simple to explain: Gods used to have all the power. Humans took some of it, so they fought. This simplicity is important because it means that readers can easily understand the basics, then learn more as the details become relevant.
Gods don’t age the way humans do, and a side effect of mages taking power for themselves is that some of them stop aging as well. Sort of. Gods are entirely made of magic. They might take physical form to accomplish a task, but they don’t have a corporeal body. Humans, meanwhile, have both a corporeal body and an incorporeal soul. For most humans in Three Parts Dead, the soul dissipates when the body dies,* but a powerful mage’s soul can keep going as long as it has power to draw on.
A mage’s body still ages, though, so any who wish to keep going past 100 or so have to get creative. Sometimes this means removing the perishable flesh and anchoring their soul to long-lasting bone instead, which gives us the wonderful image of a magical skeleton sitting down for a board meeting. In other cases, mages commission statues to house their souls or rent out space in younger people’s bodies.
No matter how they cling to life, these aging mages all get a bit strange as the years wear on. They’re a bit like gods, with their personalities altered by the fickle flow of magic. But they’re still human, which gives them an uncanny feeling. Tara is too young to experience this herself, but she works with a number of mages who are much older. It gives a bit of genuine creep to what’s otherwise a delightfully snarky and irreverent novel.
Anyone familiar with D&D’s Eberron setting will immediately recognize its aesthetic in Alt Coulumb. Magically powered trains are a dead giveaway, but Kos does a lot more than that. His divine fire provides the city with a nearly endless source of energy, all without having to burn any fuel. In Three Parts Dead, we have a true magitech setting – and not just in the steampunk boiler rooms of Kos Everburning.
A defining trait of magitech is that people treat magic like something that can be refined and improved, and we see that all across Gladstone’s setting. The God Wars are an obvious example, when humans experimented with how to use magic in their own right, but hardly the only one. We also see characters develop a technique for linking multiple mages together, devices to speed up reading times on long research trips, and special tools made to draw off the power of unsuspecting gods.
This contrasts with most fantasy settings, where magic is generally portrayed as unchanging throughout time. That’s not to say that magitech is inherently better than traditional wizardry, as it adds a lot of extra factors for both author and reader to keep track of. But it certainly helps Three Parts Dead stand out.
As much as I love Three Parts Dead, the worldbuilding isn’t perfect. If I ever say a setting is perfect, it means I’ve finally sold out to Big Author and I’m writing articles from a private island somewhere.
I spent the first section telling you how cool Gladstone’s mages are because they work with contracts and draw power from other people. Unfortunately, that’s only half of the truth, as they also sling spells like traditional wizards with no regard for shared power or legal principles. This was really confusing on my first reading. I got excited for wizard lawyers, and then the protagonist started throwing lightning bolts like a high-level D&D character.
While mages in this setting can get their magic through contracts with other people, they can also get it from the environment. The stars and the earth are most commonly mentioned, but there might be other sources. This undermines a lot of what makes the setting work in the first place. If mages get their power from the environment, then they’re not really in competition with the gods, so the God Wars don’t make sense anymore.
Worse, why are mages the ones in charge of writing contracts if their magic isn’t actually contract based? It seems like that job would be done by specialized lawyers like it is in real life – no need to get the lightning-bolt throwers involved. Nor is the book clear on where one type of magic begins and another ends, or why the stars would give off magic at all since human souls are supposed to be where magical power comes from.
Once I got over my disappointment with wizard lawyers also being regular wizards, I had to reckon with a second problem: Gladstone never defines what his mages can and can’t do. While the contract-negotiations side of the magic system is reasonably well thought out, spontaneous magic seems to include whatever Gladstone wanted in the moment.
As the book progresses, we see that Tara has an incredibly wide range of powers. These are just a few of the things she can do:
- Throw lightning bolts
- Control other people’s minds
- Raise zombies to do her bidding
- Track targets across the city
- Jump really far
- Stop herself from falling
- Remove a man’s face and keep it in her bag for interrogation*
Oh boy. I haven’t seen magic this unrestrained since Earthsea. It’s especially bad because when the story starts, Tara is already a well-established mage, meaning she doesn’t need to learn magic as she goes. It’s technically plausible for her to manifest whatever spell will get her out of the current crisis, as we don’t have access to the Hidden Schools’ magic curriculum.
To make matters worse, Tara has a number of allies and enemies with even more powerful magic. When they all converge for the final battle, it’s difficult to tell who’s winning or whether Tara’s in trouble, since any of the combatants could invent a brand-new type of magic at any time. Often, you can’t tell what’s happening at all with so much previously unknown magic flying around, like the characters have all been enveloped in a Looney Tunes-style dust cloud.
Trials by Combat
A final problem lies in the legal system of Alt Coulumb, on which most of the plot turns. It’s already strange that Kos’s death is being adjudicated in his home city at all, since there’s a clear bias. The city as a whole will suffer if the resurrection case goes against Tara, so I’m not sure where they found an impartial judge. Ideally, they’d take the case to a higher authority, the way federal court is used when two US states have a dispute, but if such an authority exists in this setting, it’s never mentioned.
Much worse is how Tara and the opposing counsel present their evidence. Early in the proceedings, the other lawyer tries to show that Kos’s Church was negligent in signing a contract they knew could have led to Kos’s death. Tara produces the contract, showing that the wording isn’t negligent, which seems reasonable. But then her opponent unleashes his magic to, according to the book, “distort the contract, warp it, force it open in ways the original designers never intended.” Tara responds by summoning her own magic, and they have a magic battle.
The text is more than a little confusing in this scene, but one of two things is happening:
- Tara’s opponent is blatantly tampering with evidence.
- Tara’s opponent is attempting to demonstrate that the contract isn’t well written, and Tara is stopping him.
In either case, it’s difficult to see why the judge is letting this go on. It damages the legal drama by turning it into a conventional wizard’s duel. Why even have contracts and evidence if that’s how mages settle disputes?
What We Can Learn
Despite a few problems, Three Parts Dead has excellent worldbuilding and valuable lessons to teach us about how to make a world deep and immersive, and also about how magic is cool.
Novelty Is Stronger With Consistency
Writing fantasy can sometimes feel like an arms race between authors as we struggle to invent ever weirder settings than what readers have seen before. This can lead writers down some unwise roads, as they introduce more novel elements than their world can handle. At that point, the novelty feels like window dressing, making it a lot less effective.
Gladstone certainly shows creativity in Three Parts Dead, but what’s most impressive is how he makes the novel elements feel like part of the world. We don’t just get a throwaway line about how gods are created from shared belief; the entire setting is built around that concept. That’s exactly what you’d expect from a conceit with such powerful implications. If getting enough people to church could magically set things on fire, it would certainly lead to a few changes in how society is organized.
The book stumbles a bit with the portrayal of mages, but the legal parallels are still quite strong. Gladstone has created a world where it seems perfectly natural for the characters to work on dark rituals in one scene, then argue about retainer fees. The contrast of the modern with the arcane makes the novelty even stronger, and it’s hard to imagine anything more dangerous than high-powered lawyers with magic.
History Grounds a Setting
There’s a fine line between not giving your world enough history and giving it so much history that readers nod off before you can explain everything. Gladstone does a great job there, with his elegant method of focusing on a historical event that’s simple in concept but complex in detail.
He then goes a step further and uses the God Wars to inform his plot. Kos’s death exposes old animosities that still haven’t cooled even though the war ended decades before the first chapter. The main villain is acting, in part, because he believes mages didn’t go far enough when they defeated the gods. Meanwhile, Kos himself died trying to undo some of the war’s lingering damage.
This ensures that the world doesn’t feel like it’s frozen when the protagonist isn’t around. The people Tara interacts with have their own lives, their own agendas, and their own hatreds. As a secondary advantage, it makes readers want to know more about the God Wars, since they’re relevant to the plot. I haven’t met many spec fic authors who don’t love showing off their worlds, so that’s a nice plus.
Commit to Your Bit
Three Parts Dead’s worldbuilding problems all arise from Gladstone having a great thing but not fully sticking with it. He’s got mages who practice magic through contracts, but they can also do more conventional magic. His conflict revolves around a court case, but then the characters have a mage duel. It’s like he was worried that the legal drama wasn’t exciting enough, so he put in some action to compensate. I promise it was already working!
Of course, staying disciplined with worldbuilding is easier said than done. New ideas are always catching our fancy, and the plot is always getting stuck. Wouldn’t it be easy to change how the magic works, just so your hero can get out of their current predicament? In Three Parts Dead, we see the consequences of giving in to that kind of thinking. The story is great when it’s about Tara researching magical contract law. When she gets into a fight, tension quickly drains away in the face of her ever-expanding list of powers.
This is why at Mythcreants, we’ll never stop talking about theming your world. Picking themes and considering their implications is how you avoid the problems Gladstone runs into. For example, he needs Tara to have some magic she can use on the fly for exciting chase scenes and the like. Easy: make her part of a self-defense contract in which a few dozen people agree to share their soul power if one of them is ever attacked. Now Tara has some ass-kicking ability without ever breaking theme.
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