Looking back at previous showdowns, I realized that almost all of them were about TV shows, with only two of the entire bunch focused on novels. Of course that couldn’t stand, so I rounded up three books that matched my latest criteria: urban fantasy stories that buck convention by taking place somewhere other than a modern city in the real world.
- House of Earth and Blood has a modern city, but it’s in a fantasy world where sidhe and vampires openly walk the streets.
- A Master of Djinn takes place in Cairo, but it’s an alternate history story where magic has returned to the world.
- Three Parts Dead does its best Eberron impression, with steampunk tech powered by the fiery heart of an ancient god.
Like always, I’ve given each book a grade for the four factors of engagement: attachment, novelty, tension, and satisfaction. Only one of these books can emerge victorious! Unless, of course, they tie in the scores. In which case, several can emerge victorious.*
Spoiler Notice: House of Earth and Blood and A Master of Djinn
Three Parts Dead
It’s not much of a secret that I really, really like this book. I’ve written a glowing breakdown of its worldbuilding and used it as an example of how to successfully construct a plot twist. What can I say? Something about Max Gladstone’s wizard-lawyers really gets me, especially when they’re called in to argue the case of a dead god, which raises existential questions about what faith even means in a world where tangible proof of the divine exists. Nevertheless, I shall try to be unbiased and evaluate this case on its merits, as any good wizard-judge would.
Unfortunately for Three Parts Dead, this is not one of its strong suits. Protagonist Tara is a slick and powerful wizard-lawyer who begins the story with very little in the way of sympathetic problems or selfless character traits. She’s literally kicked out of a flying wizard school, but she’s so powerful that surviving the fall isn’t a problem. Her main ambition is to be a successful wizard-lawyer, which is realistic but doesn’t really make us care about her journey. She’s sneaky, which might provide some novelty if you’re used to paladin protagonists like Rand or Aragorn, but it’s an unremarkable trait for most readers.
One point in Tara’s favor is the reason she was kicked out of magic school: she broke up a professor’s misogynist magical slavery ring, where he drained promising (mostly female) students of their power. That’s a pretty cool thing for Tara to do, but it happens entirely in backstory, so the impact isn’t as strong as it could be. In the present, Tara doesn’t demonstrate any particularly strong feelings for justice, which would have helped a lot.
Most of this novel’s attachment comes from sources other than the main character. A secondary character named Abelard ranks much higher, as his city is threatened by the main plot: the local god has died, and his death means a looming disaster for everyone. Tara is part of that plot too, but only as a hired consultant. She doesn’t have personal stakes the way Abelard does. As an acolyte of Kos, Abelard’s devotion to his city and his god makes him super easy to like, and he has to get through the whole book without the powerful magic that most other characters enjoy.
Another source of attachment is from the city itself and its recently deceased god: Alt Coulumb and Kos Everburning, respectively. Alt Coulumb is a cosmopolitan crossroads of people from all over the world and all walks of life, but it’s also a city that’s been through hard times. Wars have scarred it, but the people keep going as best they can. And Kos himself, despite being dead, has a major presence. In a world where most gods are capricious and self-serving, he actually cares about his people and does the best he can for them. It’s pretty touching, and it helps invest us in the story’s main stakes.
If the story were primarily about Abelard, Kos, and Alt Coulumb, its attachment would be very high. Instead, it’s primarily about Tara. She doesn’t hinder the story, but she doesn’t help nearly as much as she should.
Final Score: 5
The world of Three Parts Dead is just so darned cool. The contract-based magic system is both fresh and deep, where gods and powerful wizards are analogous to corporations or government institutions. Magic is collective, with each person contributing a small amount of power to their shared enterprise. In exchange for faith, Kos’s fire gives heat and power to all of Alt Coulumb. When a god dies, it’s like a city going bankrupt. Wizard-lawyers are called in to figure out who will be made whole first: the people or the creditors.
Kos himself is also very cool. As a fire god, his primary manifestation is in a set of enormous steam engines that generate electricity for the entire city. In addition to leading prayers and interpreting scripture, his clergy also have to be first-class mechanics and engineers. They build and maintain the machinery that moves Kos’s power around the city, which gives Abelard a believable way to contribute despite a lack of magic. He may not have powerful spells, but he knows the steam pipes inside and out.
The conflict between gods and wizards completes the trifecta of novelty. Gods arise when the magic of a large group of people pools together, creating a new gestalt being. Wizards, on the other hand, deliberately harness magic for their own ends. Gods tend to be heavily invested in the status quo, while wizards are always innovating no matter the cost. It’s easy to see why the two would come to blows, and the wars fought between them are a major feature of the setting.
The only big drawback in novelty is that in addition to contract magic, wizards also have conventional D&D-style magic that they can get without any contracts whatsoever. This magic is powered by the stars, I guess? It makes the contract magic feel less special and raises questions about why gods and wizards would fight in the first place, if their magic comes from different sources.
Despite that issue, Gladstone manages a rare feat: Not only is his world cool and new, but the many pieces also fit together into a greater whole.
Final Score: 9
Early in the story, tension is practically non-existent. Tara often gets out of trouble using the D&D-type magic I mentioned earlier, the limits of which are largely undefined. Pretty soon, it feels like Tara has a spell to deal with any problem she might encounter. She’s falling from a great height? She’s got a spell to slow her down.* She’s threatened by angry villagers? She’s got lightning bolts and shield spells. She’s chasing a suspect across the rooftops? Good thing she has a magical jumping spell.
Sometimes these powers get bizarrely specific. Tara needs to get an important witness away from the police and make sure he doesn’t talk to anyone, so she just happens to know a spell that removes someone’s face but doesn’t hurt them, leaving only the unconscious body behind while she sneaks away with the face in her purse. The police can’t question the body, but Tara can question the face, and the spell also makes its target compliant and eager to answer questions. I guess being a disembodied face will do that to you.
Fortunately, the story does have some tension when its conflict isn’t about Tara’s personal safety, but rather the fate of Alt Coulumb. As powerful as Tara is, there’s no guarantee she’ll win the legal battle over Kos’s death. If she doesn’t, it’ll be a disaster for everyone who lives in the city, which is enough to keep the plot moving.
Near the end, Tara finally faces off with a foe that she can’t simply magic away: her old professor. He’s rebuilt his magical slavery ring, and as vague as wizard magic can be in this book, we know that the professor is using both his own power and the power of his enslaved students. Tara is basically fighting several sorcerers at once. It also helps that the evil professor wins a few battles before the big climax, giving him a higher threat level.
Despite that, the tension in Three Parts Dead never rises above adequate. The book features a lot of action scenes, so it’s a big problem that the protagonist can reliably magic her way out of them.
Final Score: 5
Despite tension being modest at best, Three Parts Dead comes through with a powerful ending that leaves you eager to read more about this universe. A major contributor is the big twist: Kos is still alive, biding his time and waiting for an opportunity to take back his power. That’s great because Kos is a cool character, and it also rewards Abelard for keeping his faith through extreme adversity. Despite being a lowly acolyte, he was the one chosen to unknowingly carry a fragment of Kos’s soul.
A second contributor is that Three Parts Dead manages a very difficult feat: having a super complex mystery that actually makes sense once everything is revealed. At least, it makes sense as far as I can tell. We learn who killed who, how they did it, and for what reason. It all lines up, which surprised me the first time I read it. Usually, mysteries this complex fall apart under close inspection, as it’s difficult for authors to keep so many moving parts working in harmony. I don’t know if Gladstone has a really good set of notes or if he’s made some kind of magical contract with a mystery demon, but the results are great either way.
The main downside to the ending is that it doesn’t feel like Tara has made much progress as a character. Sure, she defeats her nemesis from magic school, but that victory doesn’t change or reinforce anything about her. She was happy to fight him again, but it didn’t represent an arc. Instead, there’s some dialogue about how she’s learned to stop running from things, which is simply not true. Running has never been a problem for Tara, and if it were, nothing about this story would help her overcome it.
There’s also a problem with the mystery. Despite being robust and well constructed, it’s so complicated that we need a big villain speech to explain everything. This is in the climax, and it means we have to take a break from the cool magic battles so we can hear a monologue about who did what and why. It doesn’t ruin the ending by any means, but it’s an irritating speed bump.
Final Score: 8
House of Earth and Blood
In theory, Sarah J. Maas’s contribution to this article is a mystery-romance. In practice, it’s a hot mess. It’s true that protagonist Bryce does have to solve a mystery while also falling in love with Hunt the Brooding Angel, but the sleuthing and the romance leave a lot to be desired. Let’s see what that looks like in numbers.
As a protagonist, Bryce is all over the place. In the early chapters, she’s almost a nonentity, as all the development is given to deuteragonist Danika, who then dies as part of a big twist. Oops! Later, Bryce is sometimes portrayed as an everywoman who’s in over her head, and sometimes as more of a James Bond archetype: super badass and skilled, always ready to use sex as a weapon. I think she’s meant to be on the blank side so we can more easily insert ourselves into her role, but even blank characters need consistency!
Bryce doesn’t really have a character arc, but she does have a recurring shtick where she doesn’t want to be known as just a “party girl” anymore. It’s unclear if this is about beating a stigma imposed on her by other people or if it’s about changing her own behavior. Sometimes it seems to be both, as she makes a big deal about not partying later in the book. This is weird because partying isn’t a moral failure, it was just something she did for fun.
Hunt, as the primary romance interest, is the second-most-important character, and the story often switches into his viewpoint. His and Bryce’s romance consists mostly of noticing that they’re both extremely hot, which wouldn’t be compelling at the best of times but is even less interesting here because every single character is super hot. Hunt is also a controlling jerk who constantly tries to dictate how Bryce lives her life, which isn’t great. On several occasions, Bryce insists she doesn’t like guys who are “possessive and aggressive,” but she quickly falls for Hunt anyway, which I guess could count as a character arc. Just a really gross one.
One problem that Bryce and Hunt share is constantly hiding information from us. Sometimes it’s a deliberate meta mystery; sometimes it’s just leaving out vitally important context. In one scene, Bryce goes to a nail salon, which is odd, considering she’s supposed to be investigating a murder and time is of the essence. It takes several pages for us to learn she’s actually there to gather info, which would have been cool if the story had just told us from the beginning. Hunt is even worse: he secretly spends the first two-thirds of the book working on a completely separate plot that we only hear about after it fizzles out.
With their hidden information and inconsistent portrayals, neither of the main characters feel real. The secondary characters are often worse, ranging from boring to incredibly irritating. Several of them exist only to pour undiluted scorn on Bryce, which is probably meant to make her sympathetic, but it just makes the NPCs seem cartoonish. By far the worst is Bryce’s boss, whose every interaction ends with some threat to turn Bryce into an animal. Maybe that’s meant to be a joke, but if so, it got old after the 12th time.
One of the few positives I can give Earth and Blood’s characters is that when Bryce gets all dressed up for a fancy event, the book actually shows the work that goes into it, rather than assuming she can look good with zero effort. That helps Bryce feel more like a real person, even if it’s the only thing that does.
Final Score: 2
With a super-conventional plot and set of characters, Maas depends entirely on the setting for novelty. Conceptually, Earth and Blood’s world is very cool. Putting the story in a fictional world allows for many of urban fantasy’s favorite tropes without the burden of a masquerade. We’ve got fairies in nightclubs, werewolves on motorcycles, and vampires controlling major corporations. Witches keep their spells in smartphone apps while shady salesmen offer the tools to summon demons.
Maas can revel in all those tropes, and she never has to explain why no one has noticed before. This isn’t our world with magical stuff layered on top of it, it’s a magical world that’s advanced to our level of technology.
That’s all theoretical, though. In practice, Maas’s world is extremely hit-or-miss. For one thing, it’s too complicated! The book throws names and terms at you faster than the densest of high fantasy novels, and a lot of it doesn’t even make sense. Magical creatures are called “Vanir” despite there being no other Norse theming that I could find. Magical creatures are organized into different houses, and leaving one is apparently a big deal, but the houses have no bearing on any of the political or social plots. One character used to be a witch but is now an enchantress, and I have no idea if that means her powers are different or if she just changed job titles.
The treatment of humans is also disappointing. They form a marginalized underclass since they have no magic, which makes sense. What doesn’t make sense is that when the humans fight back, they’re cast as the bad guys. The main characters occasionally disapprove of how badly humans are treated, but the human rebellion is described with absolute scorn. This is weird, as Bryce is half human and clearly identifies with her mortal ancestry. You’d think that, at the very least, she’d understand why other humans were rebelling, even if she disapproved of their methods.
Earth and Blood’s world has a lot of novel ideas, but it struggles to make them coherent. There’s a big gap between the initial premise and how Maas actually writes it, often leading to disappointment when a cool bit of foreshadowing doesn’t pan out. Even so, this is still the novel’s strongest category.
Final Score: 6
Tension is hard to measure in Earth and Blood because it’s one of those stories where nothing happens for long periods of time, punctuated by short moments of incredibly extreme violence. Bryce hangs out at work and walks her dog for an entire chapter with nary a plot in sight, then we suddenly have graphic descriptions of brutal injuries as a bomb goes off nearby. This sort of thing happens several times, as if Maas is trying to make up for lost time by cranking the violence up to 11.
This pattern is certainly unpleasant, but it’s rarely tense. At the same time, the characters’ extreme habit of hiding information also reduces tension. When something dangerous happens, it’s impossible to tell if Bryce or Hunt is actually in trouble or if this is all part of a secret plan they haven’t mentioned yet. Meanwhile, Hunt’s angel powers are so strong that if he’s around, it doesn’t seem like there’s much risk.
The book also has some of the strangest time jumps I’ve ever seen, at one point skipping forward two years for no discernible reason. This leaves the plot feeling less than urgent at best, if such a long stretch of time can go by with nothing happening.
The situation gets better in the later chapters, as the mystery plot finally heats up. More people die the same way Danika did, forcing Bryce to get a move on before additional lives are lost. Maas also makes the correct choice of sending Hunt far away for the last few chapters so that Bryce can’t benefit from his protection. When the big bad reveals himself, he’s actually threatening because Hunt can’t just fly in and save the day.
This is a marked improvement, but you have to wait a while before it arrives. This book is nearly 250,000 words long, and 150,000 or so of that features almost no movement.
Final Score: 5
The only real positive I can give Earth and Blood in this category is that Bryce actually defeats the big bad herself, using a powerful weapon that the book established earlier. I was really worried that Hunt would be the one to do it, because this book loves its toxic romance tropes, but that’s thankfully not what happens.
Just about everything else is a disaster. Remember how Three Parts Dead has a complicated mystery that actually makes sense once everything is revealed? Earth and Blood isn’t like that. Its mystery is also super complicated, but nothing about it makes sense once we learn what was actually happening. We’d be here all day if I tried to explain it, but all you really need to know is that the villain could have accomplished his goal before the story even started and several side characters could have thwarted him with five seconds of planning.
Oh, and Bryce could have gone to the city’s literal ghost quarter and just asked her dead best friend what was happening. This aspect of the world is hidden until near the end, presumably in the hopes that you won’t notice.
Maas’s penchant for meta mysteries also comes back to bite her here. A big turning point at the end is the reveal that Bryce has, I kid you not, had a powerful and rare magic ability for the whole story. She knew about this power and how to use it, and apparently chose not to during the half-dozen or so life-threatening battles she was in. It’s a startlingly bad reveal that makes the entire ending difficult to take seriously.
Final Score: 2
A Master of Djinn
Step right up folks, step right up to a historical fantasy tour of Egypt! Magic is back, and the foreign powers are gone. So long, Ottomans. Get outta here, British Empire. It’s time for P. Djèlí Clark to tell a story where djinn walk the streets and the ancient gods are worshipped once more. Also, there’s a murder mystery, because what urban fantasy story would be complete without one?
Protagonist Fatma gets some early sympathy by being a woman in the male-dominated field of supernatural investigations. The sexism isn’t over-the-top or wallowed in, for which I’m forever grateful. Rather than openly raging about how they hate working with women, Fatma’s colleagues routinely underestimate her while they take the best assignments for themselves. This is important because it shows how discrimination is a problem even when it comes from people who aren’t frothing with hatred.
Otherwise, Fatma isn’t super high in the attachment categories. She gets a bit of novelty for her cool suits, but otherwise she’s on the bland side. She doesn’t have any personal connection to the murder plot or special drive to stop the killer; she’s just doing the cool job she gets paid to do.
She also gets really hard to like when she blows up at her girlfriend Siti for being half-djinn. It is an extremely weird sequence, as Fatma has never demonstrated any prejudice toward djinn before, in thought or deed. But now Fatma thinks that Siti had a responsibility to disclose her parentage, for some reason. It’s hard to tell if the djinn are marginalized in this setting, as it seems to change depending on the scene, but this is gross either way.
Fortunately, a handful of other characters step in to prop up the story’s attachment. Fatma’s partner Hadia is brand-new to the job, giving her additional sympathy for being a fish out of water. The two of them have a decent friendship arc, and Hadia’s family is delightful. Then we have a cool pair of Jewish booksellers, a cantankerous medical examiner, etc. It’s not enough to fully overcome Fatma’s problems, but it helps.
Final Score: 5
The alternate-history presentation of Egypt as a world power is very cool. Trade and economic prosperity have made Cairo an even more important city than in real life, allowing Clark to depict people and customs from all over the world. We see Black Americans from Louisiana fleeing the racism of Jim Crow. English immigrants search for a better life as the British Empire falls apart. And of course, visitors arrive from across North Africa and the Levant. At the same time, Clark is also very good at establishing a sense of place. Cairo’s streets and alleys feel familiar, even though I’ve never been there and have no way of confirming how authentic the presentation is.
To this well-portrayed setting, we then add the magic. The djinn have strange ways, unknowable to us humans. The old gods’ adherents take on the animalistic traits of their deities, and steampunk tech is everywhere. We hear of magical creatures from other lands, such as sidhe and goblins, hinting at a deep and complex world.
The problem is that while all the pieces are there, it’s difficult to see how they fit together. Despite all the talk of magic returning to the world, we never see a human actually use magic. Eventually, we learn that the djinn produce Egypt’s advanced tech, but what are the djinn getting out of this? It sounds like they would be a new ultrarich class of industrialists, but if that’s the case, we never see it. Maybe they feel some kinship to human Egyptians, but that doesn’t seem to be the case either.
The book also has to deploy a lot of handwavium to explain why other countries haven’t similarly benefited from the return of magic. The best explanation we get is that most Western countries either haven’t thought to use magic or have outright banned it, except Germany for some reason.* That all seems really unlikely. Magic is a hot new resource in this world, and if there’s one thing imperialist powers are great at, it’s exploiting resources.
Fortunately, the status of other countries isn’t super important, since the entire plot is contained to Cairo and its immediate environs. Clark’s done his homework there, and it pays off.
Final Score: 7
In the early chapters, tension is frustratingly low. The villain’s first move is to murder a bunch of racists at their racist society meeting, and after that we have no strong reason to worry that any more murders will occur. At best, catching the villain is hardly a matter of great urgency. When the villain next appears, he’s riling up crowds by pointing out how unequal Egypt’s capitalist economic system is. Oh no? Assuming you don’t immediately start cheering for him, the chances that he’ll actually get anyone to start trouble is pretty remote. Egypt has a strong security force, more than capable of dealing with a few angry poor people.
When Fatma and Hadia finally track the villain down to arrest him, the fight scenes contain a lot of telling and summary. This creates distance between us and the action, reducing any concern for the characters’ safety. There was one moment where I worried Siti was going to get fridged because she ran off on her own to 1v1 the bad guy, but other than that, the fight scenes contribute very little.
Eventually, the villain gets started on his actual plan to conquer the world with an enslaved army of djinn. Tension picks up here, as we have actual stakes to worry about. Then the stakes get even higher when the villain reveals that he’s not a Muslim revolutionary named Al-Jahiz, she’s actually a British aristocrat named Abigail. Not only does she want to conquer the world, she also wants to restore the British Empire.
Tension really shoots up for me here, because the British Empire isn’t an abstract or speculative idea, it is a real piece of history, and the horrors it inflicted* remain with us today. Even for readers who haven’t studied that aspect of history, the potential disaster is evident from the characters themselves. To them, foreign domination is a recent memory, and they’re desperate to avoid it happening again. The fight scenes are still overly summarized, rarely feeling dangerous, but at least the stakes are high.
Final Score: 6
While the Abigail reveal is good for tension, it messes up the story’s ending something fierce. Her actual plan was to use a special magic MacGuffin to command an army of djinn, which leaves us wondering why she was pretending to be a Muslim revolutionary. It drew a lot of attention to her, and for what? Maybe she hoped to weaken Egypt, but she wasn’t nearly dedicated enough to cause that level of political turmoil. It’s not even clear why she murdered the racists to start with. They had a different MacGuffin she needed, but her father was their leader. She could probably have stolen it more subtly.
The climactic scene is also a bit of a mess, as we find out that to use her main MacGuffin, Abigail needs to use a different MacGuffin to summon a bunch of evil djinn lords. Apparently she can control them, and they can control the other djinn, which feels unnecessarily complicated. The meta-reason is that Clark wanted the final boss to be these djinn lords rather than Abigail herself, which is also a weird choice considering she’s been the villain we’ve been building up to until now. Instead of a big showdown, she’s defeated by a side character so that Fatma can take on the djinn lords.
To do that, Fatma has to figure out how to use the original MacGuffin, but it’s trivially easy. All she has to do is not use the MacGuffin’s power for selfish gain, and she’s good. This is supposed to be a temptation conflict, but Fatma doesn’t have any particularly powerful desires to be tempted with. The MacGuffin briefly tries to sway Fatma with an offer to make her girlfriend more submissive, but thankfully, Fatma immediately shoots that down. She’s basically handed a gun and told she can use it to defeat the bad guy as long as she doesn’t shoot any innocent bystanders. Great deal!
On the bright side, the villains are actually defeated and the main plot resolves, which is never a certainty in fantasy novels. The threat to Egypt is abated, at least for now. And while that resolution isn’t handled very well, Fatma’s relationship arc goes much better. By the end, Fatma has learned not to underestimate Hadia, while Hadia has learned to pay attention when Fatma tells her something important. A classic veteran/rookie arc if ever there was one.
Fatma and Siti’s relationship is also strengthened. Granted, this would be better if their romantic conflict had been something other than Fatma blowing up about Siti’s djinn parentage. But if you can get past that, then at least they have their happily ever after.
Final Score: 4
With the scores tallied, we have 27 for Three Parts Dead, 15 for House of Earth and Blood, and 22 for A Master of Djinn. Maas’s book has a few good setting ideas but is mostly a hot mess that’s way too complicated for its own good. Clark has a much stronger foundation but doesn’t capitalize on it as strongly as he could have. Meanwhile, Gladstone’s story is certainly not without problems, but he knew how to maximize his strengths to deliver a fantastic experience.
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