Friday, August 1, 2014

Gladstone's Serpents

Feels like I just read something that’s a cross between the video game Mirror’s Edge, the early 90s cartoon Pirates of Dark Water, and Mel Gibson's Apocalypto.  Interestingly strange blend, but somehow those three seem to linger like an aftertaste.  I can only hope that you're familiar with either of the three as I attempt to shed a little on how I came to that conclusion.  For starters, Two Serpents Rise is the second book in Max Gladstone’s Craft Sequence series, but it’s not an immediate sequel to the first book, Three Parts Dead.  Therefore, Tara isn't present here.  Which was probably one of my initial disappointments and reasons for hesitating to even pick up the book.  Eventually I got over it; and if you've read the first book, don't let this realization stop you either.  Each book takes place in the same world, with at least the same magic system and engaging sense of corporate politics in an unknown fantasy world (sometimes I envision a steampunk setting).  And guess what, it’s all good still!

So the God Wars has ended some decades now (as noted in Three Parts Dead) and a new fiscal and governing system has been in order over the city of Dresediel Lex.  An immortal skeleton known as The Red King fought in the God Wars, won, and has basically taken over the economic and governing obligations that the old gods once upheld in the city.  The Red King supports Dresediel Lex's many utilities through his corporation, Red King Consolidated.  And while many of Dresediel Lex’s citizen has moved away from celebrating and worshiping gods in favor of The Red King's support, a small minority has not.  That would include a few willing to destroy Dresediel Lex by reviving some of the old, slumbering gods to full power.  Not only would this knock out The Red King's sovereignty, but it would also forward the politicking for the gods' revival. 

Bright Mirror Reservoir provides Dresediel Lex’s water supply, and is monitored/treated by Red King Consolidated.  One evening a batch of mysterious water demons are released into the reservoir, polluting the city’s water supply.  For any individual who finds him or herself reaching for a faucet, they risk the release of the Tizmet demon, a carnivorous flesh eater that can split and rearrange itself into multiples.  However, Red King Consolidated quickly manages to close off the polluted segment of the reservoir, trapping the Tizmet... for now...  

In enters Red King Consolidated’s risk manager, Caleb Altemoc, to investigate the scene.  Before the night is over, his investigation leads him to a potential witness to the reservoir's contamination.  The witness's name is Mal, and she’s a cliff runner–a dare devil of sorts.  Fascinating at her best, Mal hands Caleb a slew of surprises as he unravels his investigation; however, the biggest surprise comes in the form of the love (or lust) Mal awakens in him.  Meanwhile, a few anti-Red King citizens are plotting to dethrone The Red King and awaken the destructive power of the old gods.  It appears that the beginning of their agenda started with the release of the Tizmet demon, a possible means of frightening Dresediel Lex citzens into supplication of old gods' graces.  

With a case suddenly in his hands, can Caleb stay focused enough to find the culprit behind the reservoir’s pollution?  And as if Mal’s tugging at Caleb’s emotions weren't enough to deal with, can he deal with encounters with his terrorist father’s conflicting desires to power up Dresediel Lex’s old system of honoring gods through the use of human sacrifices?  Which is certainly an additional complication to Caleb's investigation. Nevertheless, that’s where Two Serpents Rise takes off as a tangling fantasy featuring old gods, disclosures, sorcery, corporate fraud, and… love (?).

Two Serpents Rise has this sort of Mesoamerican flavor to it. This makes it slightly different from the previous book, Three Parts Dead. So while Two Serpents Rise is fantasy, the majority of its world-building comes dressed around what I thought of as pre-Columbian Maya or Aztec Empire-like culture. It doesn’t reference this period specifically (maybe because its fantasy); however, you gather as much in characters with names such as Kopil, Alaxic, Kekapania and Teo. Furthermore, you have sea gods named Qet and so on and so forth.  Still, it's the use of ancient sacrificial pyramids reformed into establishments for commerce that really brings color to context of the book.  Nonetheless, with all that said, I came to the conclusion that Caleb is Mexican (for all intents and purposes).  This made me appreciate his story even more because it seems like a rarity to find an ethnic protagonist such as Caleb driving a fantasy. 

Caleb's father is known not only as a fugitive for his beliefs in aged traditions, such as human sacrifices to appease old gods, but he is also a Quechal high priest. Seeing that Caleb works for Red King Consolidated, he doesn't hold the same traditional beliefs as his father.  However, he's familiar with them enough to disagree. This father-son relationship adds a purposeful and tense element.  It also fits perfectly when the conflicting theme of Two Serpents Rise is the revolutionary shift from old methods of survival to contemporary forms of economic profusion. As well as questions regarding the price each method requires to keep a civilization running smoothly, and the risk some are willing to take to forward their personal vision for the old.

I found all of this plus more to be a complete and utter win. And while it wasn't as compound and thick on the mystery side as I'd hoped, I have to say that I did enjoy speculating which character was up to no good in Gladstone’s cast. In that sense, it read slightly like a mystery with the small exception of that fantasy-pulsing prose that I sometimes found distracting. You know, prose where a character is doing something active such as running, but it’s laid out in a narrative decked with analogies related to… I don't know… stars and tumbling through space. Not that that’s bad, but for someone who likes to puzzle over and solve mysteries as they unfold, sometimes I just need the scene and not an overload of "vision sequences" and spinning rooms. Though, respectfully, is perfect for the genre Two Serpents Rise is written in.

And incidentally, I want to put aside P. D. James's Mind of Murder to step into the third book in Gladstone's series. (^_^)

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