Two Serpents Rise by Max Gladstone
Published: Tor, 2013
Series: Book 2 of the Craft Sequence
“Shadow demons plague the city reservoir, and Red King Consolidated has sent in Caleb Altemoc—casual gambler and professional risk manager—to cleanse the water for the sixteen million people of Dresediel Lex. At the scene of the crime, Caleb finds an alluring and clever cliff runner, Crazy Mal, who easily outpaces him.
But Caleb has more than the demon infestation, Mal, or job security to worry about when he discovers that his father—the last priest of the old gods and leader of the True Quechal terrorists—has broken into his home and is wanted in connection to the attacks on the water supply.
From the beginning, Caleb and Mal are bound by lust, Craft, and chance, as both play a dangerous game where gods and people are pawns. They sleep on water, they dance in fire... and all the while the Twin Serpents slumbering beneath the earth are stirring, and they are hungry.” ~WWend.com
This is the second book I’ve read by Max Gladstone, and I really loved his first, Three Parts Dead. I’m planning to pick up Full Fathom Five, his latest in the same series, sometime in 2015.
Two Serpents Rise is set in the same world as Three Parts Dead, but since it is otherwise unrelated, I don’t think it’s necessary to read the series in order. Gladstone’s Craft Sequence takes place in a very creative fantasy world where magic is wielded by both humans and deities, and the flows of power are determined by faith and economics. I was delighted by the originality in Three Parts Dead, and it has been a lot of fun to see yet another corner of the world in Two Serpents Rise. Some parts of the story in the first novel, especially those relating to graduate school, hit a little closer to home for me than the business and romance of Two Serpents Rise. It was still really exciting, though, and I was easily drawn into the story.
The main characters this time around are Caleb and Mal, though there’s also a handful of memorable minor characters–such as the Red King, Caleb’s best friend Teo, and Caleb’s father—that play important roles in the story. Caleb’s position is a difficult one, as he has to handle his troubled relationship with his father and his loyalty to the company that has replaced his father’s religion. Mal is mostly seen through Caleb’s eyes, but I thought the narration did a good job of showing that his perception of her was not altogether accurate. I enjoyed the complexity of the characters, but I felt that they were not quite as intelligent as the protagonists and antagonists of the first novel of the series. Part of that might have been due to the romantic subplot of the story, since Caleb tended to go a little stupid when he was struck by his attraction to Mal. I’m not a huge fan of romance in general or this particular character trait, but I thought it was handled pretty well within the larger story.
The religion this time is clearly inspired by Mayan/Aztec culture, though the details of the specific ‘Quechal’ religion and culture are fictional. There is a lot of focus on the morality of human sacrifice, which is central to the Quechal religion. I think this particular inspiration and its link to human sacrifice are pretty commonly incorporated into fictional stories, so it did not feel quite as fresh as the Alt Coulomb of Three Parts Dead. However, I appreciated that it took a closer look at the idea of sacrifice as an important aspect of supporting a society. The idea of killing a random person to appease a deity is hard to defend, but the infrastructure of their society depends on the micro-sacrifices each citizen makes, as well as the suffering inflicted on the surrounding land to extract the resources needed to keep the city running. In general, I appreciated that the story does not take a simple approach to this and other topics, and that it instead portrays a more complicated world, where the way forward is not always clear.
My Rating: 3.5/5
I preferred Three Parts Dead to Two Serpents Rise, but the second novel is still an interesting addition to a very promising series. I enjoy the way Gladstone combines ideas of business and economics with human magic and deities, and he has managed to use that to tell yet another exciting story. The fictional religion involved in this novel is based on Aztec and Mayan culture, which is something that seems to come up pretty often in fantasy stories. This novel also had more of a romantic focus, and the characters seemed a little less intelligent than those from the previous novel. However, I appreciated that the moral situation was a bit more complicated this time, and that it was not easy to see how the problems within the story could or should be resolved. It was fun to see another corner of this unique world, and I’m looking forward to reading Full Fathom Five!