“Before this case is over, Abelard, you may have to choose between the city you believe you inhabit, and Alt Coulumb as it exists in truth. What choice will you make?”

Oh, you misleading cover, you! I almost did not read Max Gladstone's Three Parts Dead because everything about the cover screams urban fantasy, which I haven't been in the mood for lately. That said, Three Parts Dead is a legal thriller in a fantasy setting, featuring a bunch of well-written female characters. Before I go back to that last point and scream HALLELUJAH, here is the gist of the book:

Read Book Smugglers on David Weber's 'A Beautiful Friendship.' 

The God Kos has died in the city Alt Coulumb, and the international necromantic firm of Kelethres, Albrecht and Ao has been tasked by the Church to resurrect the god before panic and chaos causes the city to inevitably collapse upon itself. First-year associate Craftswoman Tara Abernathy and her senior-partner boss, Elayne Kevarian, travel to Alt Coulumb to bring the god back to life only to find out that Kos was, in fact, murdered. Tara leads the murder investigation, aided by Abelard, a chain-smoking priest, and his friend Cat, a junkie-cum-policewoman. As the trio navigates the ups and downs of Alt Coulumb, they are immersed in its history, politics and religious system.    

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Three Parts Dead balances plot and character progression really well, as the inquiry into the death of Kos turns into an engaging and thought-provoking observation of faith and power. All the ethical and moral conundrums that are potentially attached to law and religion deeply affect the characters—especially Tara, Abelard and Cat. All of this moral examination occurs against a truly fantastical setting: the city of Alt Coulumb.

This is a city: whose infrastructure is deeply linked to a god whose death is, in turn, linked to the legal contracts that he has to fulfil in order to keep the city working; where a blind Goddess’ new life is connected to Law-keeping and to the hive-mind of Justice; where stone Gargoyles might or might not be evil and Craftsmen turn into skeletons as they get more powerful. All of these are but some of the incredibly imaginative ideas that populate this book.

Infodumping is kept to a minimum for the vast majority of the novel, leaving readers to discover these brilliant aspects of the world (and its history) as the story develops. This is a good thing—but it is also, in part, what makes the ending incongruous with the rest of the novel, as the book comes to a slightly clumsy, cumbersome conclusion. This, however, is perhaps the only major negative point about the book. 

In many ways Three Parts Dead reminded me of two excellent recent novels (that happen to be personal favourites), N.K. Jemisin’s The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms and J.M. McDermott’s Never Knew Another. Gladstone's Three Parts Dead is reminiscent of these excellent books, especially when it comes to thematic core and atmosphere (although unlike both these works the narrative here is more straightforward and less labyrinthine—not that there is anything wrong with either narrative format). 

Which finally brings me to the representation of the female characters in Three Parts Dead. Allow me to cry tears of relief as I write this because my recent track record of reading adult fantasy here at Kirkus has been frustrating at best, rage-inducing at worst.

All three main female characters here—Tara, Elayne and Cat—are written with depth and care. They all have agency, different motivations and backstories that are wholly independent as their lives do not exclusively happen in relation to that of any man (although most of them do have relationships with men—there is a difference). All three of them also happen to be total badass, powerful characters in their own right, without their badassery being their sole defining characteristic. It is, seriously, a thing of beauty and for all that, Three Parts Dead is now a favourite read of 2012.

In Book Smugglerish: a delighted 8 out of 10.

Thea James and Ana Grilo are The Book Smugglers, a website for speculative fiction and YA. You can find also find them at Twitter.