"We inhabit the gods' abandoned buildings like spiders in an old house."
Two Serpents Rise takes place in the same world as Max Gladstone’s incredible debut Three Parts Dead, a book that went on to make one of my top 10 books from 2012. It is not a direct sequel but an equally engaging companion novel.
It’s been 60 years since the end of the Gods War—when the skeletal King in Red defeated the old Quechal Gods and implemented a political-economic system under the management of Red King Consolidated. But the great city of Dresediel Lex still lives under the strain of an unspoken tension between those who miss the old Gods and those who don’t.
Caleb Altemoc is a risk manager at Red King Consolidated, called upon to investigate a demon attack on the city’s water reservoir. At the crime scene, he runs into an alluring, risk-taking cliff runner (read: parkour) named Mal who might be the sole witness of the crime but who disappears before she can be interrogated.
Driven by a connection he doesn’t quite understand, Caleb relentlessly pursues Mal and while doing so becomes entangled in a plot to rise the Twin Serpents that slumber under the city.
Like its predecessor, Two Serpents Rise is a novel that incorporates worldbuilding really well, without ever resorting to clumsy info-dumping. Caleb’s world just is: a complex post-Aztec world of pyramids, of cultural clash between then and now, where the fraught dynamics of power when the Gods are gone (or are they) is central to the story. The world presented in these two books is incredibly exciting and thought-provoking, the characters are still living through a revolution and social change that lead to examinations of heritage, tradition, religion and the kind of relationship with Gods that each city wants to have. One of the primary questions raised in Two Serpents Rise is: what kind of personal as well as civic sacrifices are worth making and which aren't?
Caleb is a perfect encapsulated example of someone in the center of this historical moment: As the son of a priest of old religion, he is the first in the family to break away from a tradition of powerful, sacrificial priesthood to not only become an atheist but to also work for the “enemy.” This choice doesn’t come without its moral and personal consequences: His relationship with his father is complicated to say the least, as is the way that Caleb interacts with the world since he inhabits a dividing line between conviction and doubt that informs most of his action-taking in the book.
It is interesting how this reads a lot more like traditional procedural Urban Fantasy than Three Parts Dead ever did, even though both books are quite similar. I will chalk it down to voice: If the worldbuilding is unique, Caleb’s narrative is utterly familiar as a male voice with father-issues, who falls in insta-love with an Alluringly Mysterious woman and who, despite being a professional risk manager, becomes blind and stupid due to love, even though it was blindingly obvious where the story was going.
In fairness, there is a point being made here about this type of character and I acknowledge the fact that in-narrative Caleb is called for his jerkiness as well as for how he projects his own needs and hang-ups on Mal. Personally speaking, I have grown incredibly resistant to this type of male main character and related narrative. Most of all, I think I missed a more prominent presence of female characters like in the first book. Although I loved both Mal and Caleb’s lesbian best friend Teo, I wished there had been more and the addition of a last minute female viewpoint was unfortunately more forced than effective.
All that said, what is good in this book—the worldbuilding, the themes, the characters—is really, really good. And I also love how diverse the world is in terms of PoC characters as well as sexual identity: It is very cool that the biggest, most badass character—the King in Red—is gay.
In Booksmugglerish: a slightly disappointed but very agreeable 7 out of 10.