The Craft Sequence: Please Do Judge These Books By Their CoversThis weekend, the NPR Books Time Machine rewinds Max Gladstone's Craft Sequence. Critic Amal El-Mohtar was drawn in by great cover art and discovered a sharp, smart, unusual urban fantasy series.
Let me tell you the story of how Max Gladstone became one of my favorite writers, which is also the story of why you should all be buying his Craft Sequence books immediately.
Urban fantasy covers are often so tiresomely generic that they've become a self-referential joke. Author Jim C. Hines even raised money for charity by contorting himself into some typical poses. A woman, a weapon, and her bared midriff walk into a bar, see, so you'd better start talking or there'll be trouble — it's ubiquitous and boring, a missed opportunity almost every time, even when I love the book — or series — inside that cover.
The moment I really became aware of Max Gladstone as a writer was when I saw the cover of Full Fathom Five, the third book in his Craft Sequence, a sharp and scintillating fantasy world where necromantic sorcerers are also suit-wearing, coffee-sipping lawyers. I was struck — nay, stunned — by it: Two women of color, fully clothed, meet your gaze while looking devastatingly competent. I found myself thinking, this sort of cover doesn't happen without an author insisting on it. And then, I want to read the books by the author who insisted on those covers.
So I read the books — cautiously, knowing full well the perils of judging a book by its cover — and found they exceeded my every expectation.
My expectation: That these would be fun, fast-paced adventures featuring the ass-kicking heroines on the covers. The reality: This is some of the smartest, most original and sophisticated world-building I've read in years, and fun, and fast-paced, and did I mention smart? But most importantly for me, Gladstone's books are edge-of-your-seat thrillers in which women from all walks of life fight furiously hard battles together, and win.
It used to be that the world operated on a fairly simple contract: People worshipped their Gods, giving them the stuff of their souls, and in exchange the Gods would look after their crops, heat their water, operate their social infrastructure. But human sorcerers learned to harness their own soul-stuff and built a system of magic called Craft, where they could operate in precisely the way Gods do. Then they went to war. The world after the God Wars is a work-in-progress, hugely different from locale to locale, society to society, and Craftspeople in necromantic law firms are in the thick of it – as are junkies, urchins, disgraced priests, gamblers, thieves, and poets.
Thus far there are three books in the Craft Sequence: Three Parts Dead, Two Serpents Rise, and Full Fathom Five. That's the publication order; the internal chronology is a little different. As Gladstone explains in a post, aptly titled "This is How I Numbered My Books and I'm Sorry," the internal order is marked in the titles: The numbers indicate the book's place in the series. In theory, this means you can pick up any book in the series in any order and enjoy it as a stand-alone; in practice, it means overcoming the resentment towards new characters that aren't the ones you've spent a whole book falling in love with – before you fall in love with them too, and root for them, rinse and repeat.
I personally recommend reading the books in order of publication, because that's what I did — but if you're a chronological purist, you're in luck: Last First Snow is out next month, and it focuses on the cataclysm of the God Wars, which kicks off all the action. So if you want to read the events in the order in which they happen, you'd go Last First Snow, Two Serpents Rise, Three Parts Dead ... and then you'd have to wait for a book with a "Four" in the title (some time next year) before tackling Full Fathom Five.
But this would be a mistake, because Full Fathom Five is incredible, and if you value (as I do) character-driven plots, a cast of brilliantly developed and thoroughly different women, and friendships as driving narrative forces in your books, you absolutely must read it.
I love seeing the developing mosaic of Gladstone's world, the hard questions it asks at every turn, the uncertainty of its answers. These are books I long to talk about with people, so faceted and fierce are they, so dangerously aslant our own day-to-day grinds and so full of grace. Sharp, original, passionate — this series is everything I want urban fantasy to be.