Full Fathom Five is Max Gladstone’s third novel, after 2013’s Two Serpents Rise and 2012’s Three Parts Dead. This might be his third novel in as many years, but one could be forgiven for believing Gladstone had an entire previous career writing books under another name: Full Fathom Five reads like the work of a mature writer, one in full control of his craft and style. Not only that, but a writer conscious of his thematic arguments, and actively involved in a conversation with the fantasy genre.
The independent tropical island of Kavekana, whose gods died in the God Wars, is controlled by an order of priests who build idols to order. These facsimile gods lack consciousness and wills of their own, but they accept sacrifices and protect the priests’ clients from other gods. Kavekana keeps foreign gods at bay: icons are impounded by customs, priests arrested and sentenced to serve in Penitents—great stone golem-like creations that enforce Kavekana’s laws and brainwash the people sentenced to serve inside them until the duty to safeguard Kavekana takes priority above all else.
Kai Pohala is a priest, and very good at her job. When she tries to save a dying idol, she’s badly injured, and sidelined from the business: written off by her boss as unstable. Outside parties are investigating the death of the idol, and Kai feels sure that there is some kind of conspiracy involved, something that explains the idol’s death, the outside interest in it, and what she experienced in the last minutes before the idol died.
Izza is a teenaged street child, refugee from a war-torn homeland who washed up on Kavekana and stayed because she had nowhere else to go. She’s a thief, and the storyteller—the priestess—for a small group of street children whose gods keep dying. She doesn’t want the responsibility, and she doesn’t want the risk of ending up in a Penitent. But when she sees a foreign woman with the smell of god on her fighting not one but two Penitents, she intervenes to help. The foreigner is called Cat, and she promises that when her injuries are healed she can help get Izza off the island. But when a foreign poet who knows about Izza’s last dead goddess bails her out of arrest, she crosses the trail of the same string of events that Kai’s investigating. Both of them become entangled in a conspiracy of secrets, silence, and lies—and Cat and another foreigner, Teo Batan, are involved in secrets and conspiracies of their own.
Full Fathom Five stands alone, although having read Gladstone’s previous novels helps in understanding the world in which it takes place and adds an extra dimension to the presence of a couple of secondary characters. It’s good to see Cat, who featured as a secondary character in Three Parts Dead, have a part to play here—and to see Teo again after the events of Two Serpents Rise.
Gladstone is an excellent prose writer. In Full Fathom Five, he improves on his already well-developed ability to write a compelling narrative that brings all its disparate threads together. While Three Parts Dead wobbled ever so slightly at its conclusion, and Two Serpents Rise took a little while to get its feet properly under it, Full Fathom Five drives its tension from start to well-executed conclusion, and doesn’t let itself get bogged down in the threads of conspiracy. It’s a novel with a sense of humour—and its characters are occasionally pretty good at banter, too.
Gladstone’s worldbuilding is both gritty and playful, bright and bizarre, influenced by baroque modernities and the deep vein of strangeness that runs through the New Weird. His world’s magic and myth is both numinous and engaged in a sharp-edged argument with modern capitalism and financial law. His characters are well-drawn, complex, and just as full of shades of grey as real human beings, but despite the fact that the world he’s created in Three Parts Dead, Two Serpents Rise, and Full Fathom Five is filled with emotional and social realism, his novels—Full Fathom Five not least among them—retain an air of dogged optimism, the sense that crappy and complex as the world’s myriad problems are, people can effect some meaningful change for the better. Even if only by increments.
I mentioned that Gladstone looks to be actively engaged in a conversation with the fantasy genre. In part, that’s because of the unapologetic modernity of his fantasy world. In part, it’s because Full Fathom Five comes across as an outright challenge to the opponents of greater diversity—wider representations of humanity—in fantasy novels: not only are the greater proportion of the characters here women (and not all straight cisgendered women, either), but white characters aren’t the overwhelming majority, either.*
*A state of affairs reflected in the gorgeous cover art by Chris McGrath, which depicts Teo and Kai.
Also, all of the main characters get to be pretty badass, in their own individual ways.
Well-paced and tense; an engaging and interesting read. The only thing I can say to Full Fathom Five’s discredit is that it was a bit weird to have a reference to Mai Tai cocktails in a second-world novel—and all things considered, that’s a very minor quibble. Full Fathom Five is Gladstone’s best novel yet, and proof that he’s only getting better.
Go and read it.
Full Fathom Five is available July 15th from Tor Books.
Read the first five chapters of the novel here on Tor.com for free!