Max Gladstone’s Reddit AMA Highlights Include Skeleton Mechanics and Magic Rules!

During last year’s Reddit AMA, Max Gladstone talked the writing process and the birth of faithpunk! Now, with Last First Snow out, Gladstone has returned to r/fantasy—and this time, he and Redditors delved deep into the mechanics of the Craft Sequence. We’re talking how skeletons drink coffee and express gender identification; trade as relationship and soulstuff as a medium of exchange; and thumb-wrestling competitions, the ultimate arena of victory and defeat.

Check out all of the fascinating mini-conversations spawned by Gladstone’s AMA!


Character Studies: Temoc, Elayne, and Kos

Author M.L. Brennan pointed out how Temoc’s first appearance in Two Serpents Rise places him at a very different point in his life than Last First Snow:

Did you have plans when you were writing Serpents that a younger and different Temoc would be a focus in your fourth book, and, if so, how did that influence the writing process?

On a similar note—did having Serpents published and released before you did the main work on Snow hem you in in any way, or was it all part of your master plan that you came up with while sitting in a darkened room, threatening James Bond, and sinisterly petting a cat?

Gladstone tackled these questions first:

Hello! Two excellent questions to start! Sweet!

… I probably should have eaten dinner somewhere between coming back from the gym and drinking that beer and starting this AMA, shouldn’t I have?

So—the further I got into Temoc’s character, and the history of the Skittersill Rising, in 2SR, the more I realized that was its own novel. I knew there was more to Temoc than Caleb saw, as there’s more to all our parents than we see—that the moment Temoc went to the barricades broke him in some deep ways that Caleb can’t understand, and the Rising itself was more than the religious extremist movement Caleb learned about in school.

I didn’t know at the time that LFS would be my fourth book, but knowing that Temoc had his own story—and that the King in Red had his own story, before Two Serpents—informed the construction of 2SR. I’m going to move on now and come back to the second question, though!

Answering your second question! I found it very freeing to already know the ending of LFS—having some stuff set in stone let me structure the book more like a classical tragedy, and kept me from flinching at the last moment. I’m not sure I could have written that ending if I didn’t know how things had to come out.

Also, it’s fun to pet cats in a sinister fashion.

Then airzephyrus wanted to know what it was like to write Elayne’s inner and outer selves:

In Three Parts Dead Elayne is a very confident and intimidating character, St least through Tara’s eyes. In Last First Snow she’s still quite confident but we get to see her inner struggles and to some degree lack of confidence in the decisions she makes (or doesn’t make). Was it difficult writing her at this stage in her life/career?

Gladstone responded:

I loved writing Elayne at this earlier stage of her career. For one thing, she’s a lot more raw, even though she thinks she’s put the traumas of the God Wars behind her. For another—there’s a big difference between seeing Elayne through Tara’s eyes and through her own, and I enjoyed exploring that difference.

CodaPDX chimed in:

After going back to read Three Parts Dead, I’m struck by how reasonable Kos seems in comparison to the other deities we’ve met over the years. Is he simply an outlier among gods (he did remain neutral during the Wars after all), or has your own perspective on the role of deities, belief, and sacrifice evolved since your first novel?

From Gladstone:

There are tons of different kinds of gods. Kos is more protective of his city, but also less jealous of his power, than most, partly since Seril got most of the combative memes in that particular pairing. I think my perspective on gods has deepened the further I investigated the world, but also I’ve been pushing into test cases of the rhetoric: having made the divine system an appealing option in Three Parts Dead I wanted to investigate what the Craftsfolk were rebelling against—and then wanted to explore yet another potential truce solution in FF5.


Hard Limits and Rules for Magic Systems

locallyunscene pointed out one of the most popular aspects of the Craft Sequence—that is, how the concepts of power are presented:

Undead all-powerful lich-CEOs that are actually quite human. Gods that are tied more by the contracts and flow of power than anything. It gives a world of unlimited magic a realistic grounding. Are there hard limits and rules of magic behind that scenes and are we going to see them become prominent?

Then Gladstone laid out some of the rules that characters do and (this is especially important) don’t know:

Hard limits and rules of magic—yes and no? Some issues emerge here: first, the characters themselves may be mistaken about how and why magic works, and how it interfaces with the world. They may also be mistaken about the fundamental underpinnings of that world. I know this MIGHT read as me suckering out, though, so, here’s an attempt at a clearer answer for hard rules of the magic system:

1. Consciousness is an emergent property of complex systems.

2. Relationships form an actual metaphysical bond between relating parties.

3. Trade is a relationship. (Maybe this is 2a?) 3a. (I’m really screwing this up now) Trade is not the only relationship.

4. Soulstuff is a representation of a system’s ability to support complexity—its potential for consciousness, maybe? (This one’s a bit tricky, I grant you.)

5. You can argue with reality, and the degree to which you succeed depends on how loud you can shout, and how good you are at arguing.

That’s all I’m willing to commit to at this point; there’s other stuff, but it might get a bit spoiler-flavored.


Skeletons, How the Hell Do They Work?

Redditors had lots of questions about how skeletons do… well, everything. MikeOfThePalace asked about a simple but (for many of us) daily ritual that could be impacted by being only bones:

When skeletons drink a cup of coffee … how does that work, exactly?

Probably my favorite part of the Craft Sequence is the unique settings and cultures – I’m not sure whether I like Kavekana or Dresidel Lex better, but they’re both such a wonderful change of pace from the usual Western-inspired fantasy settings. Can you give us a preview of the setting for #5?

Turns out Gladstone already thought of it!

Skeletons and coffee—this one actually gets answered in book 5.

Speaking of book 5! We see a lot of stuff in Book 5, but our home base is Alt Coulumb again. It’s been a while since we checked in with Tara and company! In Book 6, though, we go somewhere new—which is exciting in its own right.

There’s also an in-depth discussion of possible post-skeletonization romantic relationships and social constructions of gender, kicked off by Django Wexler. Here’s a sample of Gladstone’s answer:

In fact, that points us in the direction of a likely answer to the overall question: yes, a Deathless Queen may lack the usual biological subsystems that lead people into sexual situations, but that doesn’t mean she doesn’t still enjoy sex. I suspect there’s some sort of emergent property of consciousness thing at work here, or at least path-dependency, in the same way that kinks lead to other kinks: having spent, say, 80 years in a body habituated to caring about sex, you probably continue to care about sex in some way even after leaving that body behind. The habits of thought endure.


The Economics of Soulstuff

Did all that magic rules talk just whet your appetite? Let howloon kick off the discussion around soulstuff:

Sorry if this was explained somewhere and I just didn’t get it, but what’s the deal with soulstuff as a medium of exchange? It seems to be pretty critical to the way the world works but it’s not discussed in that much detail. What does it mean to be rich in it when you’re not a Craftsperson? How do prices fluctuate? Can people be taxed without it being some form of forced prayer or sacrifice? Was it always accessible in an exchangeable form for everyday use, or has the study of Craft and the decline of gods changed something?

In response, Gladstone laid out some notions that haven’t, as far as he remembers, been foregrounded in any of the books so far:

1. It’s hard to hold more than about 2,000 thaums in a mortal head, unless you have special training, e.g. in the Craft. Rich folks without training tend to sink their soulstuff into assets or investments; they have a lot of influence as a result, but they’re not necessarily very good at using that influence, especially not in short time frames. That said, folks with lots of assets tend to acquire some skill with the Craft, or else get themselves in big trouble.

2. In the “modern” world prices fluctuate based on demand, as in most capitalist economies—things worked a bit differently under divine rule. The real problem with the soulstuff economy is its universality, actually—it has all the one-currency issues. (Inflation or deflation could be a pretty nasty problem for example.)

He returned later to delve even more into soulstuff as currency:

1. Taxes, yes: access to civic services can be negotiated on a contractual basis, and is in Craftsfolk-ruled territory.

2. That’s a very interesting question! I think soulstuff has always been accessible and fungible, but Das Thaumas really laid the groundwork for its modern use.


Other Ways to Experience the Craft Sequence

megazver: You mentioned a Craft Sequence RPG some friends of yours are playing. What system did they base it on?

MG: We’ve danced between systems! There was a fun Dogs in the Vinyard game, and an equally fun d20 conversion; I love FATE but I have yet to make a Fate Craft Seq game really cook in a con setting. Gumshoe (or a highly hacked Gumshoe variant) seems to be the general favorite given its investigative focus.

If you’re interested in Craft Sequence gaming, check out the postings at Anonycon when they go live this year. That’s where we do most of our workshopping.


What’s Next from Max Gladstone?

shadowraven13 wanted to know if there would be more books or stories in the Craft Sequence after Full Fathom Five. Gladstone had an itemized list of everything he’s working on:

Yes! I plan to keep publishing new books on a 1/yr schedule for the near future anyway—I have a handful of more books in mind, and a developing metaplot for the Sequence.

What else am I working on: a LOT!

1. There’s another Choice of Game coming out soon-ish—you’re hunting water for Dresediel Lex soon after the end of the God Wars. Think Chinatown only with giant scorpions and Deathless Kings.

2. The Highway Kind, a novel about road-tripping through alternate Americas for great justice. Take the Amber Chronicles and centrifuge with the Indigo Girls cover of Tangled Up in Blue

3. Bookburners, a serial short fiction project for Serial Box Publishing, which is about basically secret agents for the Vatican hunting down magic and putting it in a box where no one will ever look at it again, because that always works. If you wished The Librarians or the X Files had a bit more Cronenberg going on, that’s this.

4. New Craft Sequence Book, tentatively concepted as Lawyers, Gods, and Money

5. Pathfinder Tales Novel!

6. Also I will probably co-write a novella next year, if all goes according to plan. Whee!


Retroactive Worldbuilding Problems

Author Brian Staveley asks the tough questions:

Was there any element of world-building that you established in Three Parts Dead that you wished you could change by the time you arrived at the later novels?

Which got Gladstone thinking about the trickiness of naming deities:

Oh man. Hm. Honestly, I can’t think of one—which doesn’t mean there isn’t—

Oh! Okay, yeah. I probably should have named Koschei something different. He’s the only entity that shares a name with a character in our world’s mythology, which has made it really hard to do anything in that corner of the world without it seeming weird. That said, his existence poses an interesting challenge, and the need to resolve that challenge poses its own possibilities.


Easter Eggs for the Sharp-Eyed Readers

tux_kate has us wanting to reread the Craft Sequence now:

I love the moment in Two Serpents Rise when you reference the Aeneid—carrying your father, who carries the gods of your people—what other classical literary tropes/moments did you reference that I missed?

Gladstone responded:

I don’t know how many you missed, but there are many, many Easter Eggs in these books. Gomez and Morticia Addams show up in 3PD (and there’s a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it reference to Ginsberg’s Howl); The Dude gives Izza a library card in Full Fathom Five; a version of Madame Butterfly shows up in FF5 as well. 2SR has, IIRC, a quick reference to a play that sounds a lot like the Maltese Falcon; Mina’s frustration with certain lines of anthropology in LFS have direct parallels to anthropological developments in our world; BATNA is a real concept; the Hero Sisters and many other mythological concepts in the world have obvious antecedents; etc. etc. etc. There’s a LOT in the Craft Sequence that’s present basically to amuse me, so long as I can include it without disrupting the story.


Epic Thumb-Wrestling

zarepath asked what we’re all thinking:

Who wins in a thumb-wrestling competition between Temoc and the King in Red?

Who wins in a staring contest?

What about a trivia contest?



Temoc wins at thumb wrestling, since the King in Red lacks connective tissue.

Kopil wins a staring contest, because he lacks eyelids. Or eyes.

Trivia: trick question! Elayne wins.

(Both Temoc and Kopil have too many areas of knowledge they consider utterly irrelevant, Sherlock Holmes style. In fact, part of their problem with one another is that each considers the other’s expertise utterly irrelevant!)


Read the rest of Gladstone’s answers here!


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