I suspect at this point Max Gladstone might be outgrowing the label wunderkind. This year is the fifth since the publication of his debut novel, Three Parts Dead, to which Four Roads Cross is very nearly a direct sequel. In the intervening time, he’s written several more standalone novels in his “Craft” sequence (Two Serpents Rise, Full Fathom Five, Last First Snow), a couple of text-based games, and created or jointly created two serial projects for subscription outfit Serial Box. Throughout this time, his skill and craft have only improved.
But they were pretty damn hot stuff to begin with.
Four Roads Cross opens around about a year after the conclusion of Three Parts Dead. Tara Abernathy is in-house Craftsperson (part troubleshooter, part magical contract specialist, part lawyer, part necromancer, part investigator, part weapon) for the Church of Kos Everburning in the city of Alt Coulumb. In large part through the efforts of Kos, the moon goddess Seril has been resurrected in Alt Coulumb, decades after her demise. Seril is a weak goddess in a world driven by Craft, with few resources of her own. As such, she’s a chink in Kos’s defences that his enemies—or just his creditors—can use.
Kos’s creditors intend to use her return to stage a hostile takeover of his godhood, his Church, and his city. Meanwhile, the people of Alt Coulumb aren’t exactly happy with the return of a goddess who abandoned them to go fight in the God Wars. In addition to trying to fend off the most cut-throat necromantic Craft firm in the business (who’ve brought along a distraction in the form of something that looks like Tara’s old schoolmate Daphne) Tara and Alt Coulumb’s other defenders—including the priest-technician Abelard, the sometime-addict, sometime-officer-of-the-law Cat, and a small host of gargoyles with their own agendas—have civil unrest, pirates, and a minor invasion of demons to deal with.
Cat gets to fight pirates and watch her vampire friend Raz make deals with the vampiric powers of the ocean deeps. Cat’s job takes her into some disquieting places—if not quite so disquieting as the places Tara has to traverse.
For in order to have a chance at defending Kos and Seril both, Tara will have to deal with a mountain goddess gone half-mad as a result aeons of imprisoning a demon. Under a deadline. In order to recover the contract rights that could save Alt Coulumb—and do all this while coming to terms with the uncomfortable fact that, rational Craftswoman that she is, she might have voluntarily ended up a goddess’s votary.
Oh, and Tara gets to ride a dragon and fight a demon or two herself. While worrying about how to repay her student loans.
Gladstone writes shiny books filled with cool shit that carry out multiple thematic arguments about complex moral subjects on several levels at once. While also being batshit bonkers gonzo thrilling fast-paced fun. The Craft novels are basically the Pacific Rim of a speculative fiction-style interrogation of late-stage capitalism and the tension between oppositional ideas of Tradition and Progress: stylish, shiny, with beautiful set-pieces and a searing soundtrack.
In a world where contracts are, quite literally, a direct source of power, there’s no easy way to look away from the abuses—of trust, of people—that power makes possible. Gladstone’s extended critiques of modernity are refreshingly clear-eyed. But neither do they fall into the trap of believing that any “old ways” are necessarily better.
But for all that Max Gladstone writes novels in which terrible things happen, the Craft novels aren’t in the least bleak. They’re filled with people doing their best to save themselves and other people, one step and one day at a time—and they’re books in which a farmer’s market can turn out to be as important to world affairs as a skeleton-king’s gleaming boardroom.
I really, really enjoyed Four Roads Cross. I am ALL FOR this book. Gladstone’s work to date has largely delighted me. If I’m honest? I probably enjoyed Four Roads Cross far to much to be able to give any reasonable consideration to whether or not it had flaws.
Note for those of you who for some inexplicable reason have avoided reading Max Gladstone’s novels to date: while you could read Four Roads Cross on its lonesome, I’d personally recommend reading Three Parts Dead and Two Serpents Rise first.