It was during the end of Three Parts Dead, with its many reversals and its clash between different and intricate rule-based magic systems, that we both recognized the inner thrill of reading a new Brandon Sanderson story. Except…Three Parts Dead isn’t a Sanderson novel, it’s a Max Gladstone book from a few years back.
It’s also the first release in Gladstone’s “Craft Sequence”, which were written out of order but now comprise an unbroken five-volume set with the recent release of Four Roads Cross. If you’re not familiar with The Craft Sequence, here’s what you need to know: they’ve been described as “mythpunk”, or Law & Order with zombies, but they feel most like 21st century post-modern urban fantasy. Max Gladstone’s Craft Sequence deals with modern concerns such as capitalism, faith, and social systems by examining the unspoken “rules” that we live by within these systems. The manipulation of those rules is its own form of magic, one created by humanity in opposition to the mind-blasting decrees of gods.
Gladstone takes these complex constructs and asks intriguingly simple questions: If an entire city can be made to agree to oppose the will of a god, then what breaks first, the city or the god?
What does this have to do with Sanderson’s work? (Besides exploring the distance between the will of man and the will of gods.) Both authors share certain qualities:
Dynamic Pacing Without Sacrificing Worldbuilding
Sanderson is known for his novels that just zip along (Mistborn in particular) and Gladstone is no exception. The Craft Sequence novels, for all their density of ideas and deep character analysis, are rapid, high-paced reads. Gladstone’s prose manages to be beautiful and swift, deeply poetic and highly readable; it is a skill I am jealous of to this day. His novels never stumble, and his scenes never overstay their welcome. Reminiscent of even Sanderson’s larger works, Gladstone peppers his very personal, very human stories with worldbuilding details that connect with each other in fascinating ways.
For example: Tara Abernathy, the heroine of Three Parts Dead, begins that novel by waking up next to the site of what detail-oriented readers will later realize was a titanic battle that allowed humanity, and thus Tara herself, to obtain the magic that allowed Tara to wake up in the first place. We have yet to even see this battle, or hear anyone really speak of it, but the details are there for the reader to discover. Sanderson’s Mistborn series offers the same riches for detail-minded readers, allowing them to experiment with the world, its magic, and its history to such an extent that a reader can pause during a tense Ol’ West-style shootout to figure out how to travel faster than light. The intricacies of Craft magic or Allomancy aren’t necessary in order to enjoy these stories, but they make the experience richer for those who seek out that knowledge.
Intricate Rule-Based Magic Systems
Sanderson has always been known for his imaginative magic systems, and one of his most popular are the Mistborn series’ Metallic Arts of Allomancy, Feruchemy, and Hemalurgy, where the interaction of metal, energy, and metabolism can be mixed and matched with extreme results. The three Arts are complementary in that they all derive energy from the same metals, but conflict in regards to how they utilize that energy. The further you explore those conflicts, the more complexity that emerges from that conflict. In Mistborn: The Alloy of Law the main character Wax combines two conflicting Arts–the ability to change his density and the ability to push metals away from his center of gravity–to produce feats of strength and flight that could not be accomplished utilizing just one of the Arts. It is possible that he could combine these feats with a third Art, to produce an even more unique effect. As readers, we don’t know what that could be, but we know enough about the rules of Sanderson’s magic systems to make some exciting guesses.
Gladstone’s Craft Sequence has a similar complementary-yet-conflicting magic system between the human-made Craft and the raw universal power of deities. The terrifyingly necromantic world of the Craft is created and shaped by gods, personifications of power that take many forms and both subsist on and support human worshippers. Craft is a recent development on this planet, the result of theoretical metaphysicists honing in on the connection between gods and their worshippers. Such an offering of faith from a man to a god is essentially a transaction of power, and if gods grow strong by “buying” the faith of millions of humans, then why can’t humans also “sell” that faith to another entity? And does that entity need to be alive? Maybe it could be mechanical, or economic, like an infrastructure concern. The rules of Craft are such that if an entire city literally has faith that their water system functions then the city’s water system can use that power to maintain itself.
Craft itself is nothing but power derived from agreements and transactions, and you can manipulate an agreement in so many different ways between so many different entities that it seems as if Gladstone will never be able to exhaust the potential of this magic system. Although Craft was created to separate humanity from its gods, the rules of magic in Gladstone’s series get even wackier when you fold a god’s unwieldy power back into the Craft. The two types of magic are very different, but can be made to communicate with each other in fascinating ways. For example, a god’s overwhelming presence can easily overpower a Craftswoman in direct combat, but a Craftswoman can use the power of a god’s agreements against them, tearing that god to pieces through clever reroutings or activations of obligation, so that the god is forced to waste their power elsewhere. (That’s why court cases in Gladstone’s books are so exciting: They often involve a lot of shadow and fire and stars screaming ceaselessly in the void for what are ultimately very mundane verdicts.)
There are characters in both Mistborn and The Craft Sequence who carry a deep understanding of its magic systems–The Lord Ruler in the former and The King in Red in the latter–and both characters tend to turn into otherworldly monsters as a result. Interestingly, both also spend most of their time using their knowledge to institute the world order that all of the other characters function within. The Craft Sequence in particular goes to great lengths to show how its villains are legitimately trying to construct a better, more advanced world. Killing a god and eating its heart is fun, but who’s going to keep the trains running on time afterwards?
Just as The Lord Ruler uses tremendous god-based power to create and run Luthadel, The King in Red manipulates huge amounts of god-power and Craft to create and sustain the oasis city of Dresediel Lex, a place where humans are guaranteed a life free of the obligations to their gods. (Although not free of the obligations to their monthly bills. It’s not a paradise.) Entire cities and yes, entire worlds, are supported by the complexity of the magic in both Sanderson and Gladstone’s novels. And those who triumph are the ones who understand the rules that support their world.
+5 To Intelligence
One of our favorite similarities between Sanderson and Gladstone is that in the end, intelligence is what matters. Victory doesn’t mean that you were the strongest Allomancer or Craftsman, rather it is the unique information and strong imagination of the protagonist that has the edge in a central conflict. Vin, broken, beaten, and about to be killed by the Lord Ruler in The Final Empire, succeeds because she has made a cognitive leap that the Lord Ruler has not: the mists enshrouding the world can be centralized as a power source for Allomancy. (We find out that it’s a LOT more complicated than that, but hey, first steps.) In Three Parts Dead, when several of the main characters have been felled by the villain, it is Tara’s deductive leap that restructures the fight and brings in a powerful new player. (We’re being vague here because it’s near the end of the book and it’s a great reveal.) Both Sanderson and Gladstone write about characters who want to actively explore their weird, weird worlds, and it’s that curiosity and cleverness that get them into huge, world-shattering trouble…and that eventually win the day.
Hope and Hoping Again
Hope and having optimism about the state of the world around you is a topic where these two writers differ, but it’s something we wanted to write about because they both interrogate the concept of it so passionately.
Hope is of extreme importance in the first Mistborn series; it’s thanks to Vin, whose youth and energy and determination is infectious, that Kelsier and his crew actually begin to believe they can change the world. And then, it’s due to Kelsier’s unrelenting hope, ignited again because of Vin, that Vin herself doesn’t give up and continues to hope, even in the face of terrible odds. Many of Sanderson’s characters are like Vin: young, restless, ambitious, but ultimately hopeful about the world they live in and what they seek to accomplish. Sanderson’s Cosmere breeds optimists.
Gladstone however, is writing in a post-war, post-modern society, where scarcity still lurks around every corner. The God Wars that pitted Craftsmen against gods claimed a lot of lives, not all of them divine, and many characters walk onto the page already scarred, weighed down by the crushing guilt of survival, or the burden of maintaining some sort of normalcy in the wake of the Wars. Gladstone’s narratives center around mustering the willpower to make the world a better place, even though the powers-that-be can easily undo these efforts. Gladstone’s characters still hope, but it’s a wounded hope, a cornered hope, one that still does a lot of damage. (Temoc, the Eagle Knight and main character of Gladstone’s Last First Snow, seems as optimistic and pure as one can get in this world. And then he does…something truly appalling to ensure that he can continue to do good in the world after his death.) Gladstone’s characters fail, and they fail in the same ways that we’re all worried that WE will fail, but reading about them rebuilding their hope, seeing them put themselves back in the world even though it hurts, creates a funny sort of optimism in the reader. It’s not as bright and forceful as one can read in a Sanderson novel, but it’s just as strong.
To be sure, there are plenty of differences between the fantasy work of Max Gladstone and that of Brandon Sanderson. The Craft Sequence has a dark and nihilistic edge to it that some Sanderson fans may not find palatable, and a Sanderson novel can feel a little too tidy for those accustomed to the gradual victories offered in Gladstone’s work. But now that both authors have a substantial body of work, we’ve found that their works tend to resonate with each other in separate but satisfying ways. “What do I read next?” is a constant question that fantasy readers face. But for fans of Brandon Sanderson or Max Gladstone, there now seems to be at least one intriguing answer.