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Two Serpents Rise cover art

Fantasy often has a bad reputation for being a collection of archetypes or tropes. "Dragons because dragons are cool." Dragons are cool, but under many of those elements are the same sort of literary gedankenexperiments that science fiction is famous for. Tolkien and Le Guin play with theology. Pratchett explores social constructivism. Gaiman explores literature and folklore. Gladstone's Craft Sequence explores economics. The origins of the Craft Sequence came from the financial collapse of 2008. From an interview with Think Progress

We stood in the aftermath of a war on a spiritual plane, of a Time War. And these immense immortal immaterial ‘persons’ that lived or died based on confidence, they started to look a lot like a certain kind of pagan-meets-D&D; god. All the tools that kept recurring in the narrative of the collapse — contracts and their manipulation, predictive algorithms, pledges made against expectations of future glory, the exchange of value for goods and services — they all have fantasy analogues, sometimes quite literally. Chapter 11 bankruptcy, with its cutting up and rewiring of dead or almost-dead stuff, looks a lot like necromancy. So the magic system springs out of our modern context, and bears the same relationship to the traditional magic system as the world of the books bears to the western European “standard fantasy setting,” and let’s take a moment to think about how weird it is that such a thing exists. If real demons actually did trade in real souls, wouldn’t they want to convert them into CDOs?

The central question of the Craft Sequence is what if you really could sell your soul (or bits of it, it's a renewable resource, within limits) for the conveniences of modern life: running water, food, central heating, and mass transportation. Three Parts Dead centers on necromancers attempting to revive a city's god of heat and steam. From there, it jumps off to a mystery adventure involving lawyer-mages, chain-smoking priests, gargoyles, and one of the few vampires that are not annoying.

Two Serpents Rise takes the question a bit further. The protagonist, Caleb is a risk manager forced to negotiate between two different economic systems. Caleb's father champions the old theistic feudalism. Sacrifice living souls to the gods, and they give you peace, corn, meat, and water. Caleb's boss, Kopil the Red King, founded the new "atheistic" (actually misotheistic, gods exist as emergent power systems to be manipulated or replaced) order. In the modern city of Dresidel Lex, nearly everything comes at the price of tiny slivers of your soul. Those bits keep the water flowing.

Two Serpents Rise does a bit better at exploring conflicts and consequences that Three Parts Dead primarily provides via expository info-dumps. Caleb's perspective as a person who has devoted his adult life to creating and maintaining the complex systems that Kopil owns and manages goes a long way there. The setting is even more dystopian than Three Parts Dead. Still, there's some elements of humor, not nearly as frequent as Pratchett, but on point regardless. Most of that comes via Kopil the Red King, immortal lich, CEO, and coffee-drinking skeletal boss. Kopil transforms from joke-cracking employer to undead demigod wielding nearly absolute power mid-scene.

Mal, Caleb's foil and love interest suffers a bit from Caleb's perspective. That's balanced a bit by Caleb's best friend, the perpetually sarcastic Teo, who provides a necessary antidote to Caleb's love-sickness. Two Serpents Rise doesn't quite have the broader ensemble of Three Parts Dead. Still, Gladstone delivers a pretty good mystery-adventure romp.

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