Like the Terra Ignota Series, I was first Introduced to Max Gladstone’s Craft Sequence novels via The Hugo Awards. And like Terra Ignota, I’m going to start my book reviews with a book that sits right in the middle of the series, with book six.
While The Ruin of Angels is told from an increasing number of viewpoints as it progresses, the narrative can be split into roughly two branches. The first branch follows Kai Pohala, who was the protagonist of a previous Craft book, Full Fathom Five. Kai, who is both a priestess and a banker, is visiting the Iskari city of Agdel Lex at the invitation of a venture capitalist. But on arrival, she’s blindsided by a letter from her seemingly estranged sister Ley, who appears to have gotten herself into a great deal of strife. While not foolish enough to hand over large sums of money to bail Ley out, Kai is still concerned enough for her younger sister start trailing her in an effort to identify exactly what kind of mess she has gotten herself into.
The second branch mainly follows a new character, Zeddig, who is a native of the city of Alikand. Alikand and Agdel Lex have an unusual relationship – Agdel Lex was basically built over the top of Alikand by an Iskari occupying force after the God Wars. But this isn’t just a physical build-over; the Iskari are basically trying to overwrite Alikand using an alternate layer of reality. It can a dangerous business delving back into the dying remains of the old city, but this is what Zeddig has dedicated herself to – bringing back artefacts from the dead city and returning them to their original families in an effort to preserve her culture. But when an ex-girlfriend – Kai’s sister Ley – drops in with an offer to good to be true, Zeddig can’t help herself and takes it.
And just when you start settling down into reading about a couple of dirty deals within a heist plot, the narrative takes a sharp turn to the right and becomes something bigger…
One of the hallmarks of the Craft Sequence, which I’ve grown to love, is how Max Gladstone handles magic. While the series shares some of the features of urban fantasy, I don’t think it fits entirely comfortably into that category. This is not to say these books don’t contain some pretty fantastical magical feats, far from it. It’s just that you won’t get the ins and outs of how to construct spells. Instead, magic (or craft) is basically described from an economic viewpoint. Soul stuff is used as a form of currency, and investments are often made through conduits of belief. The outcome is a world that comes across as delightfully bizarre in an almost China Miéville sort of way. (And it also makes Kai’s dual profession of being a fiduciary and a priestess perfectly logical.)
Previous Craft books have used this setup to explore a number of modern socio-political themes, and The Ruin of Angels is no different, dealing heavily with colonisation. Should it be left to the almost Lovecraftian Iskari to dictate what progress is? Especially if it means killing the remaining Alikand families and eliminating their culture?
Another positive point I’d like to mention about The Ruin of Angels is that it blows the Bechdel test out of the damned water. I don’t think I realised there was such a huge gender disparity in the book until I was nearly halfway through. It then dawned on me that the female characters outnumbered the men three to one. And I swear nearly half the protagonists are gay or at least bi.
In comparison to the other books in the Craft Sequence, The Ruin of Angels comes out as one of the strongest, just not quite surpassing Full Fathom Five. But I wouldn’t recommend jumping straight in at this point. Unlike the earlier books in the series, you shouldn’t read this one out of publication order. Not only do Kai and another character, Izza, from Full Fathom Five feature in this story, another protagonist from earlier books Tara Abernathy, also makes an appearance. It’s just easier to follow these characters if you know their backstories. But since I think the whole series is imaginative and engaging, it can’t hurt to go back and start right at the start with Three Parts Dead, right?