Book Reviews

Mighty Returns: Dead Nation by Max Gladstone

Max Gladstone’s Craft series began more than a decade ago with “Three Parts Dead,” a sprawling, intricate, thrilling epic fantasy about a young necromancer, her brilliant magic teacher, and an exhausted priest working together to resurrect a god who has just died and broken his covenant with his city before his death. Since then, Gladstone’s work has only gotten better, showing the fragile status quo of a world where humans wage war with gods, and those gods lose.

In the world of the Craft, magic is the fundamental soul-matter of the universe, integrated into reality, seen as law, both solid and ephemeral. Across six books, readers encounter undead kings turned bureaucrats, bankers investing their souls in too-big-to-fail man-made gods, and lawyers arguing in court that effectively become the difference between life and death. Gladstone has explored a lot in these books since “Clash of the Titans,” as faith and progress ebb and flow in a delicate dance. But this time, in “Dead Nation” – the seventh book in the Handmade series and the perfect introduction for new readers – Gladstone and his world will return to war, and nothing will ever be the same.

Tara Abernathy fled her Edgemont home years ago and was violently hunted down by people she grew up with who tried to harm her for her use of the craft. She never thought she would come back. But with the death of her father, she did return to a place she thought had disappeared from her marrow – older, wiser, and stronger. But you can never fully escape your home or what it means to you. Something is stirring in the badlands around Edgemont, a thread of craft that’s both familiar and fresh, and Tara must decide if she’ll be the champion her old home needs to survive. She will also unexpectedly become a teacher and mentor to a headstrong young woman in the wilderness named Dawn, who, much like Tara, is filled with pain and strength.

Gladstone keeps the world of Genesis continuing to feel both familiar and fresh, taking us from the densely populated cities where the gods and Creation live in tension into the wastelands where the worst of all the battles of the gods has left a crack in the firmament of reality. The people of Edgemont have no fondness for any power pole, seeing craft as evil and having no gods to rely on. Its people are scrappy and isolated, constantly living on the edge of the ruins, threatened to move in and out of the wasteland around them, infested with reality-bending curses, magic, and shards of God Wars. There is no love lost between them. Tara just wants to survive and stay where she is, while Dawn craves knowledge, adventure, and a world that scares most of the community. From page one, the prospect of returning home is unsettling.

With just her grieving but strong mother, a childhood friend turned possible romantic partner, and Dawn, a young artisan in the wilderness of inner rage, Gladstone presses problem after problem on Tara’s shoulders, crowding her inner labyrinth with barriers of mental, emotional, physical, and magical challenges. The best part of watching Gladstone set up all these obstacles for our heroine is that watching her overcome them is satisfying in two ways. For new readers, learning about the craft as they read, they can see Tara progress in a way that earns her legendary status, and older fans can see her embrace what we already know of her. It’s been a long time, and I got the same result from different angles: the protagonist confronts the gods, evil magicians, and more.

Gladstone deftly weaves the rise and fall of Tara’s return, building on the mythology of the Craft as we know it and deftly bringing the six-book-long menace to the foreground in slow, looming motion. Gladstone uses new characters like Connor and Dawn to propel Tara from redemption to condemnation to her old home, and he’s not only able to continue to explore the depth of one of his best and oldest characters but also brings the story to life with more nuance and complexity. The world is on the brink of massive and potentially dangerous change. Dead Country is a character-centric novel about coming home again, contemplating your past (the good, the bad, and the craft), and deciding who you will be in the days to come, as they will outlast anything darker than you can imagine. With some rifts in her heart healed but with new threats unleashed, Gladstone uses everything at his disposal to provide a stunning entry into the second act of Craft Wars. Like Tara, I’m ready to see what’s next.

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