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Full Fathom Five (Craft Sequence) by Max Gladstone
Cover Artist: Chris McGrath
Review by Drew Bittner
Tor Books Hardcover  ISBN/ITEM#: 9780765335746
Date: 15 July 2014 List Price $25.99 Amazon US / Amazon UK

Links: Author's Website / Show Official Info /

In a place where idols stand in for gods and transactions are built upon exchanging pieces of one's own soul, idolmaker Kai has a problem. An impulsive, selfless act has set off a chain of events that could destroy her island home and will forever transform her life and many others.

In Full Fathom Five, Max Gladstone continues his Craft Sequence with a tale set in the sunny island realm of Kavekana. The nation's economic heart is a brisk trade in idols--artificial gods that are a spiritual equivalent of Swiss banks, in a commercial network that trades in soul-stuff. Kavekana had to develop this magical technology when their own gods left to fight in a war and never returned, save for a blind bartender, and now it has become their primary source of revenue.

However, sometimes idols fail. An idol known as Seven Alpha begins to die and Kai, attending its "deathbed moment", jumps into the swirling void to save it. She hears something impossible: the idol speaks. But idols are not sentient; they are only repositories for their worshippers/clients. Traumatized in body and mind, Kai barely survives, then spends her long recovery contemplating what she experienced.

Meanwhile, a street urchin named Izza struggles to protect those under her care, especially from being immured in golems known as Penitents--statues animated by the life-force of a convicted felon trapped within and compelled to act as law enforcement on Kavekana--when she realizes it is time for her to leave. Her own personal goddess, the Blue Lady, disappeared months ago and the island has nothing left for her. But the arrival of a foreign agent and the acquaintance of a half-mad poet changes things for her abruptly.

When a murder occurs under impossible conditions, Kai and Izza find their paths intersecting. Kai will not let this mystery go, even as she is demoted from idol making and sent to serve clients directly; Izza cannot overlook the poet's connection to the Blue Lady and what that could mean for her. These two women, on converging courses, will have to discover the profound secret that powerful forces cannot afford to have known. And they'll have to go into the most heavily guarded place on Kavekana to do it.

Gladstone delivers a taut, exciting story, which is urban fantasy and high fantasy in one. Though possessing modern technology and mundane attributes such as coffee mugs and office gossip, the world is built upon a very different economic and theological model: worship is a commercial transaction as much as an act of personal observance. The gods of this world really do exist and have drawn up strict lines, with Kavekana one of the few neutral territories. No gods or priests are welcome on the island and setting up a church is expressly forbidden; they do not permit competition with their idols.

Kai has risen in the priesthood through her skill with manipulating the raw chaos-stuff that is shaped into an idol. She used that same technology on herself once, but even so, she is unaware of its true capabilities. The story serves as an elegant metaphor for technological breakthroughs overturning long-standing social conventions, and how assumptions and beliefs can blind us to reality. As a priest, Kai has to overcome her own built-in preconceptions in order to grasp what's really at stake.

The Penitents are intriguing constructs as well. Built to protect the island by the bygone gods, they have been turned into a punishment that leaves its victims forever psychically scarred. Kai's erstwhile boyfriend was a street kid whose time inside a Penitent left him narrow-minded, judicious, and hidebound, all traits that cannot help Kai in her quest. Something of the Penitent's stony hide transfers to those locked inside, leaching away humanity. It's quite a neat invention.

What seems like a subplot, the tale of the Blue Lady and her few but loyal worshippers, has much greater weight than may first be evident. Izza wants to leave, but cannot escape the ties and obligations imposed on her by her goddess; she feels obliged to protect the other kids who look up to her. Attempting to provide them with security lands her in trouble, such that she may see the inside of a Penitent herself. Only the intervention of another improbable worshipper saves her from a terrible fate, and thus Izza is tied to yet another karmic debt.

However, karma has a way of working itself out, and on an island where idols dwell, impossible things may happen.

Readers who want a challenging book, one far from the ordinary and tried-and-true, will want to jump on board this series. Gladstone proves he's got a fresh take on urban fantasy and more than enough skill to make his stories sing.

Highly recommended.

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