Welcome to part one of #TheCraftBuddies buddy read of Max Gladstone’s Two Serpents Rise! For this read, I am teaming up once again with Marzie’s Reads and guest commenter, and friend of the blog, Jenni.
Two Serpents Rise is book two in The Craft Sequence, whether you read the books in chronological order or publication order. We’re reading the books in publication order and you can check out our discussion of Three Parts Dead here for part one and here for part two.
Before we jump into the review and discussion, here’s the publisher’s synopsis:
Shadow demons plague the city reservoir, and Red King Consolidated has sent in Caleb Altemoc — casual gambler and professional risk manager — to cleanse the water for the sixteen million people of Dresediel Lex. At the scene of the crime, Caleb finds an alluring and clever cliff runner, crazy Mal, who easily outpaces him.
But Caleb has more than the demon infestation, Mal, or job security to worry about when he discovers that his father — the last priest of the old gods and leader of the True Quechal terrorists — has broken into his home and is wanted in connection to the attacks on the water supply.
From the beginning, Caleb and Mal are bound by lust, Craft, and chance, as both play a dangerous game where gods and people are pawns. They sleep on water, they dance in fire… and all the while the Twin Serpents slumbering beneath the earth are stirring, and they are hungry.
New readers to the series might be surprised to find that Two Serpents Rise is largely disconnected from the first book in the series, Three Parts Dead. It’s an entirely new city, new cast of characters and completely new issues. Two Serpents Rise is packed full of people of color and features two queer relationships.
I found that I liked Two Serpents Rise better than I liked Three Parts Dead because the core issue of the book was more relatable to me – keeping the water supply safe and sustainable. It’s something anyone can understand. We depend on clean water for our lives and livelihoods. Book one was more abstract and harder for me to connect to, though I feel like it gave us a better understanding of how the world works. I’m not sure I would have fully understood some of the ramifications in Two Serpents Rise without the context and worldbuilding from Three Parts Dead.
Fair warning, our discussion beyond this point is *FULL* of spoilers.
Alex: Jenni, I want to kick the discussion off by getting your first impression of the book again, since this is your first time reading through.
Jenni: My first impression, hm? Well, as with the first book, I started out somewhat confused. I hadn’t expected that, since this was the second in a series, in the same world, and I thought I was going to understand more about what was going on from the get-go. But the changes in time and place left me feeling nearly as off-balance as I did at the start of the first book when I didn’t know anything at all. It was startling. And I didn’t find the characters quite as engaging in this book as I did in the first one. I’m not sure why? But that said, it was still a fascinating and enjoyable read.
Marzie: I loved this book much more the second time around. Maybe part of that is due to the same sense of disorientation that Jenni noted on my first reading. I definitely agree that it didn’t engage me as much as Tara and Elayne did in the first book.
Alex: I loved the book more the second time around, but I actually liked Two Serpents Rise more than Three Parts Dead. I felt like I could relate to the issue more easily. And it had been a long enough time since I read it the first time (back in 2015!) that all but the broad strokes of the story had faded into fuzziness so I was able to read with curiosity again. How did we get from this part to that part? How did that happen again? Was I misremembering who the villain was?
Marzie: It’s funny because I remember being so suspicious that Mal was the one that bought Sam’s painting and then couldn’t remember if Sam was good or bad on this read through. I think the issue of relating… well, what I related to most this time around was the forces of corporate globalization that Malina despises. That is such a great topic and the conversations that Mal and Caleb have are so on point, and just as in our world, cannot be easily resolved.
Alex: Yeah, I spent a lot of the book suspicious about Sam, though I couldn’t remember why. In hindsight, I felt a little silly that I was surprised that Mal was ultimately a villain since “mal” in Spanish means “bad” – Max was signaling pretty clearly that she wasn’t good.
Marzie: I never liked her. From the first. And yes, the name is a total tip-off.
Jenni: Since I suffer from a Spanish deficiency, I didn’t get that hint, lol. But I was actually disappointed she turned out to be the black hat. She was the character that seemed most vibrant, most interesting to me.
Alex: Even with my Spanish, it didn’t hit me until just today that it was a hint. Yes, I was ultimately disappointed that she disappeared into the night, defeated, rather than finding common ground and seeing things through with Caleb.
Marzie: I actually think that Mal- is a Latin prefix.
Jenni: Yeah, malheur in French… But anyway.
Marzie: So Jenni, you liked Mal and I didn’t, I guess because I never trusted her, though I think she’s a villain with a strong point of view that has its validity. Were either of you bothered by Caleb’s naivete about Mal?
Jenni: No. Honestly, I will prefer a person who gives people the benefit of the doubt to one that is suspicious and cynical nearly every time. I’m not sure I’d call it naivete.
Alex: No, not really. I think many of us have done stupid things because we’re blinded by love or lust or refused to acknowledge things about our partners because we want to believe that we have better taste than to get involved with someone who disappoints us like that. No one likes to admit they were so wrong.
Marzie: See, I thought it was Caleb’s job to be if not cynical, circumspect. I was right there with Teo about his not reporting his encounter with Mal in the first tzimet attack situation.
Jenni: I was also right there with Teo when she was essentially criticizing him for having lost all his taste for risk. That he had become too much his job. I think this might just be me, though. Risk analyst does not sound like an appealing way to go through life. And I’m not even a gambler like he was. I don’t like gambling at all, but someone who will take no risks in their personal life? I’m not sure I think that’s a great way to live.
Marzie: I guess I was referring more to agreeing with Teo about Caleb’s job-related situation. If Mal had been a guy, or short, fat and unappealing, would he have reported seeing her at the reservoir the night of the first attack?
Jenni: Of course his judgment was compromised because he was attracted to her, but I like to think that if he had been a guy that was just as enigmatic and fascinating, that Caleb would have wanted to dig deeper there, too. Or maybe not. But I don’t think that allowing himself to be blinded because he was attracted to someone so very unusual is an unforgivable sin. As Alex noted, we’ve all done stupid things in the name of love or lust.
Marzie: I am totally unconvinced that Caleb would have done the same for a fascinating guy, and I think Caleb is a very nice person, mind you. I don’t think it’s unforgivable but it could have been fire-able!
Alex: He wouldn’t have done the same for a fascinating guy because he’s straight! He’s being ruled by his desires, which is not unreasonable. HE’S acting unreasonably, but I understand his motivation.
Jenni: Whether he was ruled by curiosity or desire is really moot, in the last analysis. He wasn’t being ruled by his professional judgment, which is the actual point. Whatever it took to get him to shed that mathematical, emotionless, disengaged way of interacting with the world.
Marzie: The thing I liked about Mal was that she made Caleb feel more alive, in spite of the fact that her manner of doing it almost got him killed multiple times. But I guess he needed the shake to see he could do more with his circumstances than he was.
Alex: He was definitely disengaged. Speaking of foils to Caleb, Temoc was an interesting character throughout the story. He acts as both antagonist and victim and it was really interesting to watch. The theist vs atheist argument their relationship represented was really interesting to me.
Marzie: I loved this father and son relationship so much this time around. It was so deftly handled. They were two totally different people, wary of each other, but still loved each other.
Jenni: I got frustrated with Caleb in that aspect, as well. I could understand that his position was informed by his early experiences, but I felt like he hadn’t been able to process them and achieve any kind of objectivity, which I would have expected from such an analytical person. He was, in his way, as much of a fanatic about his position as Temoc was about his.
Alex: I didn’t entirely get the sense that Caleb loved his father much.
Marzie: I didn’t feel the love from Caleb to Temoc as much as I did the reverse. I felt that in some ways, Temoc perversely admired Caleb’s forging a different path and just hoped he would regain him as a follower of the gods. I didn’t feel Caleb was as fanatical as Temoc, though. I thought his arguments with Mal were just his trying to be persuasive. I think if he was as fanatical as Temoc, he’d have broken the association with her.
Jenni: He almost DID break the association with her, though. The only reason he eventually tracked her down and tried to make amends was because of Teo’s intervention, wasn’t it?
Alex: Oh, I definitely think Temoc loved Caleb, and I do think you’re right about Temoc loving Caleb for forging his own path, but I still think of that relationship as being very flawed and toxic for Caleb. Caleb is literally scarred from his relationship with his father. He ultimately draws strength from those scars, but I’d still say it’s a toxic relationship.
Marzie: He is scarred by his father. But in his way, I felt his not wanting anything to happen to his dad. He never turns him in, he tells him to hide. He seems relieved he escaped the Red King yet again.
Alex: Yeah, I agree with that. I kind of felt like that’s one of those things where you don’t necessarily wish someone ill, but you don’t really want them in your life anymore either.
Marzie: Jenni, I think the fact that Teo could so easily persuade Caleb to make a rapprochement is clear indication that Caleb was so not over Mal.
Jenni: No, he wasn’t over her, but his instinct was to let her go, anyway.
Marzie: So that’s why I say he wasn’t as over the top as Temoc on the atheism issue. He sticks with the situation and even formulates how to apologize.
Alex: Caleb’s flavor of atheism is the form I’m most familiar with. You don’t believe/worship and you just want to keep living your life without the gods in it, thanks. Not the fanatical “all gods must die, and we must cleanse the world of them” version of atheism that I think the King in Red epitomizes.
Marzie: He’s a tolerant atheist. Like an Alain de Boton atheist, rather than a Richard Dawkins atheist. Oh, good point about the King in Red atheism, which becomes just the sort of fanatical belief system that they claim to be eschewing like Jenni said.
Jenni: I thought it was extremely interesting that the gods in question in this book were so VERY different than the gods from the first book. Did anyone else feel like the theological situation in Dresediel Lex borrowed heavily from Aztec mythology? Even the names…
Alex: Yes, I thought that was quite interesting. I feel like Max is drawing heavily from different pantheons as he builds his world. I definitely picked up on lots of Aztec mythology and symbolism. Pyramids, coatl, ritual sacrifice, etc.
Marzie: I read the gods as being like people. They’re all different. And all vulnerable in their way. Definitely, this book has a Latin American/Mexican heritage feel, from the idea of Quechal to the sacred regard for water.
Alex: In my head, Dresediel Lex is kind of a Mexico City parallel. Muerte coffee made me laugh. I’d go for some of that spiced chocolate.
Marzie: It’s definitely the massively overpopulated urban center that Mexico City is.
Jenni: It also touched lightly on the issues of dark-skinned native populations and pale skinned newcomers that made up the bulk of the current power structure.
Alex: Yes, there were many references to skin tone and Quechal blood and Sam’s blonde hair and non-Quechal status. The question that was posed was “How many Craftsmen in DL are of Quechal blood? 20, 30 percent? In a city that’s 80% Quechal?”
Jenni: Yes, that is what I was referencing. Thanks for being handy with the quote.
Alex That quote really stuck out to me when I was reading. One of the things I love most about Max’s stories is that he can pull together the many different factors leading into a situation that’s on a global scale and make them understandable for someone not well versed in global economies.
Marzie: The thing that stands out to me is how different things are, then, in Dresediel Lex than Alt Coulomb, where Tara’s dark skin was hardly a factor. BTW, the white elite thing is a very big issue in Mexico for real. One of the themes that was most powerful for me in this book is the interplay between corporate globalization and annihilation of the native culture. This is such a potent factor in Asia, especially China where Max lived for a time.
Head over to Marzie’s Reads for part two of our discussion and a giveaway of the whole series. Be sure to join us next month for our reviews and discussions of the third book in The Craft Sequence, Full Fathom Five!