Fantasy Novel Review: Full Fathom Five by Max Gladstone

Max Gladstone is an author that I’ve had on my list for quite some time. His books are almost universally liked in my circles, he’s won awards, and his Craft Sequence neither has a high barrier of entry nor the required commitment for an extended series. And yet, as reading challenges and shiny new objects have caught my eye, I’ve let him languish in the middle of the TBR. At least until I decided to do an all-sequel themed Bingo card before seeing the reveal of a New-to-You author square. But how do you read a sequel of an author you’ve never read? Well, one way is starting a series of standalones right in the middle, eschewing Three Parts Dead in favor of Full Fathom Five

The Craft Sequence takes place in a world where magic is everywhere, its power harnessed by financial institutions (among others) as a stable form of investment. Full Fathom Five takes place on the island of Kavekana and features two primary perspective characters. Kai works as a priest, ensuring that the mindless idols that she serves remain a stable opportunity for foreign investors to stash their fortunes. Izza, on the other hand, lives on the streets, trying to keep her small band of teenage misfits alive and keep them away from the island’s devastatingly painful reeducation program. But when an idol shows a flash of self-awareness just before death, Kai and Izza both are thrown into a plot that could threaten the very foundations of the island’s economy. 

Two things immediately jumped out at me upon reading Full Fathom Five. First, Gladstone has constructed thinly-veiled magical analogues of real-world economic and legal structures, with wonkiness to match. And second, he absolutely nails a prose style that feels more contemporary than the traditional, faux-medieval epic fantasy voice without going all-in on the snark-filled, first-person, stream-of-consciousness urban fantasy style. That’s a balance that I don’t see hit very often, and it made Full Fathom Five a good read, even when the wonkiness wasn’t hitting. 

For whatever reason, stories with gods running around meddling in the world don’t seem to work for me quite as well as they do other fantasy readers, and some of the details of the idolatrous substitutes for investment(/worship) didn’t really resonate. That said, the broad brushstrokes of plot were fairly easy to follow, and the character background and plot development were nicely interspersed to create an engaging story that neither rushed nor wore out its welcome. And for all that the world was clearly an analogue of our own, the worldbuilding was top-notch, with several small touches that made it feel truly its own—like the magic involved in priesthood allowing the trans lead character to shape her body in the way she saw fit. Combine that worldbuilding, pacing, and character work with an ending that presented no easy solutions and kept the tension high, and you have a recipe for a novel well worth reading, intricate gods plot or no. 

Recommended if you like: well-rounded stories with strong prose, pacing, and characterization; fantasy analogies of contemporary issues. 

Can I use it for Bingo? It’s hard mode for Found Family, Mystery Plot, and Trans/Non-binary Character. It’s also a Backlist Book, unless I’ve missed an announcement of a seventh Craft Sequence entry that I missed. 

Overall rating: 16 of Tar Vol’s 20. Four stars on Goodreads. 


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