In the world created by Max Gladstone, the island of Kavekana is in a unique position. Like other countries, their gods fought in the devastating God Wars. Like those same countries, their gods never returned. Being an island, they’re able to keep foreign deities off of their shores. After all, they’ve filled that niche by creating idols. The idols accept sacrifices and those that commission them can worship them as any other deity. They offer protection from more greedy Old World gods. Kai is a priestess of the Order that builds and maintains these idols. When something goes awry with the planned death of one of the idols, she is drawn into a plot far deeper than the pool in which they keep their idols.
There’s a lot of stuff going on beneath the surface of this book. At its core, though, it is a story about identity. Kavekana is constantly under threat of being overrun by foreign forces bent on shaping its land and people to their wills. Kai, the tale’s primary protagonist, establishes early on in the book that she had been born in a wrong body: a male one. Fortunately, her position as a priestess allowed her to fix that and she became the woman she always knew she was. Izza, another of the books protagonists, is a street urchin and thief who is at war with herself. While she wants to protect the children and the community that she’s found, she doesn’t want to have that level of responsibility.Yet, they still look to her for guidance.
Kai’s foundations are shaken. No, it’s not about her gender. It’s about her identity as a competent member of her field whose work was respected by her peers. After a failed bid to rescue a dying idol, those closest to Kai call her sanity into question. She’s reassigned to a different part of the Order while she recovers and a chance meeting with a poet in a bar gives her the extra motivation to prove that she’s not crazy after all. She’s right. That’s when things start going wrong.
On the island, one of the ways to punish those who have transgressed against its laws is to put them in stone golems called Penitents. This very idea is now a sort of nightmare fuel. A Penitent closes over a person and starts subverting their will and identity. The idea is that the criminal will learn correct, noble behavior from their time in the Penitent. When they are finally released, they will be a good, law-abiding butterfly emerging from their painful, stony cocoon.
Yeah. That’s just creepy.
I think we’ve already established how much I love Max Gladstone’s work judging from my reviews of Three Parts Dead and Two Serpents Rise. He does it again in Full Fathom Five. There’s just something so marvelous and engrossing about his writing and the world he’s carefully crafted. All of the characters feel like real people you could run into while walking down the street. The world even feels real from the tiniest geographical details to the larger, weirder picture. I would love to walk around in this land of gods and Craftworkers. If only briefly.
One of the things I absolutely loved about this book is how Kai’s gender is just a thing. It’s not a huge issue for anyone. It’s just a facet of her identity, to be accepted and then the reader moves on. No one criticizes Teo for her girlfriend and the plot just carries on. The story isn’t about those things. It’s about so much more. I just wish I had the words to really do this tale justice. Seriously, folks, go read it and Gladstone’s other books. I’d recommend reading them in the appropriate order to get the full effect (Three Parts Dead, Two Serpents Rise, and Full Fathom Five).