Coming Home Changed: Review of Dead Country by Max Gladstone
Misha Grifka Wander
Dead Country. Max Gladstone. Tordotcom, March 2023.
Tara Abernathy is a master necromancer. She has faced down gods. She is friends with a gargoyle, a goddess, an immortal skeleton king. She walked through a cursed desert to learn her craft, and burned down her advisor’s lab when he abused his power over his students. But coming home, back to the village she was born in, might be the hardest thing she’s had to do yet.
Dead Country is Max Gladstone’s latest novel, part of the same world as his Craft Sequence, but the first in a new trilogy. It opens with Tara, a character previous readers of the Craft Sequence will know well, being summoned home for the funeral of her father. Grief, however, isn’t really the focus of the novel. Instead, it’s about returning home as an adult to a place that both shaped you and rejected you. It’s about seeing how your hometown has changed, and the people in it have changed, and how you have changed in your absence, and trying to fit those pieces together in some sort of way that makes sense. It’s about walking the tightrope between not upsetting people unfairly, and not hiding the things that make you who you truly are.
Tara returns home for a funeral to find that her hometown, Edgemont, is on the brink of open war with the eldritch Raiders who live in the Badlands surrounding the village, warped by the lingering magic from a long-ago war with the gods. Her father was killed in a skirmish with them, and the town’s defenses are unlikely to stand up to further attacks. The mission seems pretty clear for a heroic necromancer—except that she was run out of town as a girl for trying to practice the very same magic she now wields with confidence. On top of that, on the way to Edgemont, she rescued a young woman, Dawn, who is in very much the same position as she once was: burning with raw power, hungry for knowledge, and scarred by being mistreated by those who were supposed to care for her.
It is in the careful negotiation of emotions and trust between Tara, Dawn, and the residents of Edgemont that Gladstone’s characteristic sensitivity shines. Some people are more belligerent than others, or make worse choices, but Gladstone never allows the reader to fall into the easy trap of labeling some people “good” and others “bad”. With the wisdom she’s gained in her years away, Tara tries to explain to Dawn why she doesn’t just ignore people’s feelings and flex her power. They’re afraid, she says time and again. And they don’t know what to do with that fear. And when Dawn declares that Tara is better than these people, that she doesn’t have to take their little fears into account, Tara rejects this idea. Dealing with other people is a constant; it is difficult, and there is no shortcut. Treating other people as obstacles is how monsters are born.
The book advertises itself as a potential starting place for readers new to the world of the Craft. As a longtime fan, it’s hard for me to judge that, except to say that I recommend everyone jump on board wherever they can. The Craft books don’t really do expository hand-holding, and this one is no different. Things don’t entirely make sense at first, if you’re not familiar already. Then, gradually, you start to understand the terms, the logic behind the magic system of law that is the Craft, and the fearsome history of the God Wars. As Tara teaches Dawn, she does explain some of the basic concepts of the Craft, which may be helpful for readers who themselves are new students of Gladstone’s work. However, it’s not the kind of book that depends on a detailed understanding of the magic system or the lore. Gladstone uses the rich world of the Craft Sequence as a scaffolding for deeply human, personal, and timely questions. How to leave, and how to stay. How to trust someone, and when to stop. How to reach out to someone when they are hurting. How to help yourself when you are hurt, without making things worse.
Perhaps the greatest triumph of this book is how it feels like it is in conversation with both the current moment and the genre of fantasy itself. Fantasy has a tradition of grand narratives: good vs. evil, the heroic sacrifice, the power of friendship. They are deeply satisfying narratives, because they give structure and meaning to the suffering around us. But in this moment in the real world, those narratives are frayed. No one’s going to save the world with a noble last stand. There’s not going to be a child of prophecy come with enchanted sword to slay the demon. Tara, as it turns out, has to save the world. And she doesn’t know how, and she knows that she might fail. The possibility of failure is strong, in fact, and Gladstone does not allow the reader to shrug it off. No, really, he seems to be saying. Sometimes you fail to change anything.
But you have to try. That is Tara’s message, and Gladstone’s through her. It is better to try, and fail, than to never try. Because the only thing separating monsters from almost-monsters is whether you choose to take care of people that you could abandon, or hurt. Tara, and other practitioners of the Craft, are immensely powerful. Dawn asks what distinguishes her from evil people like Tara’s adviser, perhaps hoping for something reassuring. Nothing, Tara responds. We’re exactly the same kind of people.
In the world of the Craft, there are no evil and good people. There are no guarantees. Sometimes when you try to do something good, you fail. But—sometimes you succeed, especially if you work with other people. And to me, that feels like exactly the kind of hope we need. No false promises. Just the hope that if you are yourself, and you try, and you build relationships, sometimes things work out well enough in the end.
Misha Grifka Wander is a PhD candidate, writer, and games designer. Their academic work focuses on video game studies, comics studies, and speculative fiction studies, using a ecocritical and queer lens. His creative work focuses on queer experience, speculative futures, and the environment, themes he explores through comics, poetry, and prose. Links to some of their work can be found at mishagw.carrd.co.
This review was commissioned by an internal pitch; the author is an ARB editor. It was edited by Jake Casella Brookins and copyedited by Adam McLain. ARB arranged a review copy from the publisher.
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