Every year in fantasy there comes what Jo Walton termed the “important book.” This is the book that’s everywhere, that’s reviewed by everyone in the genre, ends up on most of the critic best of the year lists, and creates a love-it-or-hate-it response from readers due to its polarizing nature. Last year the most obvious examples of important novels were City of Stairs by Robert Jackson Bennett and the Southern Reach Trilogy by Jeff VanderMeer. Like Walton, I believe that there are some books that should have become important novels but simply never got the same level of attention they deserved. This year in fantasy has given us possible important novels (like The Grace of Kings by Ken Liu, Uprooted by Naomi Novik) but if given the choice for one that's likely to slip through the cracks, my vote is going to Last First Snow by Max Gladstone.
I’ve written about Gladstone before. As far as I’m concerned, his Craft Sequence is the most exciting new fantasy series published in recent years. Through this thematic series, Max Gladstone has used his magic system of the Craft and the Deathless Kings to explore issues relevant to our time: the tyranny of corporations, water shortages, the rise of secularization and its effect on religious fervor. His vibrant, diverse, and complex characters grapple with very modern problems in a world so much like our own. The most impressive thing about these books isn’t that they’re like reality—it’s how he manages to show how different his universe is while still revealing universal truths of the human condition, all while still telling an entertaining story. In this latest entry, Gladstone tackles his most political subject yet: protest.
In Dresediel Lex, the wards in the Skittersill are falling and if they do fall, it could literally set demons on the world. So to try and develop the area, the King in Red hires Craftswoman Elayne Kevarian to help negotiate a deal. The only problem is that the people of the Skittersill have their own plans for the future, and they have their own leader in Temoc, a priest of the old gods who’s taken to community organizing while trying to create a better future for his family. To quote the front flap: “Elayne and Temoc must fight conspiracy, dark magic, and their own demons to save the peace—or failing that, to save as many people as they can.”
This novel doesn’t sugarcoat its issues. Instead, Gladstone writes a complex, multi-layered story where there are no true heroes or villains. As in real life, sometimes the characters have to make deals with the opposing side despite feeling that they’ve compromised everything they’ve ever believed in. As in life, they all have a point. And as in life, they find no easy answers or solutions. Life is messy and so is the way things eventually end up in Last First Snow. The novel comes to a proper conclusion, if one that the reader may have wished could have been avoided. But it’s that staunch realism and brutal truth about life that the novel offers that makes it such a compelling read, if not a very optimistic one. Make no mistake: this is a very entertaining book, with lots of dramatic tension and action in the latter half. However, due to its serious subject matter and grey morality, it may not be the ideal choice for those looking for a light, escapist read.
As with every Craft Sequence entry, Last First Snow’s highlight is its characters. Returning to the series are Elayne, the King in Red, and Temoc. As this novel is set chronologically twenty years before Two Serpents Rise, Gladstone uses the events of the story to help develop Elayne and Temoc into the characters as we knew them in Two Serpents Rise and Three Parts Dead. While I’d always found Elayne to be one of the more interesting older female characters in fantasy literature, seeing her as the protagonist and seeing things through her own perspective humanized her in such a way that I can definitely say that she is easily my favorite Craft Sequence protagonist yet. Temoc is another I came to really understand and love through this book; while I may not have agreed with every choice he made, he remained sympathetic throughout the narrative. Kopil, the King in Red, is just as frustrating as he’s ever been; he makes good points and his choices are understandable, but they are still quite hard to forgive. Gladstone also introduces several new and interesting additions: Temoc's wife, Mina, a wonderful and determined woman; Chel, conflicted but strong; Tan Batac, born and raised in the Skittersill but has been away long enough to be considered the enemy by its people; and the Major, who was perhaps my favorite new character for the mystery surrounding this character and just how dedicated they were to the cause. (Though I was a bit confused by a certain revelation regarding the Major and just what the reader was supposed to have learned about the Major's identity.)
The prose is just as the other books are, so there’s not much to say there: the usual clipped sentences, with lots of fragments and one-line paragraphs. It’s a style that can get very frustrating, but it does work.
Diversity-wise, the novel can claim to feature two older protagonists. Both Elayne and Temoc are over fifty. Elayne is actually a rather rare breed in the fantasy genre: a female protagonist who is over fifty, unmarried, and childless who is portrayed as neither hating men nor children and is in fact the most fair-hearted person in the novel. Also, Temoc’s culture is heavily inspired by the pre-Columbian cultures of America.
In summary, Last First Snow is a fantastic novel. It expands the fantasy genre in terms of character, setting, and plot choice. The style is easy to read and very compelling; the narrative gives just as much tension and suspense to court negotiations as to genuine action scenes. It’s not a novel for everyone, but it’s certainly worth a look. Perhaps the biggest flaw is just how slow the pace is for its first half, but once the halfway mark is passed, everything comes together. What it sacrifices in pacing it gains in perhaps the most well-developed cast of characters Max Gladstone has given us yet. If it doesn’t become one of the illusive “important novels,” it will certainly be one I and other likeminded readers will cherish—at least until the next one comes out. Highly recommended.