4 of 5 stars
By all rights, this book should be a jumbled mess, as Max Gladstone seemingly threw everything into it except the kitchen sink. It's an urban fantasy, a courtroom drama, and a murder mystery; it's a coming-of-age story with three young protagonists struggling to find their place in the world; it's an examination of faith, in this case in a very literal way, as the "gods" in this book gain their life, sentience and energy from the devotion and fervency of their worshipers; and it's an alternate-world setting, as humans are (for the most part) the main characters, but this is very much not our Earth.
I wouldn't have thought such a mishmash could work. But it does, wonderfully.
There's some excellent worldbuilding here, the best kind--the reader is given the impression that we're only seeing the tip of the iceberg, that ten percent or so above the waterline. There's a dark, complex, ancient and not-so-ancient history that threatens to rear its ugly head at any time. This is embodied in our two main characters; first, Abelard the priest of the fire-god Kos Everburning. Abelard is a very engaging character, as he is young and unformed and has a poignant crisis of faith through the book. The other main character is Tara Abernathy, a woman of color (and no whitewashed cover! Hallelujah!) who wields the Craft, a magic system that draws upon starlight and moonlight, among other things. (It also extracts a pretty hefty price, as the author makes clear. This is a side element of the story I wish had been explored further, although admittedly there wasn't time for it: why people choose to study the Craft despite knowing what it will eventually do to them.) There are several other viewpoint characters, including Tara's boss, Elayne Kevarian; her former professor, Alexander Denovo, the villain (like all great villains, he is given a believable backstory and motivation, and in the very last scene of the book he gets a delicious comeuppance); Shale, a gargoyle; the vampire Raz Pelham, captain of the Kell's Bounty; and Catherine Elle, a vampire addict who moonlights as a Blacksuit, an avatar for the goddess Justice.
There's a complicated plot here, with each of these characters having a crucial part, and it was a pleasure to watch everything come together. But the star of this show is this world and its history, and I look forward to following Max Gladstone as he further explores it.