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Literature / Craft Sequence

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The Craft Sequence is a series of novels by Max Gladstone, set in a world analogous to the present day but run using Functional Magic in general and Magitek in particular.

The series is marked by characters who take an eminently practical attitude to some very freaky stuff: dead gods prompt intense legal wrangles, lich-kings run a surprisingly reasonable form of government, and implacable hive-minded things with no faces are damn fine cops.

The Craft Sequence is a series in which the world stays the same, but each features a different cast dealing with different events.

The author says the gods are metaphors for corporations (immortal, powerful inhuman entities) and the magicians for lawyers (drawing power from contracts, rare knowledge and dead languages). For example, resurrecting a dead god is bankruptcy restructuring. The books bring out the bizarre and fantastic aspects of our present-day existence. See this author interview

Novels so far:

There are also two Gamebook-style games, hosted on Choice of Games:

The Craft Sequence concludes in a sequel series, the Craft Wars. The first book, Dead Country, was released 2023.

See also Empress of Forever, an unrelated novel by Gladstone, which explores similar themes (parallels between myth/magic and technology, the balance of individual and collective power) from a sci-fi angle.

The series as a whole provides examples of:

  • Aerith and Bob: There are names like John Smith and Sam on one hand, mixed with names like Golan Varkath and Caleb Altemoc.
  • All Myths Are True: Discussed in Full Fathom Five. Humans evolved from apes. Humans were also made from scratch by the gods. Every pantheon has its own creation myth? Every one of them is true simultaneously. Gods arise from Clap Your Hands If You Believe, and gods interact strangely with reality.
  • Amoral Attorney: Most firms are owned by Deathless Kings, who understand the concept of morality, but do not often practice it. For Golan Varkath, even the concept is a little fuzzy.
  • Anachronic Order: The first five novels contain a number or ordinal in their titles that show when they occur chronologically. Last First Snow, the fourth published novel, happens decades before Two Serpents Rise, the second in both chronology and publication.
  • Badass Bureaucrat: Nearly everyone in the series.
  • Bizarre Human Biology: The Deathless Kings are undead human skeletons that can still eat, drink, and have sex(...somehow).
  • Burn the Witch!: In some places, during the God Wars and the period building up to them, people suspected of practicing Craft were killed at the behest of gods or by people who simply feared them. Elayne Kevarian narrowly escaped this fate before fleeing to the Hidden Schools and joining the war effort.
  • Celestial Bureaucracy
  • Chill of Undeath: Older Craftspeople who are at a point where they're animated more by Crafty willpower than by the usual biological processes but who aren't quite skeletal yet have a noticeably lower body temperature compared to a typical human. Elayne Kevarian is an example.
  • The City-State: This seems to be a common geopolitical structure, at least in the New World. Alt Coulumb and Dresediel Lex are the examples we've seen the most of in the series, and a few others have been mentioned.
  • Clap Your Hands If You Believe: A fundamental principle of the setting's metaphysics; this is why Gods Need Prayer Badly and why Craft works by pact-making and argumentation. As explained by Kai in Full Fathom Five:
    "Reality’s made of self-perpetuating patterns, some of which are complex enough to alter themselves. Truth is a momentary condition of these fluctuating patterns, a matter of negotiation. Our agreements [...] are realer than any property of what you’d call matter. [...] Beliefs give rise to truth."
  • Cryptic Background Reference: The series uses this technique often. Many of them do get followed up on; the King in Red, for example, was a name-drop in Three Parts Dead before being developed as a character in Two Serpents Rise.
  • Deal with the Devil: Not exactly with the devil, depending on which hell you want to negotiate in.
  • Death of the Old Gods: The God Wars saw most of the old pantheons killed off, and the infrastructural role of gods in society replaced by the sorcerers who did the killing. A handful of the old gods survived to the present day, with varying degrees of power; fire god Kos, for example, ended up a major player in the global economy thanks to remaining steadfastly neutral in the wars, while Makawe, originally Top God of the Kavekana pantheon, is not much greater than human now and spends his days incognito as a beach bum.
  • Deity of Human Origin: Most of the gods were born through belief. Thus there are multiple creation gods for different cultures.
  • Dem Bones: The Craft can facilitate immortality, but eventually one's body degrades into a walking skeleton.
  • Dungeon Punk: In terms of culture, law, and economics, the world is almost identical to 21st century Earth — just with Craftwork devices for its technology. Alt Coulumb’s steampunk machinery is powered by its god of fire. Skyscrapers are cooled by harnessed air elementals. If two people share a god, prayer can take the place of telephones. Otherwise, they need to talk through something called a “nightmare telegraph,” which is exactly as harrowing as it sounds. The central MacGuffin of Ruin of Angels is the world’s first space rocket, multi-stage, manned, and carrying a temporary satellite. But like 21st century Earth, these technologies come with dangers. Dresediel Lex will one day face a water crisis because its ruling Deathless King can't miracle it into existence like its late god of rain could. Materials required for Craftwork must be mined at cost, and inadequate safety procedures are causing irreversible environmental damage. And there are always people and nations exploiting such resources for their own gain, such as Undead Labor companies using Technically Living Zombies enslaved by predatory contracts to keep them at work indefinitely.
  • Fantasy Counterpart Culture:
    • The Quechal city Dresediel Lex is the Mexica/Aztec Los Angeles with droughts and a famous water-named sports team.
    • Kavekana is similar to Hawaii (in the sense of being a small island nation that struggles with issues of independence and exploitation and attracts many tourists) and Switzerland (in the sense of being a tax haven and having a reputation for staying neutral in global conflicts).
    • Telomere appears to be Italy. Temoc referenced a Telomeri legend in which the founder of an empire carried his father on his back. The empire was formed next to the 'Ebon sea', and its language shares at least one word ("Altus") with Latin.
    • Schwarzvald is Eastern Europe/Germany, complete with Uberwalds, old traditions of people-eating witches, berserkers, and scary mobsters.
    • Word of God is that Alt Columb a mix of New York and Paris: plenty of tall, stone skyscrapers, gothic gargoyles, a city-wide train system, and a pervasive Catholic-esque religion in the Church of Kos. Not to mention everybody smokes all the time.
  • Functional Magic: The Craft and Applied Theology. Applied Theology is the practice of doing favors for a god (usually worship) in exchange for boons and power. The Craft, which was derived from research into Applied Theology, is essentially magically-enforced contract law, using starlight as a power source. The reason Craftspeople can fly? They struck a deal with the sky, a long time ago.
  • God Is Dead: After the God Wars, most of the gods are dead.
  • Gods Need Prayer Badly: Technically they can survive without it, at least for a while, and use other resources from the material world to sustain themselves, but in order to be healthy and powerful a god needs to be worshipped.
  • Great Offscreen War: The God Wars, a global conflict between Craftspeople and gods that saw most gods in the world killed and the Craft becoming the backbone of human society. Sort-of still ongoing in certain parts of the world.
    • Other books hint at a prehistoric war in which an alliance of gods drove off an invasion of spider-like Eldritch Abominations from deep space. Which are further implied to be coming back for round 2, only this time the gods are dead...
  • Grey-and-Gray Morality: The practitioners of Craft put forth good arguments as to why they oppose the gods, some of whom at least required oppressive worship and ritual murder. At the same time, the gods perform divine miracles that the Craftspeople can't duplicate, generally in actual service of the population, and uncontrolled Craft use will eventually render the world uninhabitable. Most everyone is just trying to do their best in an imperfect world.
  • Hold Your Hippogriffs: "Hand to any god you want to name", "pick a hell and burn there", etc.
  • Humanoid Abomination: Every single deathless king.
  • Idiosyncratic Episode Naming: The first five novels have numbers in their titles: Three Parts Dead, Two Serpents Rise, Full Fathom Five, Last First Snow and Four Roads Cross. Though they're not sequential in their publishing order, the numbers in the titles indicate the actual timeline within the story, meaning that Last First Snow details the earliest and Full Fathom Five the concluding events of the first part of the series. The sixths book, Ruin of Angels, does not follow that naming convention because it is the beginning of part two of the series as well as of an overarching continuous timeline.
  • Individualism vs. Collectivism: One of the, more subtle, aspects of the conflict between the Craftspeople and gods. The Craft is great at allowing you to throw off any claim a higher power might have over you and forge your own fate, at granting great understanding of the deep workings of the universe, and at realizing your full potential. It is, however, by nature transactional and the unfettered pursuit of one's own path, without any constraints, tends to turn even the better Craftspeople callous and manipulative. In contrast, gods have a sheer power that allow them to accomplish feats that provide for their people in a way a Craftsperson can't, enabling to sustain a society more capably than a Craftsperson. Their power comes from the collective belief of their people and their religions creates community, all of which foster communitarian values. Nevertheless, worshippers are not free in the same way Craftspeople are, the bounty of the gods tends to stifle innovation, and in some theocracies the cost of the individual for the good of the whole can be quite brutal.
    • Ironically, it's said that the founder of the Craft laid out its theory and foundations in a text titled Das Thaumas.
  • Lovecraft Lite: Some gods are frightening, incomprehensible creatures with a taste for human souls, but can be contained with the help of a good contract. The Iskari are ruled by squid-headed gods and close contact with them can be bad for one's brain. However, the Iskari seem to be one of the most prosperous and well-functioning societies in the setting.
  • Magically-Binding Contract: The Craft and Applied Theology are both powerfully rooted in these, to the extent that "powerful magic requires as much lawyerly skill as sorcerous ability" can be called a key conceit of the series.
  • The Magocracy: Societies not ruled by gods and their priests are ruled by powerful Craft practitioners who use their abilities to provide for and defend their subjects. Since magic, law, and economics are more or less the same thing in this world, a ruling elite of people versed in magic is perhaps inescapable.
  • Mundane Made Awesome: the premise of the series.
    • Three Parts Dead: Courtroom drama about the resurrection of a dead god - aka a corporate bankruptcy proceeding. Necromancy in general seems to be highly akin to the restructuring of finances and debt that occurs during the bankruptcy process.
    • Two Serpents Rise: Risk management about demon infestations in the water reservoir.
    • Full Fathom Five: Banking overseas where priests sacrifice chickens to ensure your investments are going well.
    • Last First Snow: Gentrification protest and corporate-grade insurance fraud.
    • Four Roads Cross: Further legal complications ensue from the resurrection of the same dead god two, actually from Three Parts Dead - namely, the fact that gods are massive, interlocking parts of the economy, and yet experience "human" emotions like love or friendship, threatens to create a global credit crisis.
  • Nay-Theist: Craft practitioners in general tend in this direction; it helps that "derive the existence of gods from first principles" is a standard homework exercise at the Hidden Schools. Tara in particular explicitly refuses to worship the goddess who plays a major role in Four Roads Cross, but is willing to consider a partnership with her.
  • The Necrocracy: Most New World states are governed by skeletal Craftspeople, hence the term "Deathless Kings" (or Queens, respectively). Technically there's no formal requirement that one be undead in order to hold such a position, but most of those powerful and experienced enough to do the job are.
  • Necromancy: An important branch of Craft, used for everything from raising simple revenants for menial labor to restructuring dead gods.
  • Occult Law Firm: Varkath Nebuchadnezzar Stone and Kelethres Albrecht & Ao so far. Due to the relationship between magic and contract law, a lot of Craftspeople become lawyers.
  • Odd Job Gods: Provides a few examples, like the goddess that sit around heckling poker games in Two Serpents Rise. Since the Gods in this world are their own sort of living thing that grow and change with time, this is ideally a sort of "summer job" for a young god on their way to a more impressive deific career.
  • Our Liches Are Different: The Deathless Kings. Some of them are literal Lich Kings (and queens and other). Some of them are Lich CEOs or Lich Chancellors, or just as often Lich Senior Partners. They play the core tropes of lichdom pretty close, being fleshless sorcerous skeletons. The first major twist is that they don't come about through some dark ritual— "lich"dom (they're Not Using the Zed Word) is just a natural part of a Craftsperson's lifecycle. The second is that there's nothing inherently evil about it— though the culture around the Craft has a wide Nietzschean streak that doesn't serve very well as an ethical foundation, so a lot of them are non-inherently evil anyway.
  • Our Souls Are Different: You can sell just a bit of your soul for a cup of coffee. In fact you have to, as “soulstuff” is the currency of and basis for the whole economic system. One human soul is made of 2,000 units of soulstuff. You can actually have more or less than that (it’s like having cash in your purse), but having too much soulstuff in you makes you go kind of weird and having too little makes you increasingly less alive. Small amounts of soulstuff naturally "soak" into objects that get handled a lot/have sentimental value, and if it hasn't sunk in too deeply can be pried out again with some effort. Receiving soulstuff gets you brief impressions of its original owner's memories.
  • Physical God: Real enough to be killed and resurrected.
    • Physical Religion: Thus, almost every religion is one of these. The exceptions arise from followers of gods who fell in the Wars continuing to observe old rites and practices out of respect for their gods' memory or because doing so is personally meaningful to the practitioner.
  • Rage Against the Heavens: The series is set in a world recovering from the God Wars, in which human magic users challenging gods for the right to exercise their powers freely escalated into a global revolution involving the overthrow and killing of many gods and the birth of the world's first god-free civilizations.
  • Resurrected for a Job: Death isn't all that meaningful to the big players of the Craft Sequence and they'll gladly bring back the dead, from lowly peasants to be zombie slaves to gods that will be reshaped for a new role (happens to the moon goddess Seril who was revived as the blind police goddess Justice to provide power to Alt Columb's security force).
  • Resurrection Sickness: Resurrection will always reduce the individual on the receiving end; there is only so much order and energy in a corpse, and getting a body up and walking will require making subtractions or substitutions elsewhere. As such there'll always be something missing, sometimes (often) deliberately.
  • Retired Monster: The Deathless Kings are terrifying figures who brutally slaughtered gods in the past, but then realized that in their absence, someone needed to take care of making sure garbage was collected and people had drinkable water, and so for the most part, they've settled down since then.
  • Schizo Tech: Because of the influence of the Kos and his church and the Craftsmens' magitek inventions, Alt Coulumb has steampunk air conditioning and central heating, as well as golem horse wagons for taxis. Their understanding of physical science, legalism, economics and finance is 21st century level. But they still use sail-based ships and bow and arrows.
  • She Is the King: "Deathless King" is a gender-neutral term.
  • Spell Construction: Some applications of Craft require this, although the kind and degree varies tremendously. In general, the more complex a work of Craft is and the more permanent the effect is intended to be, the more likely it is that special tools or sigils of power will be required.
  • Star Power: Craft uses starlight as an energy source. The stars are also said to be the origin of the human soul (which, of course, is also a Craft energy source). The Quechal have a decidedly more ominous perspective about the nature of the stars which is apparently also true.
  • Thematic Series: As mentioned above, the series shares a world and the broad strokes of its history, but it follows different people through unrelated events, far enough apart geographically that the culture is pretty different too.
  • Undead Laborers: People who die in debt or who simply incur so much of it that they no longer have enough soulstuff to support full human consciousness may become zombies and work off their debts in that state. In Craft-based societes, work on industrial-scale farms, janitorial work, freight handling, and other forms of menial labor are often performed by zombies. It is possible to recover from being a zombie and become a living, autonomous person again, but being a zombie for a long time is often traumatic.
  • Unequal Rites: There are two fundamentally different ways of working magic. First came Practical Theology— making (very binding) pacts with gods, who in return for worship both worked direct miracles and empowered their priests as divine spellcasters. Then, much more recently, the Craft was developed— magic woven from starlight by pure human will. A nearly-genocidal (nearly omnicidal, in fact) series of God Wars ensued between practitioners of the two arts. Craftspeople won, but the terms of the peace were at least tolerable for most Theologians and their surviving Gods.
  • Wizarding School: The Hidden Schools, where Craftspeople are educated, evolved from relatively mundane universities and libraries that became targets when the God Wars created a backlash against academia in general. Despite the plural, it's not clear whether the term refers to one institution or many.
  • You Kill It, You Bought It: After deposing the gods of Dresdiel Lex, the King in Red finds himself responsible for providing water to the citizens of that ever-growing desert city. Because he can't just miracle it into existence like the gods used to, this requires acquiring rights to reservoirs and building pipelines to them, which is a pretty tough job since the nearest one is always further away than the last, and stated to be unsustainable in the long term.