Three Parts Dead by Max Gladstone

indexBook – Tara Abernathy is a contract lawyer. Wait, no, don’t run away – I swear this is a fantasy novel, and a really good one, too. In Gladstone’s post-war fantasy world, contracts regulate and control the use of magic, called Craft. In recent history, Craftsmen (and women) overthrew the gods, shifting control of magical power into mortal hands. But remnants of the old religions still exist. And the old gods do, too – so long as they abide by their contracts.

That’s what Tara and her boss are investigating: Kos Everburning, a god of the city of Alt Coulomb, has died and defaulted on his contract. In order to keep the power on, and to forestall political upheaval, they have to prove that Kos was murdered.

Three Parts Dead isn’t always the easiest book to read (Gladstone subscribes to the “throw them in the deep end and see if they can swim” school of worldbuilding), but it’s never boring. This is the first in Gladstone’s ongoing Craft series. The sequel, Two Serpents Rise, features an entirely different cast of characters in a city halfway around the world from Alt Coulomb, but as the series goes on, the storylines begin to converge. It’s deep, fascinating, twisty stuff, and totally worth the effort it can sometimes take.

The Weight of Blood by Laura McHugh

weightBook – Family is everything in small towns, but Lucy Dane has a hole in hers. Her mother Lila disappeared when Lucy was just a baby, and people in town still gossip about her, suggesting witchcraft or something worse was behind her sudden appearance and disappearance in their small Ozark town. Then Lucy’s friend Cheri disappears, and her body is found in horrifying condition near the edge of town, and Lucy finds herself investigating the web of secrets surrounding these two women’s disappearances.

It’s not just the setting that The Weight of Blood has in common with Daniel Woodrell’s Winter’s Bone, it’s a whole atmosphere, a paradoxical sense of claustrophobia in the wide-open, tight-knit rural world of the Ozarks. This is McHugh’s first novel, but you wouldn’t know it from the way she writes, as smooth and confident as any more seasoned writer, and with an excellent grip on her readers’ emotions. Set some time aside when you start this one – I ended up canceling my weekend plans to finish it!

The Thin Man by Dashiell Hammett

thin manBook – Dashiell Hammett is considered the father of the hard-boiled detective genre, and if his “gritty and realistic” characters seem slightly less so to modern eyes, at least they’re still great fun to read about. Hammett himself worked as a Pinkerton detective before the First World War, so he comes by his colorful characters honestly. And it’s not hard to see a little bit of Hammett in the hard-drinking, hard-partying Nick Charles of Hammett’s last novel, The Thin Man.

When Nick and Nora Charles head to New York City for the holidays, they’re expecting to spend their time at glamorous parties and social events. But much like in Dorothy Sayers’ Busman’s Honeymoon, the detective is never allowed to rest. Nick’s past insists on catching up with him when a young woman he has paternal feelings towards asks him to investigate her father’s disappearance. So much for holiday fun: Nick spends the rest of the novel trying both to avoid doing any real work and to avoid disappointing his young friend. Of course things get nasty, but when Nick tries to protect his wife, Nora only complains that he never wants her to have any excitement. Nick and Nora’s relationship is such a delight that after the rousing success of the film version starring Myrna Loy and William Powell, the studio went on to make five more.