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Two Serpents Rise by Max Gladstone

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One of the more interesting opportunities arising from the nature of fantasy is the ability to reinvent contemporary issues as an extended parable or allegory. Of course, an author could just write about mages fighting dragons — a significant number of buying customers enjoy these books even though they are superficial narratives. Or the author could use the dragons as a metaphor for capitalists who acquire and horde gold and jewels in caves, breathing fire on anyone who trespasses into their private lives, while the mages are investigative journalists who expose the venal exploitation that allowed the accumulation and stockpiling of the wealth. If the mages’ spells go viral, the evil dragons are destroyed and their wealth is redistributed in Robin Hood style to all those who don’t have health insurance (or a similar fate visited on the poor by uncaring dragons).

So welcome to the world of Two Serpents Rise by Max Gladstone (Tor, 2013), the second book set in the world of the Craft Sequence. To understand what’s going on, we need to spend a moment thinking about our modern world and then dive into a little practical economics. One of the more spectacular achievements of capitalism has been the rise of brands as dominant forces in our culture. As cynicism has risen and the hold of religious figures on public consciousness has grown weaker, consumers worship at the shrines of the latest retail icons in all their manifestations. People give up a little bit of their soul to queue overnight in adverse weather conditions just so they can be the first people to own the latest model. Now the characters in a movie are sold as toys, appear in electronic games, promote the latest burger recipe, and are used to sell an apparently infinite range of different merchandise fitting the demographic of the movie’s audience. And that’s before we get to the novelisation of the movie and authorised sequels, the comics and graphic novel version, all the fan fiction, and the television animated series. The spirit of these characters becomes as culturally significant as minor gods in the days when pantheism was the norm.

Have you noticed how Apple and Samsung are fighting for domination of the world of smartphones and other gadgets, and how at a deeper level, Apple and Google in the form of Android are also fighting for domination of the world of operating systems within the smartphones? It’s a titanic struggle as major forces battle each other for the soul of the consumer market or to suck the spirit of currency from the consumers with ever greater efficiency.

Max Gladstone

Max Gladstone

Now the economics: in a perfect world, the basic essentials of life would be “free”. We need air to breathe, water to drink, food to eat, and so on. The public should have a right to an uninterrupted supply of these necessities. Well. . . hold on there a moment. In the days before urbanisation and the industrial revolution, the agricultural lifestyle had an abundance of free unpolluted air and running water in a nearby stream or river. But then those damn farmers upstream dumped their silage next to the stream and the downstreamers all died of cholera or typhoid or some other fatal disease. So there had to be intervention to prevent thoughtless farmers from killing off their neighbours. Now scale that up following the growth of cities. Who is to pay for building aqueducts and, later, pipes to bring water into every neighbourhood or individual households? Who builds the dams and maintains them? Who deals with the sewage and makes the water drinkable? When the water from the wells and rivers is no longer adequate, who invests to develop desalination technology? There’s a constant battle between the use of tax revenue and the pressure from capitalists to privatise the public utilities and create new business concerns like the water “industry”. As citizens we all want a plentiful supply of cheap and safe water but we resent having to pay to repair and replace the infrastructure that delivers it. So what would happen if free-market ideology was applied to the water supply and water barons emerged to gouge the public and allow all the poor to die because they could not afford to pay the charges? Would the state be strong enough to renationalise the water industry, build new pipelines and water processing plants, and restore public confidence?

At this point I should apologise. I don’t usually discuss the plot of a book at such length without spoiler warnings. But what’s done is done. I can do no more than recommend Twin Serpents Rise as a debate on the merits of free-market capitalism disguised as a fantasy with dry, fusty legal contracts cast as spells, and cohorts of lawyers and risk managers acting the parts of enforcers and soldiers in the wars between business concerns. I suppose the best way to describe Two Serpents Rise is a fictionalised version of a poison pill defence. Having grown in size and significance, the target corporation knows it cannot resist the takeover, so decides to leave an unwelcome surprise in the small print of the contract. It’s a great trick for the magicians to pull off. There’s only one downside. Millions of consumers will die as the world is remade and becomes a better place for the few who survive the cataclysm.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

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