In the July episode of SF Squeecast, Elizabeth Bear talked about Max Gladstone’s Three Parts Dead, which is indeed an excellent book, and has one of my favorite covers amongst recent books. (I like it so much, in fact, I’m going to put it in the post even though it’s not the main point, because surely I am not the only person who is persuaded to buy a good book even more if it has an awesome cover.) One of the main things Bear highlighted about Gladstone’s setting is that it is one of the rare fantasy settings that features a society in which magic works and technology was allowed to develop beyond the typical high fantasy swords-and-horses level. In fact, in this society, magic shaped a great deal of the technological development, so technology and magic are not at all opposing forces; instead, magic fuels the technology.
All of that is to give you the background of the point I had freshly raised in my mind when I decided, in August, to spend some time going through my Kindle and actually reading some of those books I had downloaded when they were on sale for $1.99 and then forgot about because I was reading something else, including, notably, the omnibus edition of Dante Valentine: The Complete Series.
I don’t know if I would have noticed just how unique the Dante Valentine world was if I hadn’t just been thinking about how rare it was to see technology and magic together in one setting. And while I think Gladstone’s completely new, made-up world setting is excellent and incredibly interesting, I was, in some ways, even more impressed with Lilith Saintcrow’s vision of Earth 600 years into the future, with not only the expected advanced technology (hovercraft and flying skateboards!), but also an historical cataclysmic event that brought psionic powers to light and into mainstream practice, marrying the more science-fiction-acceptable psi powers with the practice of true ritual magic. The setting is both truly science fiction, in that it is a far-future, high-tech Earth, and truly fantasy, in that it has practitioners of straight-up magic.
For myself, I honestly wouldn’t even categorize it as “science fantasy,” because I always think of that as something like Pern, where space exploration and science explain how the people ended up on this weird planet and why they ride dragons, but the setting is now basically fantasy. However, I recognize that is more my own definition and not how some other people choose to interpret the term. Still, I can’t recall ever having encountered another series set in a world where high technology and high magic coexist so seamlessly.
Saintcrow also obviously put a lot of time and attention into her worldbuilding for this series. I enjoyed the little signs of thought about how society might continue to develop into the far future. She has references to musical genres that clearly hark back to ours, but in a hilariously “aren’t we cool because we’re so retro?” reinterpreted way, and band names, and new spellings of place names and languages that, get this, are intended to reflect the linguistic drift over time (this just warms my little nerdy heart). Even better, the reader is allowed to just absorb all of this as background, because Saintcrow resists the urge to have characters for whom all of this is completely normal over-explain things to each other, which would be particularly out of place in a book with a first-person, present-tense protagonist view. It’s up to you to decide if you care enough about the background history of the world to start paying attention to these details, or decide it’s not important and just let them fade as soon as you read them. (I do not think you should do the latter.) At the end of the first several books, there are a few sections of ephemera that shed a bit more light on some of this background information, but still cleverly done in ways that fit with the book, such as a school term paper from one of the side characters Dante talks to along the way (complete with a snarky comment from the professor who graded it), or the transcript of the recording of Dante’s exit interview from the school where she was trained to use magic.
Also, as a quick aside, since diversity in SFF is such a hot topic right now, I’ll also add that I found it refreshing to have the main character turn out to be bi, which is a point that comes up because it is relevant to the story and is also never made out to be any kind of Big Deal. Her relationship(s) in the books are all with male characters, but her past relationship that drives much of the plot was with a woman, and no one ever acts like this is at all weird, it just is. There’s also a transgendered side character who appears multiple times throughout the series.
I did have a few minor quibbles with a few things in the writing, but in keeping with the SF Squeecast policy of saying positive things, I’ll just say that I honestly enjoyed the setting so much, and found the action sufficiently quick-paced, that I read the whole five-book series in about a week. So if this kind of blended science fiction/fantasy setting sounds interesting to you, the omnibus edition of the series makes for a convenient way to check it out.