Foundryside by Robert Jackson Bennett

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Rating 8.7/10
An action packed story with all the high drama of heists, fights, intrigue, and surprises. It’s cleverly constructed, with a definite originality and a cinematic flair.

This book was so much goddamn fun, I can't even describe it...

But I will try.

Sancia Grado is about to take on the biggest job of her life. The details: steal a small box, contents unknown, from a safe in the warehouse on the Tevanni waterfront guarded by the Waterwatch, return it to her fence, Sark, and get paid serious paper money by an undisclosed, but very rich, patron. For Sancia, this job means the kind of cash to fix herself, to make herself normal. Maybe even enough to get out of the Commons, the lawless, violent, gang-dominated slums of the city that exist around and between the sizeable and comparatively idyllic compounds of Tevanne’s four ruling mafia-style merchant families. Of course, nothing is ever that simple. The job might be high stakes in itself, a heist of this sort could only be done by a thief with her special skills, but that’s nothing compared to the potentially destructive power waiting to be unleashed from the unassuming little item she now holds in her hands. The answer to ‘what’s in the box?’ isn’t quite as immediately bloody as the other one you’re thinking of, but similarly, it changes everything. Inside: an artefact from the distant past, a time shrouded in mystery and misunderstanding, when Makers were Gods and magic had few boundaries. Now someone powerful wants it back and they’re more than happy to get it over her dead body.

What they don’t realise is that Sancia is not like other girls. In fact, her ability to hear scrivings and ‘know’ items through touching them makes her one of a kind. Yet this handy skill quickly morphs into something altogether more harrowing as the ramifications of her talent become clear. She definitely sees it as more a curse than a blessing, being permanently plugged in to the memories and ‘feelings’ of everything she touches, from clothing and food to the very bed she sleeps on. A nagging, unceasing litany of noise and sensation. Reaching out to another human is impossible. It immediately gives her a ragged, tortured affect, a desperation that’s easy to connect with and feel for. Her yearning to be like everyone else, to be able to live and love, is a compelling and almost universal motivator. She’s a great character overall, proactive and intelligent with enough snark to be interesting. So, of course, when Captain Gregor Dandolo was introduced, I thought he was going to take over, leaving Sancia by the wayside. Here is this perfect male specimen, rich, handsome, honourable, on a moral quest to make ordinary people’s lives better….all in all, a bit too damn perfect. But oh no, the author doesn’t fall in to that trap. This is a place in which some women might well suffer from increasing restrictions on their prospects, but it’s made very clear that this equates only to a failure in society and most definitely not in women themselves. The female characters drive this plot- they’re complex, intense, and memorable, whatever side they’re on. As for Gregor, boy does that mystery get explained in a brilliant way by the end.

The integration of worldbuilding and magic is where the author really lets his imagination and creativity fly. It’s one of those great systems where magic and technology seem to have built on each other to create a cohesive, collaborative system that, to me, is self evidently the way it would work in a dual-natured world. Scrivings are a kind of symbolic, coded language inscribed upon items that inform new ways they are to act or interact with other things, used to enhance, alter, or modify natural laws. One really simple example is carriage wheels: scrived to believe they are always rolling downhill, they remain constantly in motion until ‘turned off’. As with the system in general, there are so many ways on which this can, and does, go wrong, especially when the more complex workings come into play. There are some particularly bloody issues with flight. I am entirely convinced that I would not be an inventor of any sort in this world, it has rather high, and spectacularly unpleasant, mortality rate. Of course, all this explanation leads to my one major criticism of the book, that sometimes the info dumping really gets in the way of the story, especially earlier on in the novel. Each and every detail of how things work is thrown in, not always effectively within the flow of the action, but it does get better as the story progresses and reader knowledge accumulates.

If there’s any one question that underscores the whole book, it’s this: what is freedom? As an ex-slave, with scars and memories scored deeply on her body and soul, Sancia thinks she knows the answer. She escaped. She handed out her own brand of justice to those who wronged her. And yet, if every decision you make is determined by your past, then it hasn’t stopped controlling you. How can you make yourself truly free? As with much about this imagined world, the fundamental moral questions each have their basis in our own- the rights of women, the class ridden society, but especially slavery and colonialism. The veracity of Sancia’s slave experience and conflicting feelings about what comes after being ‘owned’ so clearly form part of her fight to understand herself and her unwanted role as ‘saviour’ within the narrative. Still, she finds connections in the people around her, those shut out by the controlling political and economic machinations of the houses, the poor who suffer a different, but still inescapable form of enslavement to the system, the outsiders who don’t want to have every moment of their lives decided by others. In them, she finds something to save. Repeatedly, the characters must choose between what they want to do, can do, or should do when the stakes are raised, faced with situations that endanger not only their lives, but of all those in the city and the wider world. In a place where the behaviour of something can be forcibly altered by the way it is scrived on the outside, the only way to break free is to truly understand its nature from the inside. This is the path of Sancia’s journey within the book, but it contains more than enough sharp commentary about our own contemporary society to draw blood. It's excellently done.

Most of all though, it’s fun and funny. Yes, it has serious undertones, but it’s an action packed story with all the high drama of heists, fights, intrigue, and surprises. It’s cleverly constructed, with a definite originality and a cinematic flair. I have no idea where it’s heading, but i’m happy to go where the ride takes me. And in the meantime, the Divine Cities series awaits….

ARC via Netgalley

Emma Davis - 8.5/10

I want to thank the publisher for sending me a physical copy of Foundryside (Founders #1) in exchange for an honest review. Receiving a copy of this novel does not influence my thoughts or opinions on the material, author, or publisher.

Why has it taken me so long to get around to reading Robert Jackson Bennett’s work? I have had his Divine Cities trilogy sitting on my Kindle for what seems like forever and now, after having read Foundryside, it has propelled to the top of my list.

Sancia Grado is much like the other denizens of Tevanne: poor, hungry, and hanging on by the skin of her teeth while those of the Merchant Houses stay wealthy, filled, and still crave more. Good news is, Sancia is a darn good thief and is able to live a little bit above her peers, even if it means sticking her neck out on occasion.

She is hired by an unknown party to steal a box from a dockside warehouse owned by one of the four (4) merchant houses, but faces obstacles at every corner. When she finally gets her hands on the prize, she can’t wait to see just exactly what she was paid so handsomely for (but you know, curiosity killed the cat and all that). It turns out to be a key, but to what, she has no idea. When she reaches into the box and pulls the key out, a voice begins echoing around inside her mind and tells her that his name is “Clef”.

Oh yeah, did I mention the part where Sancia has this ability to touch inanimate objects and they… well, talk to her? Sounds pretty cool, but it is also debilitating. Even routine tasks like changing clothes or taking a shower will bring her to her knees. Now, these items, they have to be what is called ‘scrived’ in order for Sancia to use her ability.Scriving is simply defined as magical directions being etched onto metal plates that can, well, “convince” normal objects to be something else. As an example, scriving a crossbow bolt to believe it is falling from a great height in order to increase its speed as it moves toward a target. Pretty neat, right?

So, back to the storyline. As Clef begins to tell Sancia just exactly what he can be used for, the picture for Sancia becomes framed, so to speak, and what she thought would be an easy B&E becomes everything she didn’t sign up for. Now, on the run, Sancia decides to keep Clef, to learn more about him, but to also keep him from falling into the wrong hands. Her life is in danger, but the fate of Tevanne and beyond its borders is a little more important to her.

Every innovation—technological, sociological, or otherwise—begins as a crusade, organizes itself into a practical business, and then, over time, degrades into common exploitation.

Wow. Where to begin. First off, the magic system. Scriving is one of the coolest uses of magic I have ever seen. The ability to make everyday objects act like something else, even if for a short period of time, is absolutely fascinating. Bennett expertly crafts Tevanne around this industrialized system and weaves a magnificent story that I can only imagine will continue to get better. The world-building is top-notch; from the lowly apartments to the fancy merchant houses, the amount of detail the author puts into bringing the reader into his world is astounding. But in all honesty, the relationship between Sancia and Clef is what steals the show; but mostly Clef. His witty banter and consistent comic relief make this read so enjoyable, even with the dark machinations happening in the background that lead up to a dramatic conclusion.

Foundryside is the start to what I expect to be a fantastic series through and through. I highly recommend picking up a copy and giving it a read, especially for the magic system.

David Walters - 8.8/10

This Foundryside book review was written by and David Walters

All reviews for: Founders

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