Author: Robert Jackson Bennett
Blurb: Sancia Grado is a thief, and a damn good one. And her latest target, a heavily guarded warehouse on Tevanne’s docks, is nothing her unique abilities can’t handle.
But unbeknownst to her, Sancia’s been sent to steal an artifact of unimaginable power, an object that could revolutionize the magical technology known as scriving. The Merchant Houses who control this magic—the art of using coded commands to imbue everyday objects with sentience—have already used it to transform Tevanne into a vast, remorseless capitalist machine. But if they can unlock the artifact’s secrets, they will rewrite the world itself to suit their aims.
Now someone in those Houses wants Sancia dead, and the artifact for themselves. And in the city of Tevanne, there’s nobody with the power to stop them.
To have a chance at surviving—and at stopping the deadly transformation that’s under way—Sancia will have to marshal unlikely allies, learn to harness the artifact’s power for herself, and undergo her own transformation, one that will turn her into something she could never have imagined.
I’ve ready exactly one Robert Jackson Bennett book before—City of Stairs—and never got around to reading its sequels due to a combination of time mismanagement and too many books on my TBR list. But everyone was raving about this first book in his new trilogy last fall, so I impulsively decided to grab it and give it a read. And I sure am glad I did.
Foundryside is one of the most original fantasy novels I’ve read in years. The magic system is very fresh, and the way it’s applied throughout the book is fun, interesting, and exciting. To the point where “listening” to the characters describe how the system works in great detail didn’t feel remotely boring or bland.
The culture of the fictional city-state of Tevanne riffs of an intriguing blend of real-world cultures. This adds a subtle layer of real-world sociopolitical context to the world-building, on top of the major themes of classism, elitism, and sexism that exist within the fictional society. Though these topics are explored in numerous ways throughout the book, they never come off in a heavy-handed way, and the struggles of the characters are relatable and believable.
Speaking of the characters, the main cast of the book is excellent. Sancia is a strong-willed protagonist with realistic vulnerabilities. Her skills are unique and well defined, and they perfectly play into the narrative from beginning to end. War veteran Gregor, on a quest to bring a sense of justice to the corrupt society of Tevanne, plays a good foil to Sancia, and by the end of the story, an interesting twist to his character puts him in a position to develop into something truly exceptional in the sequels.
The other “good guys,” like Orso and Berenice, are also well drawn despite their somewhat smaller roles in the story, and I hope to see a great deal more of them in the sequels. Conversely, the antagonists aren’t quite as well fleshed out as the protagonists in this book—though they are perfectly serviceable, and their personalities are distinct and believable—but it’s clear from the setup at the conclusion of this book that the antagonists to come will be a very different story.
Plot wise, the book is very nearly perfect. There’s a great mix of intense action, suspenseful lead-ups to major plot twists, quiet character moments chock-full of important development, and the list goes on. I don’t think there’s a single significant flaw in the overall narrative.
In addition to the plot, the characters, and the world-building, I also enjoyed some smaller aspects of the story, like Sancia being a nonwhite female protagonist and the inclusion of more than one prominent LGBT character—two things that are still somewhat uncommon in mainstream fantasy. Those aspects are integrated into the plot in a way that doesn’t overtly call attention to them, but rather makes them feel perfectly natural to the story structure, as though that is simply the way things are. Which, quite frankly, is how such things should be written.
All in all, I thought Foundryside was a very strong showing from Robert Jackson Bennett, with excellent characters, well-executed world-building, a compelling plot, and a grand promise for the subsequent books in the trilogy.
I am very much looking forward to reading the sequel, Shorefall, which just so happens to come out on my birthday. (Happy birthday to me!)