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Tuesday, August 21, 2018

Foundryside by Robert J. Bennett (Reviewed by D. C. Stewart)

Official Author Website
Order the book HERE
Read Fantasy Book Critic's review of Mr. Shivers 
Read Fantasy Book Critic's review of City Of Stairs

AUTHOR INFORMATION: Robert Bennett Jackson currently resides in Austin, Texas. His attempt to write books began with an early fascination with Stephen King books shared by him and his brother. Mr. Shivers was Robert's debut and since then he has gone on to write many more books that mixed several genres & have defied classification in as many years.

OFFICIAL BOOK 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.

FORMAT/INFO: Foundryside is 496 pages long and told in third-person limited point of view mostly by Sancia Grado. Foundryside is the first in the Founders series and is available in print, as well as e-book and audio formats as of August 21, 2018 in the USA.

OVERVIEW/ANALYSIS: Having not read any of Robert Jackson Bennett's work, I went into Foundryside with only the book’s description to guide me. It sounded cool, and the name Sancia Grado is rad. I don’t often walk so blindly into novels, even though I made a resolution recently to do just that. Foundryside is a good first step into such unknown territory for me. It not only encouraged me to seek out authors I am unfamiliar with, but it also introduced me to one whose previous work has lept up to the top ranks of my to-be-read pile.

Foundryside is an area within the city of Tevanne, named because it is adjacent to the foundries that make up the heart of a busy metropolis. Tevanne is a place made up of competing merchant houses - a group that used to include many but has been winnowed down over time to a strong four. Sancia Grado is a thief who exists in between the houses but with a particular set of skills that make her adept at functioning in that dark zone. She takes a job that sees her stealing from a lockbox in the harbor, and she quickly realizes that the item she has stolen is not only incredibly powerful, but the catalyst that will change her entire life.

Sancia’s specific power takes an entire book to explain, but the core of it involves object empathy - Sancia can read a thing’s history and relation to the world by touching it. On the surface, this seems an odd power without much application, but it makes picking a lock simple and it gives her unlimited access to any building. Her role as a thief is a natural one. Sancia’s power is singular to her because most of the great magic in Tevanne comes from a method known as sigiling. Sigiling involves writing arcane runes upon objects and confusing their reality. This means that projectiles can be tricked into thinking that they are moving downwards, thus ignoring the truth that gravity is pulling them one way instead of another, or that a door can be convinced to only open with a specific set of commands. Sigiling is what makes the merchant houses of Tevanne so strong - they have the technology and so have the power.

Sancia as a character is well-rounded, and while hard, she is likable enough to care about and root for. She is a scrapper, a woman with a hard-edge who doesn’t take anyone’s crap but who is secretly rife with vulnerabilities. She is joined by an equally mixed cast - a military veteran, Gregor, who seeks justice at any cost, a pair of genius engineers in Orso and Berenice whose loyalties are never sure, and a character who can’t really be written of without spoiling things but who, for all his verbal modernity, gives the novel its heart.

As an ensemble, the characters in Foundryside are both memorable and avoid the tropes of many fantasy novels. Like many novels about cities, Tevanne is itself a character. My only complaint is that we aren’t allowed to see more of it, and this comes from the over-exploring RPG nerd in me. I want to poke my nose in every alley of Baldur’s Gate or Neverwinter, talk to every character, and I have this expectation to do the same in my fantasy novels when they center around a specific place as this one does.

What perhaps makes Foundryside so unique is the author's attempt to mix cyberpunk with fantasy, while at the same time blending those themes with a logic generally found in scientific methods. To add to this, there is a mysticism to the sigil-writing akin to that found in religious work. This is ambitious system-creation, and while it is confusing (to the very end), it makes for a compelling background to what is mostly a fantasy heist novel in the vein of The Lies of Locke Lamora. The writing is good, the plot flows nicely, and there is enough left at the end to demand a sequel.

But this genre blending does not come without its drawbacks. The temptation to do whatever you want in writing is potentially at its strongest when dealing with multiple fields. Foundryside takes liberties with its rules, and attempts to have its cake and eat it too by using real-world themes and hiding them in fantasy-punk. For example, messing with an object’s sigils is a basically computer hacking on a more magical level. This made me feel, at times, as though I were not so much in a fantasy novel as in The Matrix. This is not an inherently bad trait, and that first Matrix movie is quality storytelling, but I might have preferred less nods to Neo and more originality. Even saying that, this novel does not lack for originality and stands out as a true oddity among the fantasy shelf.

CONCLUSION: By the end, Foundryside finds itself transformed from a story about a thief to something that plunges headlong into epic fantasy, and I will watch Robert J. Bennett’s unfolding of this tale with great interest. That he has only explored one city in a world teeming with possibility is an exciting prospect.


Sethia said...

I loved thw Divine Cities! Can't wait to read this!

Nick Borrelli said...

Excellent Review! I too enjoyed Foundryside. I liked the fact that it was so different in tone from his Divine Cities series but didn't lose anything with regard to quality. The magic system was quite original as well.

Cherrie Cryle said...

I am currently reading a book by Edward Evans that does the same thing as you said by turning a story about a thief into a full on fantasy read, except he uses an Architect. It's The Architect's Key. It's been so good, time travel is always a good read for me. This is clever and I really enjoy it. I am certain I will enjoy Foundryside as well. Evans book is a must, for it's info.


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