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Monday, February 26, 2024

Interview: Robert Jackson Bennett, author of The Tainted Cup

Interview: Robert Jackson Bennett, author of The Tainted Cup

robert jackson bennett author photo

Read Caitlin's review of The Tainted Cup here
Read Mihir and Shazzie's review of The Tainted Cup here

Buy The Tainted Cup here - U.K. | U.S.

OFFICIAL BOOK BLURB: In Daretana’s most opulent mansion, a high Imperial officer lies dead—killed, to all appearances, when a tree spontaneously erupted from his body. Even in this canton at the borders of the Empire, where contagions abound and the blood of the Leviathans works strange magical changes, it’s a death at once terrifying and impossible.
Called in to investigate this mystery is Ana Dolabra, an investigator whose reputation for brilliance is matched only by her eccentricities.

At her side is her new assistant, Dinios Kol. Din is an engraver, magically altered to possess a perfect memory. His job is to observe and report, and act as his superior’s eyes and ears--quite literally, in this case, as among Ana’s quirks are her insistence on wearing a blindfold at all times, and her refusal to step outside the walls of her home.

Din is most perplexed by Ana’s ravenous appetite for information and her mind’s frenzied leaps—not to mention her cheerful disregard for propriety and the apparent joy she takes in scandalizing her young counterpart. Yet as the case unfolds and Ana makes one startling deduction after the next, he finds it hard to deny that she is, indeed, the Empire’s greatest detective.

As the two close in on a mastermind and uncover a scheme that threatens the safety of the Empire itself, Din realizes he’s barely begun to assemble the puzzle that is Ana Dolabra—and wonders how long he’ll be able to keep his own secrets safe from her piercing intellect.

Featuring an unforgettable Holmes-and-Watson style pairing, a gloriously labyrinthine plot, and a haunting and wholly original fantasy world, The Tainted Cup brilliantly reinvents the classic mystery tale.


Welcome to Fantasy Book Critic! Thank you so much for taking the time to chat with us, could you please tell us a little bit about yourself?

I’m Robert Jackson Bennett, author of The Divine Cities trilogy, The Founders Trilogy, and the new Shadow of the Leviathan series.

the tainted cup by robert jackson bennett

Could you describe your latest book, THE TAINTED CUP, in three adjectives, and then in three sentences? What readers would you pitch the book to?

I would say: byzantine, uncanny, and ribald. That pretty much sums it up.

In three sentences: it’s Knives Out meets Game of Thrones meets Attack on Titan. A giant, sprawling, complex medieval empire has mastered the ability of shaping life – the qualities of plants and flesh and our very bodies – and must gather all of its arts and genius to defend its people against the massive leviathans, which emerge from the sea each year to lumber ashore. Managing this is incredibly difficult, and one task the Empire rates very highly is keeping the peace, especially solving the occasional murder – so, enter our hero, Dinios Kol, who’s just been assigned his first death scene.

I really enjoy reading fantasy murder mysteries because not only are they set in potentially interesting worlds, but also provide for very interesting ways to perform/solve murders, and of course, far reaching consequences. What is it about them that intrigues you, and how did the idea for this book form?

I like murder mysteries because they require so much rigor from the . It’s like trying to build a mousetrap, you can’t really leave too much excess or fat or complication on there. Every scene must snap, and it all has to move in the same direction.

I also appreciate murder mysteries because of their historical significance. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the drawing room murder mystery became codified during the 30s, 40s, and 50s, and particularly seem to have been codified in England, perhaps the most besieged nation during this era. My suspicion is that murder mysteries sort of encapsulate the idea of a functional civil, legal, and bureaucratic state: something has gone horribly wrong, the appropriate authorities have been dispatched, and everyone is trying to put things aright.

None of these people seem especially “special”: their genius and insight is not elevated by their birthright, or their class, or some other received quality. Rather, they are everyday people who are just a little more perceptive than others. This flies in the face of the fascism and autocracy that was in full bloom during this era, which all insisted there was a Right Kind of Person, and if someone got murdered, well, maybe they were the Wrong Kind of Person, and thus nobody needed to care.

When I was growing up, I believed in this lie that’s commonly told to children in my part of the world: If you eat a seed, the tree will start growing in your stomach and eventually make its way out of your mouth. Of course, I lived in constant fear of that happening for a while, and imagine my reaction when that’s how the murder at the beginning of the book happens! I also live in constant worry of slowly being poisoned by mould, after a small leak went unnoticed for a while in my house. Now, enough about me. How did you come up with the aspects of the world that relate to these strange fears of mine?

Actually, my inspiration from that came from a real case! There was a story I read about a lumberjack in the Pacific Northwest who had a terrible pain in his chest, and when they went for x-rays they found a sprawling root system developing in one of his lungs. It turned out he had inhaled a pine tree seed somehow, and it had actually sprouted inside of him and was actively growing. The surgery it took to remove it was quite extensive.

Rather horrible, really – I suppose that won’t do much for your fears.

I’m quite enthralled by the world you have set this book in, where people can have grafts that augment their bodies with strange, fascinating, and even somewhat grotesque abilities, and mountainous leviathans try to go inland on a rampage during a certain season, and much more. Can you elaborate upon the setting for our readers?

This is a world where for millennia, during the monsoon or “wet” season, giant leviathans would lumber ashore and wreak havoc. These giant creatures were terrifyingly mutagenic, leaving behind transmuted or significantly altered organic life in their wake: trees that bloomed wrong, plants that grew fruit that previously didn’t use to, and people warped and transformed.

One race of people was eventually transformed just so that they learned how to master these organic transmutations, and they made themselves unnaturally strong and brilliant, capable of conquering the surrounding kings and eventually felling the leviathans and driving them back. Though this race of people went sterile and extinct centuries ago, their Empire remains, and its citizens continued to tinker with altering organic life, creating entire buildings from vines, for example, or augmenting the human mind so that it excels at certain difficult tasks.

Think of the mentats from Dune, and you’re not far off.

There’s a certain situation in the book with a character trying to find a way around the restrictions in an institution, and here, you give us your opinion on regulations. Can you tell us more about what prompted this theme in the book?

I live in America, which has ruinously expensive construction costs. There are a lot of reasons for this, but the most glaring one is that we wrote a lot of environmental protection laws in the 1970s, and though they did us a lot of good then, they’re now being used by landowners, incumbents, and vested interests to ensure that nothing around them changes at all.

So, for example, in California, if you want to build a bus stop, all the homeowners around the site will file all kinds of environmental lawsuits claiming that you didn’t do this or that environmental impact study right – not because they’re concerned about the environment, but because they don’t want the bus stop built, as they’re worried it’ll affect the value of their homes.

Or, in lots of America, gas or coal or oil interests will prop up lots of environmental groups and have them go around doing the same thing to wind or solar farms, claiming that building them would harm their environment. The real goal of this, of course, is to make any effort at construction so expensive and so difficult that it doesn’t get done at all. They prefer the status quo, and want things to stay exactly as they are.

This is a thorny issue that occurs to lots of developed nations: the rules we first used to protect ourselves eventually become weapons in the hands of the powerful to attack and damage us.

Since I write a lot about change, and since this particular fantasy empire was built on the concept of metamorphosis, this seemed like an interesting kind of corruption to examine: what happens if you desperately need to change, but some people won’t let you?

Since this book draws on a Holmes and Watson style pairing, tell us more about the main character, the two that have this dynamic, and your own feelings of the classic Arthur Conan Doyle books?

The pairing was actually inspired less by Sherlock Holmes and more by the Nero Wolfe books, by Rex Stout: Nero Wolfe is a difficult, fussy, socially hostile genius who doesn’t want to go out and solve crimes, and would rather eat five course meals and tend to his orchids in his sumptuous brownstone apartment. The actual investigation is left to Archie Goodwin, a sort of slick, noir-esque fast talker who makes his rounds in the city of New York and reports back to Wolfe, who then reluctantly and irritably puts the case together.

I knew for Ana that I would want to make her different: rather than having her be a somewhat reluctant detective – Wolfe usually only solves cases for the money – she is somewhat more Holmes-like, solving cases out of a hunger for the challenge of it all. Really, “hungry” is probably what defines her most: she is a ravenous devourer of bizarre foods, psychedelic compounds, and data and information of all kinds. So intense is her hunger, and so preternatural is her ability to divine patterns in what she consumes, that she almost never leaves her home for fear that the outside world will overwhelm her; and if she does leave, she will only venture out blindfolded.

Her investigator – and our protagonist – is Dinios “Din” Kol, who is much cooler, stiffer, reserved, and much more cautious than Ana is. For him, I drew somewhat from P.D. James’s Dalgliesh: he probably comes off as sniffy and a bit arrogant. Part of this is likely because Din has been augmented to possess a perfect memory, which means he not only remembers all he saw, but he remembers how things should be: how he should look, dress, act, and keep to all the rules and regulations of the Empire.

In other words, they clash most marvellously.

Before we wrap this up, let's talk about you as a reader. What books are you drawn to, and what genres do you read the most?

I read a lot of history these days, focusing on eras of change, and the obscure – and often obfuscated – backroom deals that made them happen. A lot of who we are is created by circumstances in ways we can’t even imagine.

What do you enjoy reading the most, and what books would you recommend to
readers who are looking forward to this one (or, to those who loved it?)

I’m on a real James Lee Burke kick right now, and highly recommend Flags on the Bayou.

In closing, do you have any parting thoughts for our readers?

None besides I hope they enjoy the novel!



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