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Thursday, February 15, 2024

The Tainted Cup by Robert Jackson Bennett (Reviewed by Shazzie & Mihir Wanchoo)

Book Review: The Tainted Cup by Robert Jackson Bennett

Official Author Website

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

Read Caitlin's review here

OFFICIAL AUTHOR BIO: Robert is the author of American Elsewhere, The Troupe, The Company Man, Mr. Shivers, as well as The Divine Cities trilogy and The Founders Trilogy. 

His work has received the Edgar Award, the Shirley Jackson Award, and the Phillip K. Dick Citation of Excellence, and he has been shortlisted for the World Fantasy, British Fantasy, and Locus Awards.

He lives in Austin with his wife and two sons, one of whom is very large and one of whom is very loud, and he focuses on writing and not maintaining his website.

FORMAT/INFO: The Tainted Cup was be published on February 6th, 2024 by Hodderscape in the U.K. and by Del Rey in the U.S. It is 432 pages and told in the first person from Dinios Kol's POV. It will be available in hardcover, ebook, and audiobook formats.

OVERVIEW/ANALYSIS (SHAZZIE): Every once in a while I read a book from a genre I'm not generally a fan of but find so fun, and THE TAINTED CUP by Robert Jackson Bennett is one of those few.

Quick unrelated dump about my childhood fear here: It's common in my part of the world to discourage children from eating seeds of fruit by telling them that if they do, a tree would grow start growing inside of them and eventually makes it way out. Why am I telling you this? Because this book starts that way, there's a graphic death cause by a plant exploding from the inside of and through a commander. The protagonist is Kol, the assistant of Ana Dolabara, a strange woman who lives with a blindfold and never leaves her place.

This is a fun, fantastic and comforting murder mystery that is fast paced. It starts with a simple looking death that soon unfolds into far reaching consequences. In some places I felt like the author relied a bit too heavily on the Holmes and Watson dynamic and character types throughout the story, and the sider characters involved lacked personality beyond a dimension, and there were minor moments where the treatment of the story swerves from having suspense as Kol works on the mystery, and in building tension by dropping hindsight in his narration. Anyway, those are very minor complaints and I enjoyed reading this.

So, the major plus here is the weird and gruesome world this takes place in, and I assure you that no matter how you feel about reading murder mysteries, this is worth a read for that aspect alone. There are mountainous leviathans that head inland on a rampage at the start of the wet season, and the empire has to resort to all kinds of machinations and sets of huge walls to keep the citizens safe. There is plenty of exposure to this concept through the plot, but is also seen through the protagonist's backstory as well. The death that kick starts the book happens at the start of the wet season, and adds an impending sense of danger to the implications of their finds in the case.

But, that's not what I thought was the best part. The creepiest and most intriguing part of the world is the plants and the body and mind alterations they help bring about. Plants are shown to have industrial uses, but the humans in the empire can also alter themselves with specific ones. Kol, for example, is an engraver who has his mind altered with a specific plant that gives him the equivalent of a kind of eidetic memory, and there are others who use certain others to grow extra muscle, so that they can defend the territory and shores from the monsters if needed. This is but a small sample of the macabre world created by the author.

OVERVIEW/ANALYSIS (MIHIR): The Tainted Cup was one of my most anticipated books when it was announced last year. It spoke of Sherlockian mysteries with a secondary fantasy world and it was written by cypher like Robert J. Bennett. It was a no-brainer as the kids like to say.
The story begins with Dinios Kol who is assigned to be head investigator Ana Dolabra’s assistant around the Daretana canton beyond the third wall. The Empire of Khanum is a thriving place but becomes more and more fatal as one get closer to the seas on the eastern front (Sarisav, Sabirli, Yarrow & Eastern). There are four giant walls that have been built and therein lies the safety of the population.
For in this world, there are leviathans who come marauding into the land during the wet Season and it can be devastation all around. Somewhere in the past, these walls were built and it lead to prosperity (or atleast the death toll became manageable). Since then technology has prospered with implants and gene modifications, which has, lead us to the present day empire.
The story begins with a strange plant related death of commander Taqtasa Blas in a mansion that’s owned by a rich family. Dinios is forced to be the eyes and ears of the investigation as his superior Ana Dolabra refuses to leave her home and keeps herself blindfolded while reading everything and anything to keep her mind busy. Thus beings the strange case that makes the Tainted Cup such a fascinating read.
Robert J Bennett has created a very fascinating world and it absolutely draws the reader in. The story is very much plot driven and herein lies the rub. The story is very much seen through the eyes of Dinios Kol and not through Ana Dolabra. In this it very much mirrors the scenario from Richard Swan’s debut trilogy (a La Justice Konrad Vonvalt and Helena Sedanka). This is the part wherein the story falters a bit as the Din’s character while mysterious isn’t as gripping. This very much is due to the fact that this is the first volume of Shadow Of The Leviathan series and I’m sure with further volumes, more of Dinios and Ana’s pasts and behaviours will become easier to understand.
The plot however is the story’s Atlas, it holds the readers’ interest from the start all the way to the action-packed climax. For fantasy readers, this book will offer something new and for returning fans of Robert J. Bennett, once again they will get a new fantasy sub-genre. The worldbuilding is top-notch and it is one of the author’s strongest facets. The world with all of its plant based features as well as the Leviathans are what make the world feel so unique and I hope in the future volumes, we get to see other parts of the world and that can lead to understanding why the Leviathans do what they do.
The Tainted Cup is a fascinating start to a wonderful series that will have Robert J Bennett gain a lot more fans. However some of his returning fans who might have gotten used to expecting great things might find this good story fall a little bit short. 

CONCLUSION (SHAZZIE)If you want a fast paced, popcorn-ish mystery read, you'll want this. If you love epic fantasy, you'll want it for the world it is set in. And if you like both, you'll have a blast. I did report a few minor issues, but I really enjoyed this, and need the next book please. This mystery is solved, with a few things I never saw coming, but stuff that you can relate to real life nevertheless, which is part of what made it so good. Luckily, there's plenty more adventures to be had in this world, with this being just the first installment.



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