Robert Jackson Bennett’s new novel, Foundryside, quite bluntly rocks. It takes into account grisly details, but it’s not so gory to be unpalatable. It’s tense and filled with fight scenes, but not melodramatic. The world feels (to use next year’s cliche) lived-in, but not tired. Despite that, the world of Foundryside causes unending speculation featuring a magic system that has become fresh again, if it isn’t already.
Foundryside follows Sancia, a young woman who makes her living stealing technology involving “scriving” – a magic system where users write spells in a special alphabet on objects and convince to obey a different set of laws than the ones that govern the real world. Well before the story begins, Sancia had a device implanted in her brain that allows her to see which items have spells worked into them as well as understand the basic qualities of an item. This makes human contact basically unbearable for Sancia, but it makes her great at sneaking around.
Sancia lives in a city-state known as Tevanne which is basically an oligarchy governed by rich merchants. Outside the grounds of their companies, there is no law, despite the efforts of Gregor Dandolo – a wealthy heir and mercenary who has begun organizing his own police force. Tevanne is awesome, by the way. One of the problems of the fantasy genre which Foundryside hits a home run on is setting. Regular high fantasy books present kingdoms and empires that basically run on an oversimplified divine right system. Not here: Tevanne runs a lot more like an early modern Italian republic like Venice or Florence where Michelangelo, Ghirlandaio, the Medicis, and Savonarola would have hung out in the Renaissance before their innovations traveled back up to the northern parts of Europe. Foundryside is presenting us not with the standard copy of Merrye Olde Englande, but with classical, sophisticated political states.
For a nameless employer, Sancia steals a small wooden box by parachuting from the top of a tower and then setting fire to a dock. She opens the box and removes a key named Clef that talks to her and can unlock anything. Sancia and Clef soon find their fence dead and themselves on the lam not only from their own employer but also Gregor Dandolo whose armor makes him a super-soldier. Clef’s existence eventually leads her to the lair of mad scientist Orso and his lovely assistant Berenice. While Asia, Africa, and the Americas don’t exist in Foundryside, none of the characters necessarily resemble the pseudo-Europeans which dominate Tolkienesque classics. Other underrepresented groups appear, too. Sancia favors a practical, androgynous look. However, she has clearly interest in Berenice who probably has a greater intellect than her mad-scientist/university don boss, Orso. Even though they inhabit an Italian Renaissance style world, Bennett has made a serious effort to depict a world beyond the traditional European muse.
As vibrant as the heroes might be, the villains do not appear nearly as a strongly as the magical world with which they compete. The main villain’s backstory includes an abusive husband and sexist father, but it feels more like an explanation for her behavior than a real character exploration. A greater villain is hinted at in Gregor’s Baroness-style mother, but she will return in the sequel. And yes, the ending necessitates a sequel, which promises to be every bit as grim as this read. Foundryside doesn’t make too much time for levity, and most of the humor it does include straddling the dry, black border with tragedy. Orso provides most of these cynical cracks, although sometimes he’s got a genre-aware zinger to slip under the suspense. Also, it might take a few pages, but Assassin’s Creed fans can be forgiven for feeling a sense of deja vu from the world of Tevanne.
Check this book out and read it. Or buy it. Foundryside is the start an excellent new series from a rising speculative star. It’s suspenseful, magical, and, best of all, fresh. I will be rereading when I get more news about the sequel. Check Bennett’s website for more.
Favorite quote: “Sometimes you need a little revolution to make a lot of good.”
Page Count: 503
Four out of five stars.