Robert Jackson Bennett’s no stranger to the speculative fiction series. He was nominated for a Hugo Award for his City of Stairs books back in 2018. Book two in his latest series follows thief Sancia Grado through the complicated streets of Tevanne, in Shorefall. Shorefall is the sequel to Foundryside (read our review here), one of my favorite books of 2017, so it’s not a stretch to say that I’ve been looking forward to this one all year.
The elaborate, steampunk-renaissance mashup world of Tevanne returns in full swing as it gets ready for the carnival that celebrates the monsoon season. Business has been good for the Foundryside, the firm that Sancia founded with engineers Orso and Berenice and vigilante Gregor. They have been busy writing software essentially for everything. Any object in Tevanne can have a spell cast on it that convinces it to do things it should not. The Tevann…os? call it “convincing reality,” but in my college days we called it programming.
If you’ve read my last review, you know I gushed about the magic system. A little. But it still remains my favorite. The official name is “scriving” and by creating a programming style magic brings together two of the great spec fic subgenres: science fiction and fantasy. For Sancia, Berenice, and Orso creating magic actually requires years of study and/or brutal training. In what passes for comic relief in this book, Orso tells his student Berenice that he’s thinking about cutting her hands off because she’s so skilled and he doesn’t want her to have his job when he’s old. Despite the dubious verbal banter, Orso manages to be a mentor for the whole team, Sancia and Gregor as well as Berenice, as their quest to bring merchant houses to ruin u-turns into a desperate caper to stop the apocalypse.
Shorefall’s plot runs at a breakneck pace over the course of a few days during Tevanne’s biggest holiday, Carnival. Valeria, a kind of scriving device (yeah, I know it says “god” in the book, but I roll my eyes at such melodrama) that helped an expert mage named Crasedes Magnus popped up at the end of the last book and now wants to kill Crasedes. Or rather re-kill him. Gregor’s creepy mom wants to resurrect him because he made a complicated bargain where he basically turned Gregor into a Terminator. Crasedes wants to end the slavery that props up the Tevanno economy. But he wants to accomplish that end by killing everyone. Valeria wants to end all scriving, which would kill just about everybody since it would mean the literal collapse of all technology in the world. Sancia has days to thread the needle between one war machine and another.
And it all goes by too fast. For all the great world building that goes into Tevanne, this plot cannot help but feel rushed, as though more story has taken place outside the book instead of inside. Three years have gone by, apparently in Tevanne as well. Sancia and Berenice were crushing at the end of the last book and right away they’re a couple. Whatever happened to romance? We spend little time with them or anyone doing Tevanno things relevant to the plot with the exception of Carnival, which feels a little too tailored to Crasedes’s plans. Picking out motivations between characters can be complicated, and made more so by loads of obfuscating vaguery in the dialogues between Crasedes, Valeria, and Sancia as they navigate hundred page long chase and fights scenes.
But I would be remiss to say that I don’t love a good book fight scene. Fight scenes are great at taking the reader somewhere new without actually going anywhere. A vacation inside my own home was exactly needed and Shorefall provides plenty of distraction. I’ll be preordering book three, and rereading Foundryside for a refresher. Highly recommend.
Three stars out of five
Quotes: “Power alters the soul far more than any innovation I could imagine, even at the height of my privileges.”
Page count: 496