Yeah, Robert Jackson Bennett is back! I originally had a delayed love his previous trilogy, The Divine Cities; but a re-read of the first book ended up setting me straight, and by the end, I was loving it. So the news that his latest book, Foundryside, is also the first of a trilogy piqued my interest. would there be a delayed response this time around? Or will it be a winner from the get-go?
Part of the charm of The Divine Cities was the melding of divine magics with grounded political drama. Sticking with a good thing, Foundryside also sports a blend of magical and political aspects: this time around, the political landscape resembles the industrial revolution, while a type of reality-warping magical programming provides the fantastical side. Robert Jackson Bennett really excels at this kind of worldbuilding, and it works as well this time as it did previously. What also makes a return in Foundryside is high stakes action. If you enjoyed opening scenes of City of Miracles, you’re in for a treat, as the plot of Foundryside revolves around a number of escalating crime capers with similar, high octane results.
The first of these starts with Sancia Grado – a remarkable thief with a past she’d rather forget. Her reputation leads to her being hired to steal a very valuable artifact, which ends up being a golden key. Scriving is the term used to describe the magical programming signals embedded in objects that allow them to warp reality in local, controlled ways. The key – who’s consciousness goes by the name of Clef – has scrivings that convince the locks of doors or boxes that whatever conditions are required to make them unlock have been met, making him one of the most powerful and intricately scrived objects anyone has ever come across.
It’s not only Clef’s properties as a skeleton key that makes him valuable – there are other reasons why Clef is such a politically dangerous artifact for Sanca to be in possession of. The city of Trevanne is roughly split into quarters by four merchant houses. In the current day, even the basic infrastructure of Trevanne requires scrived objects to function, and the financial foundations of each of the houses are strongly based on their proprietary scrivings. If any of the houses were able to replicate that level of technology found within Clef, they would no doubt be able to increase their power and standing overnight. But there’s also another, less obvious level of danger – if Clef were to fall into the hands of the kind of people researching deeper mysteries of the world, they could use him to unlock the nature of reality itself.
Poor Sancia had no idea of what she was getting into. She has no time to celebrate her act of larceny because people start tailing her as soon as her feet hit the ground. Then the man who hired her winds up dead. Her luck takes a further dip when she finds out the commander of the police guard at the harbour she blew up mid-heist turns out to be the son of one of the heads of the four noble houses, and he’s as tenacious as they come. And this is only the first caper Sancia gets involved in.
The flying assassins don’t appear until later.
But it’s not just all crime and high excitement. As the book progresses, we start to get filled in on the ugly history of Trevanne and the origins of scriving. It’s these parts of the novel that makes me believe that Foundryside is also going to look even better once we read the next few instalments. This particular aspect of worldbuilding is a little rough around the edges as things currently stand, but this thread looks like it’s good and ready to be picked up in the next book. I strongly suspect there’s a payoff in the making around here.
But my main love in Foundryside is the force that is Sancia Grado. While the underworld of Trevanne may not seem glamorous, Sancia has overcome great hardship, including slavery and extreme poverty to make a reputation for herself. And when she’s suddenly thrown into a wheels within wheels kind of plot that is not of her own making, she handles herself with a realistic level of both bravery and caution. She turns out not to be the only point of view character in Foundryside, but she is the one that underpins everything.
So he’s done it again folks – Foundryside makes for a gripping start to a new trilogy that had me up at 2 am wondering what happens next. The wait for the next instalment is going to kill me.