The city of Tevanne runs on scrivings, industrialised magical inscriptions that make inanimate objects sentient; they power everything, from walls to wheels to weapons. Scrivings have brought enormous progress and enormous wealth — but only to the four merchant Houses who control them. Everyone else is a servant or slave, or they eke a precarious living in the hellhole called the Commons.
There’s not much in the way of work for an escaped slave like Sancia Grado, but she has an unnatural talent that makes her one of the best thieves in the city. When she’s offered a lucrative job to steal an ancient artefact from a heavily guarded warehouse, Sancia agrees, dreaming of leaving the Commons — but instead, she finds herself the target of a murderous conspiracy. Someone powerful in Tevanne wants the artefact, and Sancia dead — and whoever it is already wields power beyond imagining.
Sancia will need every ally, and every ounce of wits at her disposal, if she is to survive — because if her enemy gets the artefact and unlocks its secrets, thousands will die, and, even worse, it will allow ancient evils back into the world and turn their city into a devastated battleground.
While Foundryside is Robert Jackson Bennett’s eighth novel, I haven’t read much early Bennett. I started with his previous series, The Divine Cities Trilogy, the first two of which I loved. The last one is waiting for me to read it, as I’m loathe to finish the last book in that world. Yet when Foundryside rolled around I couldn’t stop myself from jumping for it, since I know the author can write like no one’s business. And I wasn’t disappointed because the tale told in this first book of the Founders trilogy was utterly captivating.
The world-building was once again brilliant. Magic is worked through scriving, a form of magic that manipulates reality through a language that is both intricate and logic-based. The magic is almost scientific in its application and the Houses of Tevanne have used it to create an industrialised society. I loved the way that they created solutions to scale up their power through the lexicons and the foundries. And the fact that there are not one but two magical languages. The scenes in which we see Clef take out previous scrivings through circumventing their programmed logic was both hilarious and fascinating, as his wording had to be super precise.
But it is not just the magic that is complex, Tevanne’s social structure is complex and layered as well. The city contains four mini-cities within its walls with the Commons running between them glueing them to one giant whole. The difference between the House Campo’s and the Commons are like night and day. Within the Campo life is good, clean and orderly. Outside it in the Commons its residents lead a hard scrabble life, struggling to eke out an existence in the face of poverty and violence. The barrier between the haves and the have-nots might be as thin as a wall, but for all intents and purposes might be a mountain range. The ease with which the Campos can ignore not just what happens right outside their gates, but even more so what happens out on their plantation estates as long as they receive the goods they need, is chilling. How easy is it to ignore the less fortunate around us as long as our own day to day is peaceful and prosperous. And how dangerous is it to live in a world where power is held by a small group of enormously rich, privileged few.
This fascinating world is inhabited by wonderful characters. I loved the main characters in Foundryside, though the stars of the show and the ones that truly stole my heart were Sancia and Clef. Even though Clef is an inanimate object that can only communicate with Sancia because of a twist of fate, he is such a vibrant and powerful presence. And I loved the bond he and Sancia shared and the humour in their interactions. Sancia is just a wonderfully drawn young woman, whose troubled past and perhaps even more troubled present make life hard for her. Despite that, she has a kinder heart than she might care to admit and more honour as well. This first book of the trilogy is a journey of self discovery for her, one in which she not just finds a new family, but faces just who and what she is. Another on such a journey is Gregor Dandolo. When his and Sancia’s paths cross it seems as if it should end in blood and tears, but instead it turns into a surprising partnership. Gregor isn’t what he seems to be, he is more than the pampered soldier son of a House—he has a keen sense of justice and carries a secret he doesn’t even know he has. These three central characters are surrounded by a fantastic group of supporting characters, such as Orso and Berenice, the Dandolo head scriver and his assistant, and the Scrappers, a group of illegal scrivers who live and operate in The Commons.
Beyond the wonderful world-building, characters, and social commentary, there is also the undeniable fact that Foundryside is just damn fun. The dialogue and humour is amazing and the writing is incredibly smooth and fast-paced. At its core Foundryside is a heist novel. Essentially we follow Sancia in a series of heists that build up to the heist of all heists, breaking into the impregnable Mountain, the head quarters of one of the four Houses, and an ingenious bit of trickery by the gang that Sancia becomes part of almost by accident. Bennett weaves an incredibly gripping plot that makes it hard to put the book down and while it clocks in at roughly five hundred pages, it doesn’t feel like a long story. I loved Foundryside and I look forward to returning to Tevanne and Sancia and friends and seeing how their new ventures will fare.
This book was provided by the publisher.