Foundryside by Robert Jackson Bennett // Fictitious Book Review
Foundryside gives us a version of magic that should make any developer or engineer giddy: a complex, flawed, troublingly malleable mystical language of if-then statements powering a unique fantasy world. Oh, it’s also a ripping heist story full of lively, memorable characters, increasingly insane stakes, and movie-ready dialogue.
It only took me one chapter to realize I would be all-in on Robert Jackson Bennett’s new fantasy novel, Foundryside. Its heroine-of-sorts, Sancia, came alive on the page for me immediately. Cynical, lonely, and scrappy as all get out, Sancia is a former slave gone rogue, pilfering from the domineering upper class of merchant-ruled Tevanne, at the behest of even more shadowy operatives. Dirty and diminutive, Sancia’s lone advantage – besides anonymity – is an involuntary modification made to her person: a scrived plate in her head, which uncomfortably alters her reality.
Foundryside’s world is built on a magical technology called “scriving”, a programming code-like language which convinces mundane objects to act outside of their natural order. Wagon wheels spin of their own volition. Buildings stand strong against elements well past the point of collapse. Swords cut through the air (and people) faster and harder because their perception of gravity has been carefully manipulated. And Sancia can hear their code as voices in her head, as if every scrived object had been imbued with a magical, profoundly limited yet stubbornly focused artificial intelligence.
Touching her bare skin to any object quickly gives Sancia a great deal of information about a structure or device, and how to navigate her surroundings. This object empathy is exceedingly handy for a thief. It’s also extremely painful, forcing her to use this ability sparingly. Worse, it means that physical contact with other humans is intolerable, boxing her into a bitter solitude built around sheer survival.
After a carefully-planned heist takes a disastrous turn, Sancia comes into contact with a scrived item of a particular, unique nature – not only can she hear it, but it can hear her. And it has a lot to say about the matter.
This quippy, unusual dynamic between thief and object sets up the rest of the conflict of Foundryside. The plot spins like a whirlpool, pulling everybody in Sancia’s wake towards a cataclysmic showdown which irrevocably alters their lives and world.
Bennett’s story is heavy on world-building, laying out a foundation of scriving magic rules and uses — then steadily expanding on them, exploiting them, and tying them into devilishly clever knots. I’ve long contemplated magic as a way to alter the code of reality. Bennett’s take on that concept is fascinating and also quite practical. I’ve read some other advance reviewers who found this world-building cumbersome and over-detailed. I loved every bit of it. Your mileage my vary.
Sancia’s adventure pulls in a number of strange cohorts. To list them would be something of a spoiler, but clashing personalities and moralities of these characters created a ton of fun conflict. That friction — of people who don’t quite like or trust one another but must work together under highly pressurized circumstances — makes the character interactions of Foundryside memorable and entertaining. A couple of the villains and otherwise-antagonistic Tevanne denizens are deliciously vulgar, with sharp turn of phrase and shameless disregard for social mores.
I kept thinking how fun it would be to voice or play a number of these characters in an audiobook or film. They are delightfully realized with distinct character voices and personalities. In particular, the Merchant house Hypatus (essentially a master scriver) Orso Ignacio steals almost every scene he’s in, with caustic whit and wily opportunism.
If there’s a failing in Foundryside, it’s Bennett’s over-reliance on the unique-to-Tevanne colloquialism “scrum / scrumming”. As a one-for-one replacement for the F-bomb, it’s pretty scrumming effective. At times, though, it feels like it’s been crammed into every scrumming page. This seems to be a problem for a lot of fantasy/sci-fi writers, introducing world-specific vocabulary and then beating the reader over the head with it. It gives the world some flavor, but it’s also exhaustingly visible in high doses. Likewise, Foundryside contains so many appearances for the word “shit” that it deserves a supporting character nod. Orso Ignacio peppers it throughout his dialogue, with gusto. It mostly works but, again, there’s a point of over-saturation which mars the reader experience to a small degree.
Minor quibble notwithstanding, Foundryside is definitely one of my favorite reads of the last year. I love that the plot takes place entirely within the boundaries of a singular city, which feels ever more expansive and rich in detail. (Late in the book, I had a moment where I felt like I was playing the Assassin’s Creed games – climbing to a Viewpoint to reveal another massive swath of the city, where more danger eagerly awaits.) As the reader’s knowledge of Tevanne grows, and the scale of the threat increases, the options for our heroes dwindle and become more desperate. Foundryside gives just the right number of momentum breaks to let you breathe and appreciate the character interactions, before plunging once more into ill-advised misadventure.
I couldn’t put it down.
I genuinely loved this book and its characters. Orso may be my favorite but, by the end, there’s an endearing “Scooby Gang” quality to the cast that makes me want to re-read, just to spend time with them again.
Am I the intended audience for this book?
Foundryside seems tailor-made for thoughtful fantasy readers who want the entertainment value of a popular caper movie combined with painstaking, oh-the-possibilities world building. Hey, that’s me!
Would I have picked this book up off a store shelf?
Full disclosure: I received an ARC of Foundryside to read before having Robert Jackson Bennett as a guest on my “Here There Be Dragons: Creating Fresh Stories in Fantasy” panel at San Diego Comic-Con 2018. He was suggested to me by a bookseller; I was not familiar with his work beforehand. But, as I stated earlier, I knew this thing was my jam within a few pages. The cover art for the book is beautiful and would certainly grab my eye in a bookstore. (My ARC copy is a very early edition, though, with a generic white cover.) Also, the book’s tagline?: “The World’s a Machine. She’s the Wrench.” You’re scrumming right that would get my attention.
Will I keep it on my bookshelf?
I will definitely revisit this one, so yes.
Would I read more from this author or series?
Immediately after I finished Foundryside, I bought Bennett’s previous series, The Divine Cities Trilogy. And I will impatiently wait for the next book in this Founders series.