Foundryside, by Robert Jackson Bennett

Foundryside, by Robert Jackson Bennett book coverGenre: Fantasy
Publisher: Crown
Published: 2018
Reviewer Rating: four stars
Reviewer: SJ Higbee

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I spotted this one on several book blogging sites I respect, but when Lynn at Lynn’s Book Blog featured it as one of her upcoming reads, I scampered across to Netgalley and managed to get approved for it. And we agreed to buddy read it….

Sancia Grado is a thief, and a damn good one. And her latest target, a heavily guarded warehouse on Tevanne’s docks, is nothing her unique abilities can’t handle. But unbeknown to her, Sancia’s been sent to steal an artifact of unimaginable power, an object that could revolutionize the magical technology known as scriving.

The Merchant Houses who control this magic–the art of using coded commands to imbue everyday objects with sentience–have already used it to transform Tevanne into a vast, remorseless capitalist machine. But if they can unlock the artifact’s secrets, they will rewrite the world itself to suit their aims. Now someone in those Houses wants Sancia dead, and the artifact for themselves. And in the city of Tevanne, there’s nobody with the power to stop them….

Part of the rather chatty blurb above makes it clear the magic system is complex with a long, involved history. Back at the height of a lost civilization, the ancients were able to wield magic to do unimaginable things and it is the discovery of some of their magical objects that has allowed the brightest minds to work out how to rekindle magical power, albeit in a bastardized form.

It is the discovery of this magic powering the rise of the four merchanting families, who have a stranglehold on Tevanne. Furthermore, those who are not born into the service of these houses, or are thrown away after they have outlived their usefulness, scrabble for survival in the Commons. And there’s Sancia, whose back story is different again.

I loved the premise and the world. It seems entirely plausible that a capitalist system would reward those with the magical skills and artifacts, while neglecting those who aren’t so fortunate. Sancia is a brilliant protagonist–one of the best I have read this year. Gritted, determined and focused on surviving, with a special ability that she would love to lose, she is a thief. Bennett writes her ability brilliantly and I found myself engrossed in her plight.

So I was more than a tad fed up when the action scenes were halted by chunks of explanation of how the magic works in omniscient point of view. The most egregious example occurs about halfway through the book during a fight, where the courageous hero is left hanging in mid-realization that his attackers are flying, while we break off for a detailed explanation as to why flying is technically a really tricky business and therefore illegal.

It was the only sheer quality of the writing and characters saved the book from flying across the room at this point. I would prefer an appendix where the magic system is explained in detail for those who like drilling into such details of the world building, rather than crashing across the story so intrusively.

Rant aside, this book is a joy. Fortunately the info-dumps decrease significantly in the second half of the book, allowing the pace to pick up. The world is well described and the characters gripped me. I like the fact that despite the patriarchy running Tevanne, there are plenty of strong, not necessarily likable female characters who punch through the institutional obstacles in their path.

But the character who shines through all of this is Sancia–I dreamed of her. Damaged, scarred and struggling with mental issues, she is still battling to move forward and strive for something better. The climax works brilliantly and I liked the ending, which nicely sets this one up for the sequel, which I look forward to reading.

Highly recommended for those who enjoy detailed, urban fantasy tales peopled with awesome characters. If that appendix was in place this book would have scored a 10. While I obtained an arc of Foundryside from the publisher via Netgalley, the opinions I have expressed are unbiased and my own.

SJ Higbee.

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