Foundryside by Robert Jackson Bennett

I received an ARC from the publisher, Crown Publishing, in exchange for an honest review.

To say that I was highly anticipating Foundryside would still be a understatement. Robert Jackson Bennett’s Divine Cities series was one of my favourite reads and I was both excited and a bit worried about this new trilogy: will he manage to create something as special as his most recent work?

Short answer: yes.

Longer answer:

Foundryside is set in a post-industrial world where four merchant houses have amassed wealth and power and isolated themselves in their enclaves, creating prosperous cities inside the decaying city. They managed to do that thanks to their control over a magical process called scriving, where sigils written on an object can alter its nature and the way it reacts to the laws of physics. Our main protagonist, Sancia, is a thief living in the no-man’s land outside the enclaves, and she is commissioned to steal a mysterious artefact — something that can be dangerously game-changing for the houses and for the entire world.

Let me start with the highlight of the book (and what I’ve already gushed about at length): the magic system. It is high-concept; at the same time fairly simple to comprehend, but with complex consequences impacting the worldbuilding. Basically, the sigils inscribed can trick the objects into believing all sorts of things: that it’s actually a part of a whole and needs to join another object to “feel” complete (therefore creating movement), that gravity is actually higher (therefore creating speed), that it needs a special key and no other to open (therefore creating super-secure locks), etc. A form of technology is created around scriving. You can really feel Bennett asking himself: “Why should science-fiction have all the fun with cool inventions?” and giving a nerdy, ingenious magic system as an answer.

The setting is another strong point in Foundryside. In Venice-inspired Tevanne, the merchants are hiding behind secure walls and leaving the rest of the population to lawlessness and poverty. The four houses hoard knowledge on scriving in a form of modern-days mercantilism, and the wars they wage between themselves are indirect: sabotage, industrial theft, intellectual property violations…They violently subjugated lands outside the city to their rule and established slavery as a way to obtain raw materials. All in all, a profoundly unequal, unjust and violent system that is enforced thanks to a monopoly on knowledge.

The blurb describes Sancia as a wrench in this system, which is pretty spot-on. She is its ultimate victim: a former slave who lives in the neglected rookeries, and who was the subject of scriving experimentations. Those have left her with a unique capability: she can perceive any object’s state with a touch; what it’s made of, where it has been, what its structural weaknesses are…It gives her an edge as a thief, but it also forces her into a lonely existence since intimacy is out of the question when a flow of information assaults her with the slightest skin contact. Used and abused by the Houses, it is only fair that Sancia is poised to derail the plans that would give them god-like powers. The cast also includes Gregor, a scion of a merchant house, war veteran and more devoted to an ideal of justice for all than to his powerful family’s business. There are other characters that appear later in the book, creating a feeling of “ensemble” that was handled very well. I love how Bennett didn’t sacrifice character growth to the ambitious worldbuilding, especially when it comes to Sancia, who goes through her journey towards self-realisation in a plot-heavy story.

Yes, the plot. It has a movie quality to it, where the action jumps from the pages and captures the imagination. It’s one of those occasions where you feel the writer’s enjoyment; Bennett is clearly having fun with his story. There are explosions, battles in the air, cool gadgets…But there is also a layer of depth with a thoughtful exploration of themes that are decidedly apropos: sentience and artificial intelligence, the dangers of greed and what happens when humans are an afterthought to profits (the noise you’re now hearing is some of my co-bloggers chanting communist slogans).

With Foundryside, Bennett manages yet again to combine idea and execution, thrilling story and interesting depths, masterfully crafted world and fully fleshed-out characters. Unlike City of Stairs, the story is far from being self-contained and is a metaphorical opening of a gigantic can of worms. And again, saying that I’m looking forward to the rest of the Founders trilogy wouldn’t quite cover it.

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