Publisher: Crown Publishing
Page Count: 505
Release Date: August 21st, 2018
Series: FOUNDERS, Book 1
Rating: 4.5/5 – REALLY Liked It
Note: This review was based on an ARC I received from the publisher. It has not affected my review in any way.
FOUNDRYSIDE had a high bar to clear with me. I immensely enjoyed Robert Jackson Bennett’s earlier trilogy, THE DIVINE CITIES and was excited at the prospect of a new world and new adventures. After life delaying me from checking out this book for far too long, I was excited to dive in, and happy to report this is an excellent, exciting read full of great characters and action.
In the world of FOUNDRYSIDE, magic is derived from ancient written sigils, carefully collected over the last several decades from excavating ruins left from hierophants, people of enormous magical talent, whose knowledge is lost to the ages. These magical sigils work by “convincing” the object they’re written on of a certain reality. If you write on a piece of wood that it is actually made of stone, that wood will “believe” it is stone and take on those properties. If you inscribe on a door that it does not open between the hours of midnight and 8am, then that door will remain sealed no matter who or what tries to open it. The language governing these objects must be precise, and these strings of sigils are jealously guarded by the four merchant houses that rule the city. “Scrived” objects, as they are called, are the foundation of the very way of life for Tevanne. So when a thief named Sancia discovers she’s stolen an artifact that will let her override the sigils on an artifact, she quickly realizes that it’s something that all of the houses will kill for – but it may also be the key to understanding her own mysterious abilities.
As mentioned above, I’m a huge fan of Bennett’s DIVINE CITIES trilogy. At the same time, I fully admit that the magic in those books can be a bit esoteric at times, and I can see how some people might bounce off of that series. That isn’t a risk with FOUNDRYSIDE, a much more action-driven, accessible adventure that still manages to be a social commentary. If you somehow aren’t hooked by the first 50-odd pages, a tense heist that also establishes the rules of both scriving and Sancia’s own peculiar brand of magic, I’d look elsewhere for a read. Those first 50 pages are such a delight, however, I find that outcome a low probability.
The action is definitely the star here, with one set piece after another that leaves characters racing across rooftops and avoiding magical security systems. The characters themselves are mostly well-drawn, with particular attention to lead protagonist Sancia, a cynical but exceptionally skilled thief just trying to survive, and reluctant compatriot Gregor, a war veteran who has somehow managed to hang on to a streak of noble optimism. The two come from very different backgrounds and serve to open each other’s eyes to ways of life that they have been blatantly ignoring, either out of ignorance or stubbornness. The commonality of a tragic past helps bring them together, and the arc that each character takes is both satisfying and heartbreaking in turns. Clef was also a favorite character, though to say more would be to ruin some of the delight of the story.
As for the magic of scriving, the more it went on, the more I realized that it was analogous to modern day computer code. In the same way that if you don’t type a command correctly, a bug occurs, if you don’t have the correct order of sigils, the magic won’t work as intended (if it works at all). It was a fresh approach to a magic system that is obviously supposed to aid in drawing parallels to our world – particularly when it comes to a reliance on a magic (or technology) that the average person barely understands how to craft themselves.
Like Bennett’s other works, FOUNDRYSIDE is a social commentary as much as it is a fantasy adventure. This is a world where four merchant houses have crushed out all other competition, and if you aren’t part of one of the houses, you live in a lawless slum outside. A select section of society lives fairly well off, and everyone else fights over scraps. It’s not the most subtle parallel, but Bennett never let’s his commentary get in the way of the story. There were moments throughout where the info-dumping could have used a little more finesse, particularly with the rules of scriving, but overall, I absolutely loved the world building.
FOUNDRYSIDE is a roller coaster of adventure that is almost non-stop action from start to finish. You’ll get a complete, satisfactory story that still leaves threads hanging for the next installment. I’m very curious to know Bennett’s plans for the sequel, as he is not above jumping ahead several years between books. Given how FOUNDRYSIDE ends, I suspect the time jump will be shorter, but either way, you can count on me eagerly awaiting the next installment!