The Divine Cities trilogy is one of my favorite reads from last year and probably one of the most impactful fantasies I have ever read. Though I never went back to reading RJB’s earlier works, I knew I would want to check out his upcoming books. When I realized the ARCs for his latest were available, I had my fingers crossed and I can’t describe the elation I felt when my request was approved. Foundryside is another amazing action packed new fantasy series with interesting characters, a corrupt city and a rich history full of almost godlike beings.
Sancia Garbo is a master thief in the city of Tevanne who is on her way to her latest job, which might just provide a solution to all her troubles. When she realizes the object she has stolen might lead to devastating consequences in the wrong hands, it’s obvious that she might not be safe anymore. Captain Gregor Dandolo is a righteous war veteran who just wants to bring some law and justice to his city where none exist and wants to start that by bringing the thief who stole from his warehouse and burned half the waterfront to justice. What starts off as a typical cops and robbers type of chase turns into much more when assassins start looking for Sancia and Gregor is caught in the crossfire. Both of them join hands with an unlikely crew to dig deeper and figure out the conspiracy that might have far reaching consequences to their world.
The worldbuilding here is rich and masterful and it comes alive in the skilled hands of RJB. Tevanne is a city divided between the four merchant house compounds who are law unto themselves. Anyone who can’t afford to live in the campos has to make do living in the slums between the compounds called The Commons where there is hardly any food or work and every day is a struggle to survive. The merchant houses have become all powerful and rich using the magic system called “scriving”, which is a way of writing sigils on objects that make them slightly sentient and change their reality – like making a carriage believe it’s always going downhill so that it goes faster and without a driver (or) making an arrow believe it has been falling down from a much longer distance so that it hits with a very high velocity. As the story progresses, we get to know about more complicated scrivings, the scrivers who are responsible for imagining new possibilities while keeping ahead of the rival merchant houses and the washed out scrappers who work the underground market to provide some comfort to the poor people living in the Commons.
Sancia is an excellent protagonist. She is fiery, angry and pragmatic, her survival skills are top notch and she is extremely brave. Her past as a tortured slave still haunts her, leaving her with some form of PTSD. Her special talents also make her a unique being in the city, someone who could be used for nefarious purposes but the way her character is written is very realistic and likable and she never falls into the “special snowflake” trope. Gregor starts off as the stereotype of a soldier – proper, polite, righteous, thinks he can bring about a chance by just instituting laws – but he quickly sees through the rampant corruption of the merchant houses, especially by listening to Sancia’s history and resolves that the city needs a revolution. Orso is the master scriver of Dandolo house and comes across as a pretentious academic, but he is ultimately just a seeker of knowledge and has his heart in the right place. His assistant Berenice is talented and confident and can think on her feet even in dire situations rigging up scrived objects to get them out. Claudia and Gio are scrappers but are quick to help Sancia not just for the money, but also the opportunity to do more with their scriving talents. And most important and my favorite is Clef, the artifact that Sancia initially stole who is so much more than just a key and the one around whom much of the story revolves.
The story is full of action packed heists and chases, planning daring adventures and figuring out the history of the ancient hierophants, who did much more than just bending the reality of objects. The world and magic system is very original and unique and thoroughly detailed and I loved getting to know more about it. The writing is also very easy to read and not as intimidating or dense as other adult fantasies and I couldn’t put it down once I started. Between all the life and death stakes that the characters are fighting, we also get some wit and humor – I especially enjoyed the conversations that Sancia and Clef had with scrived objects to make them do things they didn’t want to.
Just like I expect from RJB, we get some subtle commentary on the effects of slavery, how rampant and unchecked capitalism concentrates wealth and power in the few and lets the ordinary people suffer, how the pursuit of knowledge can run amok and blur the lines of morality. The parallels to our world are uncanny because these are all questions we do ponder on frequently, especially with the rising wealth gap and extreme advances in biotechnology and genomics. The magic system of “scriving” and the way Sancia uses her talents to get around the loopholes in scrived objects is also eerily similar to computer programming, hacking and artificial intelligence and how the creations might get ahead of the creators one day. The author actually calls it “the magic equivalent of database management” and I think that’s a brilliant analogy.
The city of Tevanne is so dependent on scriving and rigged objects that even a minute failure in an essential component can bring down the whole infrastructure; this is a direct parallel to our over dependence on technology in everyday life and the constant threat of cyber warfare and collapse of technological infrastructure. The slavery in the plantations is an essential component of trade and wealth for Tevanne and none of the merchant houses care for the conditions of the slaves or how they are tortured which is again how our world works; in most cases, we live in our own bubbles while human rights are violated every day in other parts of the world and we believe that it would never affect us. The deft way that the author incorporates all these themes into a fantasy heist story just shows his amazing talent as a writer.
I’m so much in love with this book and it’s characters and I’m definitely looking forward to reading it again. This would be a delight for all Robert Jackson Bennett’s fans and anyone who enjoys reading about well developed fantasy worlds with unique scientific magic systems.
P.S: Thanks to Netgalley and Crown Publishing for providing me with the advance copy of this wonderful book. All the opinions expressed here are solely mine.