Fantasy has had a bit of a resurgence in the last ten years or so with the likes of The Songs of Fire and Ice, Mistborn, and The Kingkiller Chronicle. And now, after reading Robert Jackson Bennett’s Foundryside, I believe we can add one more to this list. With his unique take on magic as well as the reluctant hero, Bennett has carved out his place in the world of fantasy.
Foundryside is a story about creating gods, toppling corporations, and giving a voice to the weak. It’s also about people wanting to control the magic that touches every aspect of their society. Mixed within this story is a botched heist, a plan to overthrow a woman bent on revenge, and the love between a thief and a scribe. It might seem like a lot, but Bennett guides us through the scenes with an easy hand that never lets us stray too far from the path.
With most fantasy stories, magic is the underlying theme that runs through it all. Foundryside is no different. In this case, it’s not about spells, but something called “scriving,” a way to control objects by bending their reality. This new way to view magic has been a bit of a trend in recent fantasy novels. Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn series has magic based on different metals, Patrick Rothfuss’ Kingkiller Chronicle utilises arcanist’s arts such as sympathy or alchemy. Bennett’s magic system is similar to programming a computer. By adding different inputs, functions, and variables, you can make a wheel think it needs to spin or make an arrow believe it is falling from an incredible height. It’s a creative take on magic that fits right in with our digital age.
Besides magic, world building is another important aspect of fantasy novels. If the world doesn’t feel lived in, if you can’t smell the campfires, hear the sounds of armor, feel the desperation of a thief trying to pull off a job, then the story feels flat. Well, Bennett kills it in this department. The town of Tevanne is full of life, from its massive merchant houses to its grimy streets, we almost believe this place existed. Bennett never dwells in overwrought descriptions, instead allows the characters to help guide us through the world, parsing out information as if we were discovering it with them.
Within the world building we also discover the history of Foundryside, and it is a rich history. Men of the past developed a powerful magic to match the power of god, when the magic doesn’t work, they try to develop their own god. As you can imagine, this doesn’t work out too well for them. In the more recent past, the people of Tevanne discover a small portion of scriving. This discovery and the subsequent years plays out exactly like it would in real life. The people of Tevanne are like scientists discovering a new form of science. Most of their advancements in scriving come from mistakes or necessity; with no one there to teach them, they have no idea how to do it right. There are hints at scriving’s potential, but Bennett never reveals his hand on how the history of scriving will play out in the future of Tevanne.
Finally, we have the characters that get to play in this world. The characters in Foundryside are nothing we haven’t seen before, yet Bennett breathes new life in the tired tropes of reluctant heroes. Our main character Sanica is a thief, her team is made up of a scriving master (wizard), a soldier who is trying to redeem himself, and a too smart assistant. But, there is something about these characters that feel more real than any I’ve read in a fantasy novel in a long time. They make mistakes, they have personal struggles, they don’t do the thing you expect them to do, they are sarcastic, basically your typical human.
Bennett introduces PTSD and fighting labels. Sanica was a slave that escaped, yet she is haunted by the experiments conducted on her and the idea that she was just a tool. She doesn’t let this slow her down or make her dwell on her pain, in fact it becomes a very powerful moment when she faces these feelings head on. Sanica also develops romantic feelings for the female assistant, someone who is as smart and cunning as she. It feels natural and never comes across as something thrown in just for the sake of wanting to add a romance. I couldn’t help but smile and hope they ended up together by the end of the story.
Foundryside is a great first book for what I hope to be a long running series. All of the pieces are there for an epic story about magic, rebellion, and friendship. It definitely scratches that itch that has formed while we wait for a number of other fantasy series to continue.
Foundryside is published by Jo Fletcher Books and is available here.
Robert Jackson Bennett
Robert Jackson Bennett was born in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, but grew up in the half-developed suburbs of Katy, Texas. He spent most of his time playing on construction sites and in drainage ditches, which would explain a lot. His interest in writing came from hearing about the books his older brother was reading and then attempting to mimic them. He attended the University of Texas at Austin and, like a lot of its alumni, was unable to leave the charms of the city and resides there currently.
Reviewed by Matt Brandenburg
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