Rating: 7.3 (out of 10)
Robert Jackson Bennett’s new novel Foundryside shows the same investment in world building as his extravagant Divine Cities trilogy. This time he gives us the city of Tevanne, a setting inspired by late-medieval/early-Renaissance-era Italy. Tevanne is ruled by four “campos”, houses run by rich families that control every facet of commerce in the city. Sancia is a young thief from Foundryside, the city’s crumbling ghetto, home to Tevanne’s common laborers as well as its criminal element. As the complicated plot unspools, Sancia has been hired by parties unknown to steal a box from a heavily guarded safe at the waterfront. The box turns out to contain a key that can open any lock, and Sancia is determined to keep such a dangerous item from falling into the wrong hands.
Foundryside is an epic fantasy novel, so there is of course a generous helping of magic, and it’s a brain twister. An intricate vocabulary of sigils is used to “scriv” an object and convince it to behave in ways contrary to reality. For example, a carriage can be driven without a horse by simply writing sigils on the wheels that convince them they are rolling downhill even if the ground is perfectly flat. Though she has no formal training (poor people aren’t taught how to scriv), Sancia’s relationship to scriving is unique; she can sense nearby scrivings and they whisper their meaning to her. She doesn’t know why she has this ability, nor has she ever encountered anyone else with the same gift. When she first touches the stolen key, it does more than just whisper to her, it holds a full-on conversation. Calling itself Clef, it contains scrivings so complicated it appears to have an entire person inscribed on it. With her mysterious client out to kill her and retrieve their prize, Sancia and Clef join forces with Gregor, a former soldier and campo heir who want to bring a rigid system of law and order to Foundryside, and Orso Ignacio – a hypatus, or scriving scholar for one of the campos – and his assistant Berenice. Together they uncover a plot by one of the Campo heads to use ancient, forgotten magics to transform into a god.
The success of Foundryside rests on much the same formula as the Divine Cities: a world so richly envisioned and ornately detailed the reader can almost taste the air; memorable, compelling, and well-defined characters; arcane arts that promise both ecstasy and untold horror. Similar problems also abound – Bennett’s plotting often conflates raising tension with raising the volume. There is an overwhelming tendency toward grand dramatic gestures and heavily punctuated actions, too many stabs at manufacturing crowd pleasing moments, and some succeed while others fall flat. Nuance suffers a few fatal bows along the way – the budding romance between Sancia and Berenice feels both overcooked and underdeveloped, forcing sentiments it doesn’t quite earn.
Like the other cities that have sprouted from Bennett’s fierce imagination, though, Tevanne is worth the visit, and full of people whose company you will want to keep.