Foundryside is a fantasy novel. But it’s somehow also a high-octane adventure story. And a powerfully emotional tale of characters’ self-discovery and breaking the bonds that hold them captive. And a series of escalating heists, each one more incredible than its predecessor. And a thoughtful examination of flawed societal systems and the human fallout they leave behind: colonialism and mercantilism, in particular. And in so many ways, an exploration of the theme of human agency: who does society deem has right to control their own lives and decisions, and what happens to humans morally, emotionally, when that right is taken away.
One of the things I love most about fantasy is when characters, world-building and plot combine to create an imaginative experience that sucks the reader in. Bennett succeeds in Foundryside in creating exactly that. He starts by casting out tiny hooks, catching the readers’ attention with gentle bait; a chuckle here, a moment of excitement there — then builds the tension and emotional and kinetic energy of the story up slowly, gently, so that by the end of the novel the reader is frantically turning pages, ignoring the uncooked meals and dirty laundry littering their own house as they race toward the novel’s conclusion, heart pounding, terrified and hopeful for the main characters and amazed at every unexpected yet satisfying turn the plot takes, completely immersed in this world of powerful merchant houses fighting to control as much as they can and a group of unlikely allies who are taking huge risks to sneak in between the cracks and with tiny actions, attempt to divert the course of their world’s history.
The world feels absolutely real, and absolutely unique. It’s a kind of clockwork-punk Medieval Venice meets a Colonial Western Empire, where powerful merchant families own everything and scrivers and artificers are working to create magical gadgets that, in turn, seem to do nothing but increase the dystopian lock these families have on life for everyone in the city of Tevanne, which is lovely for the haves, and misery for the have-nots. The system of magic Bennett’s created (“scriving”) has pieces that are reminiscent of computer coding, and anyone who’s ever tried to argue with a machine about completing a task will find some recognizable moments here. The natural consequences of the economic and magical systems are apparent in every paragraph, and affect characterization directly, often in gut-wrenching moments of realization.
And perhaps most powerful of all the novel’s pieces are the characters. Foundryside’s protagonist, Sancia Grado, is a thief with a traumatic past that has shaped who she is physically, emotionally, and magically. But she’s also a delight to read. A reluctant hero who at times reminded me powerfully of John McClane in Die Hard — just a girl with skills and strength, caught in the wrong place at the wrong time, trying to do the next best thing to get herself and hers out of the crappy situations she’s found herself in; and whose goal expands, slowly but realistically as her definition of who is “hers” as well as her understanding of the actual stakes at hand grows. (Can I just add that it is a refreshing JOY to read a description of a female character which in NO WAY sexualizes her; where her description of her appearance and body is about her skills, her power, her scars, the way the world has shaped her. It shouldn’t be this rare to find, but it is. And it’s a breath of fresh air to read. More like this, authors, please.)
But the intrepid cast of characters includes other fascinating members: Gregor Dandolo, scion of one of the powerful merchant houses, who’s determined to iron some of the evil out of the system his family has created and is fighting the long reach of his own traumatic past; Giovanni and Claudia, skillful scriveners who live in Foundryside and make their magical apparatuses (or “rigs”) from the scraps of information they’ve gleaned from the merchant houses’ tightly held scriving secrets; Orso and his assistant, Berenice, who come from within the Campo system but fall into this found family in their own way; and finally, perhaps most fascinating character of all is a mechanical construct with a magical personality who plays a key role in uniting this troupe of conspirators.
At times, this book reminded me of Zelazny’s Amber Chronicles, as well as great heist films like Ocean’s Eleven. Bennett’s prose feels modern and fresh, and the book reads like a lit fuse: fast, intense, and leading up to an explosive end.
Recommended for anyone who loves unique fantasy, complex characters, intricate and intriguing plots, and wonderful world-building. I can’t wait for the next one!
Available for preorder now. Released August 2018.