Foundryside — by Robert Jackson Bennett

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 thFoundryside RD4 clean flatat 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.

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The Underwater Ballroom Society – edited by Tiffany Trent and Stephanie Burgis

Have you ever stood in the center of a fabulous, mysterious ruin and, while you examined it, woUBS-Coverndered about the people who inhabited it: Who were they? What did they do there? What did this place look like, when it was whole?

Reading The Underwater Ballroom Society is like standing in such a ruin — and then magically being transported into world after world, being given the opportunity to actually see how that space is used, to meet the characters who breathe life into it, to hear the stories that weave around it; differently every time, beautifully every time.

From swashbuckling adventure (“Penhallow Amid Passing Things”, by Ioan Datt Sharma) to rock-and-roll Faery sojourn (“The Queen of Life”, by Ysabeau S. Wilce); from richly re-imagined fairy tale (“Twelve Sisters”, by Y.S. Lee) to glorious Regency-tinted magical crisis (“Spellswept”, by Stephanie Burgis), each author in this anthology takes the fabulous location of the underwater ballroom and creates a completely different, yet equally enthralling story. The styles, time periods and characters are deeply different and fascinating: I found myself especially drawn into the Jazz Age setting created by Shveta Thakrar in “The Amethyst Deceiver,” and cheering for the intrepid Harriet George, fledgling spy, in the Martian steampunk backdrop of Patrick Samphire’s “A Spy in the Deep.”

The end result of all these pieces is a deeply satisfying reading experience that feels a bit like flipping through a series of jewel-toned paintings, each one a variation on a powerful, mysterious theme. Each one beautiful enough to reflect on, to sink into, to enjoy.

In short, this anthology is guaranteed to pull you into its pages and leave you with a deep and desperate desire to read more by these talented authors. Not to mention, to pack your bags and hie off to visit that underwater ballroom for yourself.

After all, who knows what wonders might befall you, if you were able to find it?

An Apprentice to Elves – Elizabeth Bear and Sarah Monette

an-apprentice-to-elvesThis richly-drawn, intricate fantasy novel breathes with life in all ways. It’s an absolute pleasure to read a fantasy story which shows more than just a single hero with a sword. The world of the Iskyrne warriors (which will look joyfully familiar to anyone who has spent time studying Old English and the Anglo-Saxon culture) feels real. This world is populated by people of all kinds — not just fighters, but also smiths, caretakers, farmers, housewives, students, and even obnoxious teenagers who don’t know their limits.

Aelfgifa (what a great name!) is one of the novel’s viewpoint characters, and she’s a fish out of water; a daughter of a king (well, a wolfjarl, but let’s keep it simple for now) who is far from home. She’s been apprenticed to learn to be a smith with the alfar — some of the most interesting and unique elves I’ve read about. But when things go wrong in the alfar city, she needs to travel back to her home — and that turns out to be a good thing, as her home community is under a grave threat. The Rhean (think Romans) have arrived with war mammoths and thousands of soldiers, prepared to conquer.

What follows is a wonderfully engaging series of character-driven events in which the different groups must find their own ways to resist the Rhean invasion. Perhaps my favorite viewpoint character, Otter, is a woman who has escaped from Rhean slavery. Her point of view brings home the very real danger that the invasion presents. Not only that, but her place in the Iskyrne society as the huswyf — the woman who needs to make sure that the warriors are supplied with food and drink as she is concomitantly keeping things running in the great hall — reminds the reader in such a real way how invasion affects everyone in a country. The battles don’t happen in isolation. Without Otter and her supplies, the soldiers would be unable to fight. She is as much a part of the resistance as the men and women out their wielding their swords.

As much good fantasy does, this one also contains some magic as well as some mysteries; the magical link between the wolves and their warriors as well as the magic-mixed-with-old-fashioned-hard-work methods which the different branches of the alfar use to work metal and stone both play an important part in the story as it unfolds. The magic adds to the detailed world-building and doesn’t ever get used as an escape from the character-driven conflict.

All in all, I would strongly recommend this book to anyone who loves intricate world-building, carefully crafted cultures that feel solid and real, and characters who steal your heart (and…occasionally…make you screech in frustration.) On a side note, this is the third book in a series, but I read it as a stand-alone and found it easy to get into. I will be going back to find the other novels now, though. I’m pleased to add Monette and Bear to my ever-growing TBR list!

The Shepherd’s Crown – Terry Pratchett

I thought I was ready to read this book, more than a year after Pratchett’s death.

It turns out I wasn’t as ready as I thought. I was in tears by page 25. It will be hard for me to write an unbiased review of this book, as Pratchett’s work has been so influential for me as a reader, a teacher, a writer and, well, truly, as a human being. However, I will do my best!

Tiffany Aching has grown up through the series, and the end of I Shall Wear Midnight left her in a position of young adulthood. The Shepherd’s Crown picks up where that book leaves off and pushes toward the future, as Tiffany must step into an even greater responsibility than she’s held up till now — but it also reaches back to the past and brings back one of the Tiffany’s first and most dangerous enemies — the elves.

As usual, the book is a combination of humor, philosophical musings, silly names and puns, bravery and of course, hard choices. More than anything else, that seems to be the essence of Pratchett’s definition of what a witch is; someone who faces the choices others would prefer to turn away from.

This book contains a number of call-backs to the earlier novels in the sequence, and I’d suggest reading them first before beginning this one. However, at the end of it, the reader leaves feeling satisfied about Tiffany’s choices; her future; and those under her watch on the Chalk. It makes me wish she lived on a hill nearby my own house…I think we’d all feel better with a Tiffany to keep an eye on things.

If you’re new to Discworld, I’d suggest starting with Going Postal, Small Gods or Thief of Time and perhaps working your way up to this one later. But do begin. This series is one of the best written over the past thirty years, and I am convinced we will be reading it thirty, sixty, ninety years from now.

The truth is that Pratchett — like Granny Weatherwax — left this world a better place than it was when he arrived in it.