Foundryside (Founders #1)
by Robert Jackson Bennett
Expected Publication- August 21, 2018 by Crown
From Goodreads: In a city that runs on industrialized magic, a secret war will be fought to overwrite reality itself–the first in a dazzling new fantasy series from City of Stairs author Robert Jackson Bennett.
Sancia Grado is a thief, and a damn good one. And her latest target, a heavily guarded warehouse on Tevanne’s docks, is nothing her unique abilities can’t handle.
But unbeknownst to her, Sancia’s been sent to steal an artifact of unimaginable power, an object that could revolutionize the magical technology known as scriving. The Merchant Houses who control this magic–the art of using coded commands to imbue everyday objects with sentience–have already used it to transform Tevanne into a vast, remorseless capitalist machine. But if they can unlock the artifact’s secrets, they will rewrite the world itself to suit their aims.
Now someone in those Houses wants Sancia dead, and the artifact for themselves. And in the city of Tevanne, there’s nobody with the power to stop them.
To have a chance at surviving—and at stopping the deadly transformation that’s under way—Sancia will have to marshal unlikely allies, learn to harness the artifact’s power for herself, and undergo her own transformation, one that will turn her into something she could never have imagined.
There are many ways one can approach Robert Jackson Bennett’s upcoming fantasy novel, Foundryside. Some may read it as a heist story akin to Ocean’s 11. Others might see it as a buddy-cop-style tale featuring a wealth of banter between the main characters. Or one might, as I did, find themselves reading a technical manual devoted to a complex magical system interspersed with plot elements and character sketches.
Foundryside features a world of industrialized magic where devices are built and then enchanted using designs and symbols to convince them to do particular things. Locks will only respond to specific people, wood used for construction is told that it is really stone, weapons are made deadlier when issued specific commands. It’s an interesting concept carried out with intricate detail to the detriment of the world and its characters.
The main character, Sancia Grado, is a thief-for-hire tasked with stealing a box containing a powerful magical artifact. When circumstances conspire to keep her from delivering the artifact to her employers, she must run for her life. She teams up with a soldier-turned-constable and a pair of magic workers from the wealthy side of town. Together, they unravel the artifact’s secrets and discover that their enemies have dire plans in store for the artifact itself, as well as for the rest of the city. This, too, is an interesting idea and would have held my attention better if the characters had been deep enough to drive the plot forward instead of being driven by it. As it was, the only thing keeping together the trope of the scrappy-thief meets constable-with-a-good-heart was the plot itself, not any mutual loyalty they had built. They fail to grow as individuals from beginning to end. They also sound alike. Whether the speaker is a nearly-illiterate and impoverished teenage thief or a well-educated and wealthy magic user from the rich part of town, the characters all sound the same. Without dialogue tags, it would be hard to tell which character was speaking in their oddly anachronistic way– speech that would sound normal in an urban fantasy, but is out of place in a world based upon Renaissance-era Venice.
The world, too, is underdeveloped. The story is set in Tevanne (which I constantly read as ‘Teavana’), a city of canals and docks where a nearly impassable wall separates the wealthy merchant houses from the impoverished slums. It’s a setting that I should like, given my general love of the Renaissance, but the city is so lightly described that the only images I could generate in my imagination were “generic shabby slums” and “generic rich neighborhood”, and that was when Tevanne settled upon a time period it wanted to be based upon. At times, it felt like a Renaissance theme, and other times it felt like Industrial Age England, minus steam engines and guns. There’s no rule that a story can’t have Industrial Revolution era technology in a Renaissance-style setting, but I was never convinced that these elements hadn’t been cobbled together because the plot required it, or because an idea sounded cool in the moment.
For all the imagination that went into the structure, Foundryside failed for me in its general execution. I never felt a connection to the characters, and the world building was thin at best, making Tevanne feel like an island utterly unconnected to a larger world. And while the magic system was compelling in the beginning, there was so much info dumping that I often felt like I was reading a technical manual.
If intricate magical systems and characters who constantly snark at each other are a draw for you, then you will likely enjoy Foundryside. But because magical systems and their explanations are not what draw me to fantasy, this book did not work for me. It is light on character growth, lighter on world building, and full of workaday prose that did nothing to keep me invested in the story.
(Thanks to NetGalley for providing me a free ARC in exchange for an honest review. This did not influence my opinion in any way.)