Robert Jackson Bennett is one of the few authors I watch out for. Recently, I finished his early award-winning book (Philip K. Dick, Edgar, Anthony), The Company Man, so I was very excited at the opportunity to read an advanced reader copy of Foundryside, his latest work.
Bennett has a habit of starting out a book slow, letting the reader get a feel for the world and the characters before heading into action. He’s gotten better at that through his career; Foundryside springs into action on the first pages during an elaborate heist. Skilled independent thief Sancia is in the midst of stealing an object in a safe, although she accidentally burns down half the waterfront in the process. Unfortunately this attracts the attention of Gregor Donaldo, head of security at the waterfront and noble heir, as her actions have jeopardized his long-term plans for a neutral police force in a decidedly partisan city.
For me, this had a decidedly new adult feel, a bit younger than I enjoy. I think I appreciated the more seasoned characters in his Divine Cities series and in some of his other works. He also seems to be experimenting a bit with world-building in this one, and I felt his magic system was far too detailed with too much information-dumping (Brandon Sanderson owes readers an apology). Thankfully, I had the experience of knowing Bennett and his interesting stories to keep me pushing through. I persevered and around page 99, found that the story was finally gripping me.
The plot is essentially a series of heists and cops-and-robbers that takes place in a city controlled by merchant houses who have a complete disregard for the underclass. It’s not an unusual setting, and I appreciate Bennett’s attempt to create a more ‘realistic’ vision of the proto-Renaissance setting so many fantasy authors love to play in. However, beyond the Commons area as a dirty cesspool where bodies were literally left to rot on the streets, and the gated merchant communities as pristine, light-infused compounds, I didn’t get much of a sense of how the two pieces fit together.
The magic system is complex, using a system of ‘scriving’ on objects to ‘tell’ them what their purpose is and how to interact with the world. Bennett spends far too much time describing this, although to give him credit, he at least tries to do this in conversation with Sancia and later with scriving experts explaining what they do. But to me, there was a lot of unnecessary information-dumping, kind of like explaining the molecular process behind tasting and nerve-signal processing when, really, I just want a piece of chocolate.
I enjoyed Sachia’s personality a great deal at the beginning and thought she developed reasonably well. One of Bennett’s strengths is his ability to create female characters that feel like real people. The Divine Cities have a wide variety of female characters, and Foundryside is no exception. A love interest developed during this story that felt somewhat unfounded, however, I credit his attempt at being diverse. Again, it just didn’t hit the complicated notes in The Divine Cities.
Two side notes: one, occasionally too much vernacular crept in. It was particularly noticeable with swearing; ‘goddamn’ bothered me as I hadn’t noted any gods/churches/religion. I think I recall a ‘bullshit,’ although we hadn’t heard of any bulls, or even cows, as well as some other form of ‘shitting me’ that seemed far too familiar. These were varied with ‘scrumming,’ so go figure.
The second issue is purely stylistic and not troublesome to me, but I imagine it will bother some readers. A lot of the dialogue is in ‘mindspeak,’ and so is set off in italics to differentiate it. Which means there are pages of alternating regular style text and italics.
All that said, this just didn’t resonate with me like his other books. The City of Stairs, and it’s follow-up, City of Blades, were easily among the best books I’ve read in years. I loved the Southwest atmosphere and the magical-realism of American Elsewhere, and The Company Man had me paying attention to it’s intriguing mystery despite some heavy-handed moralizing. This seemed a bit rushed, a strange combination of over-worked (the explanobabble for scriving) and under-developed (the efforts to integrate economics, politics, war) compared to Bennett’s usual sophisticated and emotionally complex stories. It’s not that I wouldn’t recommend it as much as it wasn’t as awesome as I know he’s capable of (do I sound like a teacher or what?). It felt a little like The Lies of Locke Lamora, and a little bit like Mistborn, so if those appealed to you, I’d recommend it.
Many, many thanks to Kathleen Quinlan at Crown Archetype & Three Rivers Press, Crown Publishing and NetGalley for the advanced reader copy.