Foundryside by Robert Jackson Bennett
Bill: Robert Jackson Bennett hit the trifecta, as far as I was concerned, with his DIVINE CITIES trilogy. I placed each book pretty much immediately on my respective best-of-the-year lists as I finished them, and then, once the trilogy was completed, put the whole thing on my best-of-the-decade list. So it would be more than a little unfair to expect his newest novel, Foundryside (2018), to match that experience. But like a younger sibling following after a genius older sister or brother, Foundryside finds its own kind of greatness, a no-less pleasing but more “moderate” greatness if you’ll allow the seeming paradox. Even, I’d say, a stealthy greatness, the kind that sneaks up on you while you thought you were just reading something really good until it whacks you upside the head and you realize no, it’s better than that.
Foundryside is set in the city-state of Tevanne, controlled by four merchant houses or “campos” whose business is “scriving” — a form of magic that involves “instructions written upon mindless objects that convinced them to disobey reality in select ways.” This magic system has greatly enriched the four houses thanks to their tight control of it (anyone not part of the campos lives in the Commons, relegated to a subsistence-level existence of poverty and lawlessness), but the magic has its limitations, mostly because it’s really just the dregs of a much more advanced magic of the ancient Occidental Empire (long fallen) whose wielders (hierophants) were near-gods. The campos, powerful as they are in Tevanne and in the wider world thanks to their magical monopoly, are like children in comparison. Children trying to learn a foreign language via old left-over picture books with more than a few pages missing. What did you think of the underlying setting/premise, Marion?
Marion: I loved the idea of the campos, like the sixteenth-century banking families of Florence or the merchant houses of Venice (which Bennett acknowledges as an inspiration), and the scrappers, who are street-level independents. And while your reference to language was a metaphor, I had a question for you about the actual language of the book. What did you think of the very modern dialogue in a quasi-Renaissance setting? I was surprised that it didn’t bother me. Usually, second-world fantasy with modern American-style slang bothers me, but here it convincingly felt like I was in this world and directly translating their idiom. Very few books manage to convince me of that, but this one did. I think because very early on I’m seeing a magical system that looks a like information technology, set in a hierarchical, stratified society, it wasn’t hard to make the leap to a slangy language.
It’s interesting, because I usually have the same reaction to that kind of odd mixture (in fact, I think I just complained about it in a recent review sometime in the past month). But I didn’t mind it at all here. You clearly gave it more thought, but I like your explanation (if I’m understanding it right) that the way the setting mirrored our own made that sort of language mismatch more palatable. It probably also helped that the style, plot, and characters drew me in so strongly that I didn’t pay much attention.
- Sancia Grado (our main character): a young thief with a traumatic past who gets in over her head on a job, thus setting in motion the plot. Her goal is survival.
- Gregor Dandolo: only son of the one of the more powerful Houses. Thanks to his own past trauma, Gregor has turned his back on his position in society in a tilt-at-the-windmills attempt to reform it.
- Ofelia Dandolo: Gregor’s mother, the fiercely formidable woman who runs the Dandolo Campo and plans on making sure it stays on or near the top.
- Orso and Berenice: the master scriver of Gregor’s House and his “Fab” (think the “builder” to his “architect”), both driven by intellectual curiosity and a desire to further their craft.
- Claudia and Giovanni: scrivers who failed out of the campo system and now do scriving work in the black market.
- Estelle and Tomas Candiano: Orso’s former love and her husband, head of the Candiano Campo, now fallen on hard times and seeking a comeback.
- Clef: The less said about him here the better, though I think it’s OK to note he shares the traumatic past trait with both Sancia and Gregor.
All the characters, I thought, are richly drawn, with their own wholly personal and utterly believable motivation as well as a sense of a life lived in their own individual fashion outside this particular span of time that is Foundryside’s plot. This holds true whether or not they get a lot of page time or a little, if they be protagonist or antagonist (or sometimes both), or even if they seem at first blush to be a common trope character — just wait a bit and the layers will start accreting.
More specifically, thanks to the combination of her character, her voice, and her situation, I found Sancia easy to fall for, and did so pretty immediately. Clef has a similarly winning voice, though a unique one. Orso and Berenice, meanwhile, pull you in via different methods, particularly their intelligence and enthusiasm for knowledge, while Gregor is more darkly compelling. Did you enjoy the characters as much as I did, Marion?
I liked Gregor and I liked that he was Sancia’s adversary, because you can’t have a good heist without a competent law-enforcement official on your heels, in my opinion, anyway. I thought Gregor’s story unfolded exactly right, with just the right touch of bleakness and tragedy, not unlike Sancia’s. I appreciated his wish to create a corruption-free city, although he is blocked at every turn.
And speaking of characters, I loved the trickster-vibe Orso gives off. He’s a genius who lives for innovation and really doesn’t care about much else — well, maybe power. He definitely can be helpful if his interests align with yours. And there is a female secondary character in one of campos (I’m not going to name her because it would be a spoiler) who does reprehensible things, but whose motivations were crystal clear to me. I didn’t approve, but I understood.
I also loved Clef. The interactions between Clef and Sancia were wonderful; one of the high points of the book for me [Bill nods vigorously in agreement]. I also noticed that Clef is particularly interested in the idea of linking or twinning things, a magical ability that others — like Orso — don’t make as much of. It’s a big part of the plot of this book and I’m waiting to see how that particular magical skill plays out in the later ones.
Me too. As far as this book’s plot goes, at its simplest level, Foundryside is a heist novel (it’d be more accurate to say a heists novel), with the basic conflict between the antagonists seeking to find and wield an uber-powerful ancient artifact and the protagonists trying desperately to stop them. And the novel absolutely succeeds at that most basic reading level: a fun story full of tension, adventure, great set action scenes, feats of derring-do, wonderfully timed revelations, all driven at a rollicking pace balanced by just the right amount of quieter moments. The characters’ pasts, along with the workings of the magical system and the history of this setting, are all wonderfully doled out in a masterfully orchestrated use of flashbacks, dialogue, and internal monologue. If you want a great fantasy adventure/action novel, Foundryside has you covered. But there’s oh so much more going on here.
Yes. While I definitely noticed the commentary on modern use of power and information technology, I was caught up in the story in its own right from the first few pages, as we follow Sancia on her job. I thought the little bits of mystery about Sancia (and later Gregor) were perfectly placed to draw me in and keep me wondering, even as the action grew faster and more hectic.
Regarding that commentary, as with the DIVINE CITIES trilogy, Bennett works in a serious helping of social criticism that adds several layers of depth that serve to both move and intellectual stimulate the reader. That whole merchant house system, for instance, has created a sharp inequality amongst the people of Tevanne:
If you didn’t work for a house … if you were poor, lame, uneducated, or just the wrong sort of person — then you lived in the remaining 20 percent of Tevanne … There were a lot of differences between the Commons and the campos. The campos, for instance, had waste systems, fresh water, well-maintained roads, and their buildings tended to stay standing … The campos also had a plethora of scrived devices to make their lives easier … Another thing that the campos had that the Commons did not were laws.
This gross inequality is made plain throughout the novel, perhaps nowhere so poignantly as when Sancia gets her first look inside a campo and sees:
Water. Fountains with just water in the, real clear, running water … They use water — clean water — as decoration?
Such a concept was, as she thinks to herself, utterly “incomprehensible.”
That same sense of surrealism rears its head later in the novel as she once again enters a campo: “It was unreal. To imagine that people lived in muddy alleys mere miles from here … shared the same rain clouds as this place.” While Tevanne’s economy isn’t strictly capitalistic, the obvious parallels to our own world are painfully bright.
Such parallels rise again when we learn that this is a system based on slavery in outer plantations, which is where we also learn human experimentation (attempts to scrive people rather than objects) has also been occurring. The practices are illegal in Tevanne itself, but as Orso notes, “provided we get our sugar, coffee, and whatever else on time, we couldn’t care less about what goes on out there.” (Before one thinks too smugly that sure, this is a historical parallel, but we don’t have slavery anymore, try replacing sugar and coffee with smartphones and cheap clothing.)
Frankly, for many of us coffee addicts, Bill, Bennett’s sentence doesn’t need any words replaced.
I hear there’s a program for you people. In any case, to say Bennett is criticizing capitalism is, I think, perhaps too much a narrowing of what Foundryside does. Much as with the DIVINE CITIES, he’s examining structures and systems and power in general, how it works, how it’s corrupted, how it corrupts, what it does to its wielders and those whom it exploits (often children, here and in the prior trilogy), this last in particular via several searing conversations and interior monologues that I don’t want to spoil here but that hit like a punch in the gut. We see it in the economic system as noted above so that “even in the greatest city on earth children go hungry, every day,” we see it in the plantation slavery, the human experimentation, in sexual slavery, in the way women “are rarely admitted to scriving academies.” It’s built into the magic system, since what is magic but power made direct and immediate? And it is explored as well via one of my favorite aspects of fantasy, one of its most powerful attributes — the ability to make the metaphoric literal.
I could spend much more time discussing the multiple themes and topics Bennett investigates, such as PTSD and the long-term effects of trauma, or the way marginalizing whole groups of people is not just immoral but also a colossal waste of human talent. I could go on at length about how Bennett never fails to offer up complexities and shadings and nuances in terms of behavior and motivation and actions and consequences, such as the way a particular act of do-gooding doesn’t end up anywhere near as expected. And I haven’t even touched upon the world-building, which is vivid and immersive, or the way I absolutely loved the blurring/melding of science and magic and technology in this book, including the incorporation of computer coding and AI and information science and even perhaps something akin to quantum entanglement. Or how the gravitas of the book is more than balanced by a fine sense of humor that runs throughout its entire span. Suffice to say my only complaint about Foundryside is the wait until the next one (while not quite as stand-alone as the DIVINE CITY books, this one does resolve the main plot line while leaving us hanging for book two).
All in all: the story, the fantastical setting, with its tiny details like a formal face paint the campo ladies wear; the language, the magic, and the characters all combined for a fascinating, exciting read. I’m looking forward to more in this series.
I’ve already cleared a place on my Best Books of 2018 list.