The Tainted Cup by Robert Jackson Bennett fantasy book reviewsThe Tainted Cup by Robert Jackson Bennett fantasy book reviewsThe Tainted Cup by Robert Jackson Bennett

With 2024’s The Tainted Cup, Robert Jackson Bennett introduces us to another beautiful, strange world, gives us a murder mystery, and brings on stage an engaging duo of detectives, against a backdrop of gargantuan creatures and weird botanical science. The first book of THE SHADOW OF THE LEVIATHAN is a satisfying mystery that leaves plenty of bigger questions unanswered, and I want the next book. Now.

Dinios Kol is a member of the Iudex, the department of justice for the Empire of Khanum. He is the new apprentice to the Empire’s eccentric Immunis, Anagosa Dalabra. Din has been botanically altered. Through a suffusion process, his brain has been rewired so that he remembers perfectly everything he experiences. He is a human recorder, the perfect system for a detective who relies on data and analysis to solve questions and mysteries. Din has a secret he is keeping that relates directly to his ability to do his job, and he fears discovery throughout the book. Surprisingly, though, even though Ana is a terror—calling her “eccentric” is being kind—he has a good relationship with her.

The most benign aspects of Ana’s eccentricity are that she never leaves her house, and frequently wears a blindfold (even inside). Too much external stimulation, she says, distracts her from her analysis. When Din investigates the murder of a man who died by having a tree growing out of his body, though, it looks as if Ana will have to venture out of her house and go to the neighboring canton if she is to find justice. The victim was an Engineer, and out on the eastern rim of the Khanum Empire, where this story takes place, Engineers are vital, because they maintain the weapons and the huge seawalls that fend off the periodic incursions by the leviathans, creatures as big as mountains that try to come ashore during the wet season. Shortly after the first murder is reported, Ana and Din are informed that in the canton due east, Tala, ten Engineers have died the same way. One incident led to a gap in the seawall, leaving the continent vulnerable to a breach by a leviathan.

Against a brilliantly depicted world with lush jungles, and plains containing the massive bones of leviathans, Bennett weaves a nearly perfect murder mystery complete with false trails, beguiling clues, red herrings and even the classic “perhaps you’re wondering why I called you all here” moment when Ana confronts all the suspects. There is more than one “mystery” in the book though. There is Din’s strangeness, and the deficit he desperately tries to keep from Ana, which is the way letters and words wriggle and jump around on the page when he tries to read. There is the mystery of the leviathans themselves (alternately called the titans, which is Ana’s preferred term for them) and the increasing, nagging sense that the history of the empire and its mission to protect the continent from the titans just… isn’t the whole story. There is the mystery of Ana and how she came to be exiled to the backwater eastern rim, and her feud with the wealthy, powerful and connected Haza clan.

In the afterword Bennett says his detective duo was inspired by his reading of a Nero Wolfe story when he was young. Certainly, Ana’s reclusiveness is a “Wolfe” trait, but Dinios is no Archie Goodwin. He is his own character. Frankly, I always thought of Wolfe as basically lazy and whatever Ana is, it’s not lazy. However, if unlike me, you love Nero and Archie, give this book a try. I’m sure it won’t disappoint you.

I’ve made the story sound cerebral, and there’s plenty of intellectual action, but plenty of physical action too. In a book where a tree sprouts out of a man’s body in the first chapter, and giant creatures break through huge walls and spread magic and death in their wake, two scenes stood out for me, even above the general immersive quality of the narrative voice and the worldbuilding. Kalista is one of the assistant investigators on the case, and her agitation when it’s revealed she may have been exposed to the assassin’s poison was emotionally devastating, and believable. Believable, too, was her concern for a friend who might also have been exposed. The most intense sequence for me, though, where I was huddled in my chair chewing on the fingernails of my free hand, was the chapter in which Din, alone, investigates the halls and grounds of the Haza clan. He is at risk from the moment he steps into their carriage, but there is little he can do about it, and the steady clenching of the pressure—social, emotional, sexual—wielded against him by the daughter of the clan grew steadily terrifying.

When I finished the book the first time, I wasn’t sure if I accepted the motivation for the mass murders. (To be fair, a couple of characters in the book were skeptical too.) Upon rereading, I saw that the clues to that motivation were masterfully placed. Without creating spoilers, I’ll say I consider it a very “New York” reason for mass murder, but it does work in the context of this empire and this world.

It’s difficult for me to review Bennett because I always feel like I should just say, “Go read it!” and be done. This is a different direction for his work, although not such a stretch. After all, Foundryside was a heist book. The characters have seduced me, but I’m not reading this only for them. I really want to know what’s behind the curtain of Din’s strange world. As I said at the beginning, “Bring me Book Two! Now!”

Published in February 2024. In Daretana’s greatest mansion, a high imperial officer lies dead—killed, to all appearances, when a tree erupted from his body. Even here at the Empire’s borders, where contagions abound and the blood of the leviathans works strange magical changes, it’s a death both terrifying and impossible. Assigned to investigate is Ana Dolabra, a detective whose reputation for brilliance is matched only by her eccentricities. Rumor has it that she wears a blindfold at all times, and that she can solve impossible cases without even stepping outside the walls of her home. At her side is her new assistant, Dinios Kol, magically altered in ways that make him the perfect aide to Ana’s brilliance. Din is at turns scandalized, perplexed, and utterly infuriated by his new superior—but as the case unfolds and he watches Ana’s mind leap from one startling deduction to the next, he must admit that she is, indeed, the Empire’s greatest detective. As the two close in on a mastermind and uncover a scheme that threatens the Empire itself, Din realizes he’s barely begun to assemble the puzzle that is Ana Dolabra—and wonders how long he’ll be able to keep his own secrets safe from her piercing intellect. By an “endlessly inventive” (Vulture) author with a “wicked sense of humor” (NPR), The Tainted Cup mixes the charms of detective fiction with brilliant world-building to deliver a fiendishly clever mystery that’s at once instantly recognizable and thrillingly new.


  • Marion Deeds

    Marion Deeds, with us since March, 2011, is the author of the fantasy novella ALUMINUM LEAVES. Her short fiction has appeared in the anthologies BEYOND THE STARS, THE WAND THAT ROCKS THE CRADLE, STRANGE CALIFORNIA, and in Podcastle, The Noyo River Review, Daily Science Fiction and Flash Fiction Online. She’s retired from 35 years in county government, and spends some of her free time volunteering at a second-hand bookstore in her home town.