Here we go. It has been a bit of a slow year so far, especially compared to the volume of incredible fantasy and science fiction books that came out in 2017. While I have really enjoyed a few installments in ongoing series, there really hasn’t been a series start that has stood out in 2018 so far – until now. I feel like it should surprise no one that Foundryside, by Robert Jackson Bennett, is a sensationally good book. Ever since I stumbled onto City of Stairs, Robert has been a fixture of my yearly best books lists and has never disappointed. I was a little bummed when the Divine Cities series wrapped up last year and Robert said he was moving on to a new project, but my misgivings have been blown away and I am fully on team Founders (the name of the larger series).
So what is Foundryside about? Well, to make a long story short, a thief steals an object that puts her at the center of a conspiracy to destroy the world, and only her and a group of random people that get dragged into the conflict can stop it. The longer version takes a little more explaining. One of my absolute favorite parts of Robert’s writing is his incredible imagination. His ideas always feel both fresh and cool, and Foundryside is no exception. In the book people have learned how to essentially rewrite local laws of the universe using glyphs to make cool effects and tools. Now that sounds vague and complicated, but here is an example: one scrivner wrote symbols on two pieces of metal so that anything that happens to one, happens to the other twin piece. This is then used to light one piece of metal on fire to set off gunpowder near the second piece from afar. I liked the premise of this “magic” from the first page, and Bennett used it to do some truly creative and awe inspiring things in the novel. Circling back to the plot, the people of Foundryside are the remnants of a civilization that essentially destroyed itself by using these powerful glyphs eons ago (losing record of the glyphs in the process). Their ancestors have tried to rediscover the ancient magic and have had middling success. However, just this tiny success has allowed a small fraction of the population to essentially become massive mercantile houses that rule unchallenged. So, when our protagonist, Sancia, discovers an object that might unlock some of the original glyphs the entire city sets out to murder her and take it for themselves. What I really liked about the magic system is that Bennett clearly defines the limitations of scrivning early on, so you get to try and think about how to find loopholes the rest of the book. It is a satisfying magic system to read about and it balances mystery, science, and awesomeness very well. Plus, there are some truly gruesome deaths via glyph in the story – like “seek therapy after reading this” level of fucked (and they were as brilliant as they were horrifying).
The world is cool, the magic is cool, and the plot is amazing. Speaking about it more in the abstract, I found myself deeply invested in this story and hanging on every word (especially near the end). The one of two minor criticisms I have for the book as a whole is I felt the pacing was a little uneven. The beginning is great but a bit slow, and the ending is so damn immersive and fast that I had a moment where I looked at my clock at 4 am on a work night with 100 pages left and thought “why are you doing this to me Robert” before finishing the rest of the book. The cast of the story come from a number of walks of life and they create a fantastic crew that bounce the plot between heist, combat, intrigue, politics, and science – nailing all of them. Foundryside felt like reading five different books, all of them excellent and seamlessly wound together. On top of all of this, Foundryside does a phenomenal job of both telling a high-stakes and self-contained story, and setting up the greater series as a whole. Unfortunately, the other minor criticism I have is that Foundryside’s antagonist can feel bit over the top. He is such a puppy kicking, ice cream hating nazi lover from page one that he can seem comically evil at times. This did, however, make him a cathartic person to take down, so it didn’t bother me immensely.
I’ve saved the best part for last: the characters. As I have alluded to above, Foundryside follows a group of unlikely allies that end up working together through happenstance. You have an orphan thief from the ghettos, a prince warrior with an unyielding sense of justice, an older snarky inventor, a calm and dependable engineer, and an amnesiac who seems to be more than he appears. The dynamic and synergy of this group filled me with all sorts of positive emotions. I loved watching them learn about, decide if they could trust, and come to depend on each other. They all play off of each other so damn well and it made the heartaches, victories, and humor hit hard – constantly getting reactions from me in a wonderful way. While I love Sancia (the thief) dearly, the unnamed (for spoiler reasons) inventor was my absolute favorite. His was a new perspective for me, and I was surprised how much I identified him and his reactions to events. I have already reread a number of scenes in the book as I just enjoy watching the characters talk and react so much. There are also a number of things that people are looking for in modern fantasy such as: some great female leads and a well written homosexual romance subplot (although it does take second string to stopping the world from ending).
Foundryside is a really good book, and will effortlessly make my top books of 2018. Robert Jackson Bennett is a writer of supreme talent and imagination, and has once again proven that his work is worth your time. If you like politics, action, intrigue, engineering, heists, humor, fun, happiness, heartache, or lovable characters – Foundryside has it all. I honestly can’t imagine who wouldn’t like this book, so sit down, dig in, and have a good time.
Rating: Foundryside – 9.5/10