Foundryside – An Interview With Robert Jackson Bennett

Foundryside RD4 clean flatLast week was the general release of Robert Jackson Bennett’s new book, Foundryside, which we really enjoyed (and you can find the review here). It is an exciting new world with a number of mysteries that we wanted to know more about. Our group had a number of questions coming out of the book that Bennett was gracious enough to answer on both events in Foundryside and the future of the series. These questions do have mild spoilers for the first book, so I would recommend checking it out after you have read it. For those of you who have already finished this great read, enjoy:

I have had a love of houses with different creeds dating back to when I read Harry Potter as a child, so I was a big fan of the different houses in Foundryside. I had a bit of a specific question for you, how does one apply to enter one of the existing houses? How does a house go about recruiting new people? Are most employees born into their houses, or poached from others, or do you have any ideas for what a house interview process would be like?

This isn’t spelled out in the story, but if I were to imagine how it’d work…

So, probably about forty or fifty years before the story, when there were twenty, thirty, or a hundred merchant houses, they probably had an apprentice education system and scriving academies that anyone could go to, and if you went through the process and either passed an entrance exam or knew the right people, you could get hired by one of those houses.

However, in the decades since, four houses have completely consolidated nearly all power. So if you didn’t get in before or during the consolidation period, it’s a lot, lot harder to get into the merchant houses now. Now scriving is probably much more hereditary and nepotistic, where a spectrum of families within the four houses have cemented their positions and are trying to get their relations seeded all throughout the house’s structures. Each merchant house likely has not just one school but many schools within the campo, and getting into any of the schools probably requires a great deal of royal intrigue, favor jockeying, blackmail, and bribery. If you want your son to be a scriver (another thing they decided during the consolidation period is that scriving is a masculine art), and you’re external to Tevanne, you probably have to buy their way in. It is, in other words, not a meritocracy by any means.

The end result is that the merchant houses aren’t innovating nearly as much as they used to anymore, but they still wield unchallenged power, because the entry barrier to scriving is just way, way too high.

Scriving seems like an interesting profession. To me, if felt kind of like crossing a jeweler and a lawyer, needing the delicate hands and mind for rules. If scriving was suddenly real, what professions in the real world do you think would have the most applicable skills to make a career change into making magical artifacts?

Coding. When I was first sketching out the story in my mind, I settled on the thesis that magic is basically just a hack for reality – you are feeding reality instructions that makes it break the rules for you. Functionally speaking, scriving is a hack that makes objects disobey physics in select ways.

I noticed that there was a particular emphasis on scrivings based on gravity in the book, both good and bad. It resulted in some particularly spectacular and gruesome scenes that have really stuck with me. What made you think: gravity, this is the force I want to focus on?

Gravity is not very well understood today – where it came from, how it works, and so on. There’s an ongoing discussion about its nature, starting with general relativity, then dipping into string theory, quantum mechanics, and so on. As such, the idea of tampering with something immensely powerful but not well understood worked brilliantly with Foundryside.

Foundryside was a really fantastic book with a distinctly Venetian feel (a favorite location of inspiration for me). Are there any other cities you feel particularly drawn too that you have considered for inspiration for future books?

I will say that Haiti is an inspiration for an upcoming setting in the series. Historically more than geographically. It is the only successful large scale slave rebellion in human history.

Ophelia felt like a very hard-edged character verging on the edge of evil in this book. However, I might be extrapolating my impressions of her because she didn’t get a ton of screen time. Will we get to see her more of her in future books? If so, in what spoiler free context?

Ofelia Dandolo is going to figure very, very prominently in the next book. She is a hard-edged person, but it would be difficult not to be when you’re running a merchant house in the ruthless and cutthroat city of Tevanne. She’s always been devoted to protecting her family at all costs, which has led her to make some hard and desperate choices she’s still paying for.

The Mountain itself was one of the most interesting ‘characters’ in the book. It seemed to embody similar characteristics to where we currently are in developing Artificial Intelligence in the modern age. My question is, why did it still seem fairly ‘nice’ after watching and learning from generations of humans? Why wasn’t it pursuing power or love or any of the other things it has likely witnessed in it’s great walls? Also, please tell me it will return in the sequels!

Was the Mountain nice? I’m not sure. It was primarily created to attract a very specific sort of entity to Tevanne, but as far as it’s aware, those entities have not appeared. So I think it’s really more lonely and desperate than it is nice or cruel. It is its ongoing failure to fulfill its purpose that defines its attitude, as opposed to what it’s learned from human beings, since it’s still a fairly rudimentary intelligence.

I think it will likely make an appearance in the next book. There’s rather a lot happening in it, though.

The city in Foundryside seems to be a location in the Golden Age of scriving. How much scriving is actually taking place outside the city walls? Is it more of a traditional world out there? Why are there not more merchants coming to buy scrived tech in this city?

Tevanne’s primary industry is manufacturing scrived weapons and smaller lexicons – like combat lexicons – which it then either uses to capture territory, or sells to warlords to help them capture territory (it then taxes the everliving shit out of the warlords, and if they don’t pay up, they annihilate them with their superior scrived weaponry). There are tons and tons of diplomats in Tevanne trying to place contracts for rigs and lexicons, mostly for horrible purposes. There is no other scriving innovation taking place outside of Tevanne, because it’s expensive and hard to do, and it’s not in Tevanne’s interests to make it any easier. They want everyone coming to them.

Your books are often filled with imaginative inventions and creatures. Was there any idea or scriving type in Foundryside that you were particularly proud of?

What Orso comes up with in the climax is probably my favorite innovation, though it is very, very mind-bendy.

One of my favorite aspects of Foundryside as a story is the unlikely team up from people in so many different walks of life (the orphan, the prince, the sheltered genius, etc.). Was this an intentional combination on your part? What was the inspiration for drawing together such different people?

Yes. I’m a big sucker for the “ragtag group of misfits comes together to hatch a cunning plan” plot. I also like it when everyone yells and argues a lot, so making them all very different is critical to that.

Do you have any mock drawings of what scrivings would look like?

No. Scrivings convey an insane amount of information in each sigil and, to be frank, I don’t think I’m smart enough to be a scriver.

Correct me if I am wrong, but you mentioned in an earlier conversation we had that the main POVs of book two in The Founders would be different. Looking back at your past work with the Divine Cities as well, you don’t seem to like to stay in the head of a character for more than one book. Is there a particular reason or ethos for this?

I will say that Foundryside was very much Sancia’s book, but the sequel will be an ensemble story as the ragtag group of misfits tries to run the equivalent of a magic startup. Foundryside slowly spread out into using Orso, Sancia, and Gregor as POVs, but the sequel will begin in this format, and will add in some new ones. This is just a result of the story and world getting bigger. You need new perspectives to help the audience comprehend the scale of the stakes. I suspect that’s why I often mix up my POVs – as the story expands, it moves into a new space.

-Thank you to Robert Jackson Bennett for taking the time to answer our questions!

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Foundryside – Glyph It A Chance

Foundryside RD4 clean flatHere 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
-Andrew