Shorefall – Remember To Breathe

Do you like rollercoasters? Do you like feeling the grim reaper’s breath on your neck as you hurtle through time and space at speeds that the human mind wasn’t meant to comprehend? Does being super incredibly stressed for uncomfortably long periods of time turn you on? If you answered yes to any of these questions have I got a book for you! Shorefall, by Robert Jackson Bennett, is the emotional equivalent of being shot into the sun at terminal velocity and I absolutely love it.

If you are just reading The Quill to Live for the first time, welcome to the site! Please know that we collectively love RJB and think he is one of the best contemporary writers of modern fantasy. Shorefall did little to dissuade us of that notion. The book is the sequel to Foundryside (our review of book one can be found here) and while Shorefall picks up the narrative three years later – it only feels like seconds. Sancia, Berenice, Orso, and Gregory have founded their own scriving house with plans to use the technology they invent, steal, and extort to better the world around them and burn the remaining established houses to the ground. However, these plans need to take a major pause when they learn of an otherworldly threat descending on their beloved city. There are some mild spoilers for Foundryside after the cover picture so turn back now if you haven’t read the first book and want to remain completely pure.

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At the end of book one, the Foundrysiders released what seemed to be a god from her entrapment. They had mixed feelings about this, but feel decidedly negative when they learn that a second opposing diety looks poised to also return to wage war on everything. The first hierophant, a man who could wipe cities off the planet with a thought, is coming back. The Foundrysiders begin to scramble to prevent the hierophant’s return, as it could spell the end of reality itself.

Here’s the thing. I thought Shorefall would be a story about our lovable crew from book one working together to figure out how to prevent this clearly unstoppable force of nature from coming back and ruining existence. The book would be a game of tag between the Foundrysiders and the cult ushering the hierophant’s return. At the end of the book, the cult might get successful in bringing him back in some form and we would have an intense set up for book three in this series. That is not what happened, at all. I am sorry for these mild Shorefall spoilers, but the first hierophant makes it back in something like the first 10% of the book. The entirety of Shorefall after this point essentially becomes the story of “what if a team of four talented engineers got into a batshit insane pissing match with Cthulu?” It is one of the most intense and fast-paced stories I have ever read, with the sense of palpable urgency never letting up for a single second. Every second of this novel feels appropriately like a mere mortal standing firm against the will of a cosmic deity and saying “fuck you.” It is a work of art.

The magic continues to be one of the coolest and most imaginative concepts that I have ever read. Bennett refuses to be backed into a corner by his premise and continues to find more and more interesting ways to step outside the box he built for himself. The way the characters use and bend the rules of the world to affect change feels like an inconceivably large puzzle snapping into the correct configuration. The magic is also still visceral and nightmarish. I am haunted by some of the descriptions and deaths from this series. I see them in my mind when I lay down to sleep at night and cannot block the sounds of their imagined cries as they are ripped to pieces. This series is not for the squeamish.

Shorefall is so much more than I expected. On top of giving me enough anxiety to have a stroke, it has truly beautiful character stories. Just like in book one the POV is split between all four of our leads, with a slightly greater focus placed on Sancia and Gregory. Each character is dealing with some heavy stuff that is explored in great detail. To give you a peek into some of their trials: Sancia is trying to understand what to do with her life now that she has stability for the first time ever. Gregory is trying to gain some semblance of control over literally anything to feel like he has a shred of agency in his life. Berenice is struggling with the idea that while she is amazing at many things, in order to do what is needed she has to step outside the comfort zone she has hidden in her entire life. Orso is coping with the profound realization that most of his life’s work isn’t going to amount to anything and trying to find meaning in his existence. This is only a fraction of what these characters are going through and it is wonderful.

However, I will say that while it is truly impressive that Bennett managed to create such a fast-paced story with such memorable character arcs – it feels like these two powerful elements of the story do not compliment each other well. The pacing rips you through the story so fast there is rarely time to sit and digest things. This works well from a plot perspective because it keeps you so off-balance that every new piece of information feels like an amazing twist. But these character stories are beautiful and deserve to be luxuriated in, and there simply doesn’t feel like there is enough time to do so with how fact the pace moves. I just want it all, to be pulled across a lake of imagination at the speed of sound and at the same time sit on the shores and calmly enjoy the view.

Shorefall is not what I expected in the best way possible. It is a lightning strike to the spine, an explosion of ideas and feelings, and a hauntingly beautiful story about good people making hard choices. It is a success as a sequel in every possible way and I can think of and if you are not already reading The Founders series by Robert Jackson Bennett you are missing out. Shorefall is not a book to let pass you by like a ship in the night.

Rating: Shorefall – 9.5/10
-Andrew

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!

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