Tiny lights burned yellow and dim from within the needles of a fallen Yule tree. It lay in the snow where it had crashed, sprawled across the path ahead, branches sagging into the powder, crossed boards of the base sticking up like stiff toes. Several sets of footprints tracked where passersby had walked around or stepped over the tree.
When I paused next to it, falling snow took the opportunity to begin piling up on my bare head. My breath puffed frosty white in the streetlamp light. “Need a hand up?”
“Oh, if you don’t mind,” several tiny voices chorused at once. They jingled like the tongues of a hundred little bells. “Someone thought it funny to knock our tree down and we can’t lift it ourselves.”
I set my bag down into the snow next to me. When I began lifting the tree by its rough trunk, faint little shrieks of surprise tinkled from the branches. The string lights flickered. But once I had the tree upright, they shone bright again, casting a halo of lights that reflected off the snow like golden stars.
“Did no one else offer to help?” I asked the lights. The tree kept trying to fall again when I released it. Upon inspection, I found one of the base boards had snapped.
“We didn’t ask,” the lights replied.
I looped some string from my pack around the tree trunk and the nearby handrail. “That,” I grunted as I tied it off, “should not have mattered.” Now when I straightened, the Yule tree remained upright, proud as the others that lined this footpath.
“Who are you?” the lights chimed. “That we may thank you.”
“No idea,” I replied. I hefted my bag, preparing to move on. “But it doesn’t matter. You’re welcome all the same.”
She carried the moon with her – a rounded orb of lunar rock, lit by the invisible reflection of a missing sun, somehow an echo of the real thing hanging in the night sky. She cradled it in her palms like an offering and whispered, “Where is my sun?”
So many had heard her question and gone mad seeking the answer. ‘In the sky’ would not do, nor would any variation. Though she witnessed the sun, and its distant twin cousins, every day, she asked still.
Flicking her gaze to me, she said, “Where is my sun?” Her question burned like the drag behind my belly button pulling me toward her; I had moved too far into her range. Pain weighted her calm eyes, dense as the devastating iron that collapses the hearts of stars.
The very marrow of my bones grew heavy, the next step forward like escaping the grasp of an event horizon. When I reached her, however, I placed my hand atop the tiny moon, soft, powdery dust clinging to my palm. My eyes met hers as I pushed the orb lower. “Your son was at the space station,” I said, “when the life support failed.”
No tears reached those cold eyes, but her voice quivered. “Where is my son?”
“He died at the space station,” I repeat. “You know this. You cannot keep using his gift from his moon landing to drive people mad like this.”
At last, she dropped her hands, the orb clutched at her side. It dimmed and flickered out, releasing its painful weight on my body. I inhaled deeply, expanding crushed lungs.
“My son, my sun,” she murmured, “strangled in the sky that he loved so much.” She brushed her thumb across the gift from her astronaut, her head hung in silent grief.
Foundryside explores what might happen if a master key could open any lock because it could converse with the laws and rules of reality, as well as what might happen if it came across a human who could understand and talk back to it.
In a city that runs on industrialized magic, a secret war will be fought to overwrite reality itself–the first in a dazzling new series from City of Stairs author Robert Jackson Bennett.
Sancia Grado is a thief, and a damn good one. And her latest target, a heavily guarded warehouse on Tevanne’s docks, is nothing her unique abilities can’t handle.
But unbeknownst to her, Sancia’s been sent to steal an artifact of unimaginable power, an object that could revolutionize the magical technology known as scriving. The Merchant Houses who control this magic–the art of using coded commands to imbue everyday objects with sentience–have already used it to transform Tevanne into a vast, remorseless capitalist machine. But if they can unlock the artifact’s secrets, they will rewrite the world itself to suit their aims.
Now someone in those Houses wants Sancia dead, and the artifact for themselves. And in the city of Tevanne, there’s nobody with the power to stop them.
To have a chance at surviving—and at stopping the deadly transformation that’s under way—Sancia will have to marshal unlikely allies, learn to harness the artifact’s power for herself, and undergo her own transformation, one that will turn her into something she could never have imagined.
Robert Jackson Bennett is a two-time award winner of the Shirley Jackson Award for Best Novel, an Edgar Award winner for Best Paperback Original, and is also the 2010 recipient of the Sydney J Bounds Award for Best Newcomer, and a Philip K Dick Award Citation of Excellence. City of Stairs was shortlisted for the Locus Award and the World Fantasy Award. City of Blades was a finalist for the 2015 World Fantasy, Locus, and British Fantasy Awards. The Divine Cities trilogy was nominated for a Hugo for Best Series. His eighth novel, Foundryside, was released in 2018 to wide acclaim.
My friend told me about Foundryside because the main character is a rogue and she knows I like playing such characters in various RPGs. I’m drawn to that chaotic-neutral and neutral-good mentality. That was the hook, anyway. Turns out she just had the right pitch to get me to read a fantastic book.
What I Liked
Foundrysideexplores what might happen if a master key could open any lock because it could converse with the laws and rules of reality, as well as what might happen if it came across a human who could understand and talk back to it. The story takes place in the wake of a civilization once vast and grand but now dead and fabled so long ago that present day feels more like the end of time. Even the scraps left behind from that powerful civilization have become worth staggering amounts of money, so that the worth of the key initially drives the plot forward, but eventually the value of life–a value few of Tevanne’s varied populace share except where one’s own skin may be concerned–becomes the true spine of the story.
Sancia. The most beastly female character I’ve ever read. She’s stronk. Multiple characters (all men) call her ugly. She’s still hardy, resilient, and good-hearted, capable of getting herself into bad situations for the right reasons and back out of them with a whole lot of ass kicking. (Almost like she holds inherent value as a person, despite lacking conventional attractiveness to the male gaze. Wild.) I love her.
Gregor. Not, as I at first expected, an over-good character. He’s cheery (hilariously so), moral, and capable of flexible thinking concerning his goals to remake the world (or one city) into something decent. Tragedy dogs his steps and the twists to his character arc tugged at my heart strings.
Orso. An absolute terror of a genius. Comes off as an impatient arse, which he is, but only because he has high standards, and when the people around him reach those standards, he will go to hell and back with them. Oddly charitable, despite this, and willing to acknowledge his own mistakes. Would absolutely try to impress this guy, but probably fail.
Berenice. The absolute coolest-blooded character. Smarter than pretty much everyone, on-par with Orso, and not afraid to say so out loud. Perfectly aware of her worth and a total orderly opposite of Sancia’s chaotic nature. Might be living in denial about some of her own traumas. Easily my favorite.
Clef. A relic of a civilization so ancient that most understanding and knowledge of its denizens has been lost. Talks in such a way that he reminds me of the speech patterns of modern-day young people (very relatable), almost as if his past might be our present world’s future, if humanity ever figured out the key to the coding of the universe. Plucky and indescribably ride-or-die for anyone whose name is Sancia.
Other brilliantly-wrought characters make appearances in Foundryside, but these four make up the main group.
Changing perspective. The narrative of Foundrysidedrops information about the function of the world from the mouths of different characters, which coalesces into new, wild ideas about reality as these characters interact with each other. Tevanne has functioned the same way for always, with four houses hoarding 99% of the wealth, leaving the rest for those living around the fringes. Such power derives from convincing those at the bottom that things have always been this way and always will be, too dangerous for resistance or change. But as people from all classes and social strata of this town interact–a thief trapped in poverty, a former soldier attempting to generate law enforcement, a genius desperate for a piece of the pie, and brilliant inventor –they begin to broaden their understandings and to recognize that sometimes reality is only a matter of perspective.
The ending of Foundryside–explosive and twisty and clever–takes readers so far from the beginning. The characters never leave the city of Tevanne, yet the end has you feeling like they’ve traveled across the world on an epic journey, so far away and changed are they from who they were at the beginning. Triumph and tragedy intermingle, engendering unresolved problems and promising more thrilling adventure to come in the next book.
What I Disliked
Nothing. I loved it all.
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Worry had just begun to gnaw at me when I felt the thin silver chain wrapped around my fingers twitch. In what I thought looked like an ancient river bed, I paused, swinging the pendulum hanging from my hand back and forth. Slowly, slowly. At the bottom end of the chain hung a smooth orb of iolite, tinged a dusky purple. It spun a little, but remained vertical. Not a good sign. Maybe I had imagined it.
There had been so many directions to choose from, so full of possibility, and only one the right choice. I chewed my lip, looking around myself again. It was the way big, smooth rocks poked out of the dirt here, as if worn away by constant water flow. But it wasn’t like underground rivers had to follow their old routes exactly. This one could have looped miles away, leaving me here, with vulnerable friends counting on my help.
The pendulum chain twitched again. I paused, squinting at the dangling orb in the failing light. It spun and spun as I swung it around myself. But then, when I had walked several hundred feet to my left, the chain at last leapt away from the ground, hanging at an angle almost horizontal.
I grinned. This was it.
I ran almost a mile back the way I had come and clambered over a huge limestone deposit. At the top, I shouted down to the forest of tall, spindly trees below. “Northwest!”
As one, the trees shook to life, digging roots through leaf loam and dry dirt as they shifted northwest, edging around the limestone that had blocked their path along their river.
The tree passing me ran a cluster of twigs through my hair. “Well done, Wanderer,” it whispered with rustling leaves. “Thank you.”
Fifteen minutes of hope. That was all it took to drive me into standing in line for a week, winding step by step through the bottom of a valley alongside hundreds of other travelers from the world over, all sharing that same hope with me. No one maintained the line, yet in it we stood, hemmed in by long-standing tradition set down by years of previous hopefuls. Old stalls set up along the line sold food and supplies at intervals. I told tales of my wanderings to those around me and heard more in turn. Line mates became friends became family, until they reached the end of the line and departed, never to return.
For the destination of this line was a single sandglass set upon a stone pedestal, containing fifteen minutes’ worth of black sand within. From where I stood, I could see it at last, glinting in the setting sunlight. A woman took her place on a worn stump set before the pedestal, hands clenched as she stared into the upper glass bulb. Then she smiled, laughing as her eyes filled with tears, spirited away to the past. From here, only the mirage of images danced inside the glass, disclosing none of her secrets to onlookers. Fifteen minutes of perfect, detailed memory. But only once, never again.
Variations of the same repeated with the next several in line. When I reached the sandglass myself, night had fallen and tiny stars winked overhead. Anything, I thought as I took my seat. I hoped for any of my memories from before I began to wander. Anything at all.
But when I flipped the sandglass and stared into the orb, precious sand running to the bottom, no images materialized. Nothing, not a single recollection, up until the last grain fell through.
Orange sparks drifted upward into the night sky. Below them, flames fed upon fragrant pine boughs, leaping high and higher. The popping hiss of logs and branches lent the dancing flames voice, like a smoker singing to the tune of the whistling wind.
I had questions for the builder of this bonfire, for those fluttering sparks contained puffs of stardust, occasionally throwing off sunshine and sparkling colors. After I found it unattended, I waited, watching, long into the night, but the maker never returned. Nor did the fire burn down. As my mind grew weary, the crackling sounded more like laughter, and the flame tips looked like twirling fingertips.
Late into the night, one blink turned longer than the ones before, and on the other side of it, I found someone bent at the waist, peering into my face. This someone was made of fire.
I sat up straight where I had dozed against a tree trunk, drawing back from the heat of the flames.
The fire spirit squinted kerosene blue eyes in the approximation of a smile. “Well met, cousin.”
“Cousin?” I echoed. Behind it, the bonfire was nothing but embers.
In a voice like burning brush, the spirit said, “You have flames in your heart.” It then executed an exhilarated spin, shedding more colorful sparks into the grass all around.
I smiled at such delight. “And you have a star in yours.” Licking my thumb, I snuffed out a smoldering thread of my coat. “Which way from here, cousin?”
“Hopeward,” the fiery creature cried, dancing back onto its bed of coals. “Duskward!”
With a whoosh, the flames sank into the earth, leaving nothing behind but a patch of black soot. The final flaming tendril was a finger, pointing me toward the west.
Dug several levels into the earth, a double set of stairs twisted around and around each other in graceful spirals – spirals that put me in mind of the arms of a galaxy. Black wrought-iron railing echoed the emptiness of space. This and the marble flooring below suggested opulence and grandeur deep underground. Warm, inviting light illuminated the steps, which were somehow clean despite exposure to the open sky. From my position where raw dirt met carved step, I straightened, taking in the contrasting ruined city around me, reminded of things like illusions and trapdoor spiders.
Below, what I had mistaken for statuary centered between the staircases suddenly moved. A man swiveled his head to look up at me, his handsome face illuminated in the weak afternoon light. He grinned and his smile was all white teeth. Making an invitational gesture, he said, “Come on down here.”
With a shrug, I obliged. The handrail bit my bare palms with cold but warmed as I descended. The man kept his eyes on me, contorting his neck around when I passed behind him. Predatory, hungering. Obvious. At last, I came to a stop before him, hands in pockets, eyebrows raised as if to say, well?
A pause. Then the man lunged forward, fingers outstretched, mouth open wide, wide, wide. But he stopped short, arms windmilling when his feet did not follow. He was stuck to the floor.
“I know of you,” I said, as he collected himself. “The townspeople entrapped you here, so you could not lure their families into your lair.”
His face contorted into misery. “Please free me,” he whimpered.
I shook my head. “Ask the descendants of your victims; maybe they’ll let you out to kill again.” At his hopeful expression, I said, “Somehow, though, I doubt they will.”