Book Review: Shorefall by Robert Jackson Bennett

In Shorefall by Robert Jackson Bennett, three years have passed since the events of Foundryside, the first installment in the Founders series. Long enough for Sancia Grado and the allies she made in Foundryside to plan and begin to execute a magical-industrial revolution, one that will make scriving, the sacred and secret art of bending reality to one’s will, accessible to all. But on the cusp of the realization of this dream, Sancia and company learn of a deadly enemy being brought back to life. So they set out to defeat him before he has a chance to manifest back into their reality. Sancia, alongside Berenice, Orso, and Gregor, must struggle against this new threat that dwarfs all of them apart, but they may stand a chance together. If only they could rise above their personal traumas still not settled from their last adventures in Tevanne.

Much as in Foundryside, the narrative of Shorefall broadens the characters’ and readers’ understanding of scriving, the medium for magic in this world. In addition, building on the resourcefulness of the main characters evidenced in the previous book, our heroes find themselves thrown against a force of evil both convincing and powerful, forced to pit their shared skills and love for one another against more of an enemy than they can handle as they are attacked both in body and in conviction as to what makes right and wrong. The villain, having lived for thousands of years, has concluded that no matter the effort put into freeing humans from slavery, they always choose to use their resources to enslave others in an endless, vicious cycle. The more he talks about this idea, the more he shakes the altruistic conviction of the Foundryside bunch, because does not history already prove his claims true? The villain’s effect on beloved, despicable Tevanne turns the characters’ world upside down as he grabs for power through human sacrifices. By the end, nothing they knew is the same.

Yet an idea introduced in Foundryside, known as twinning, reaches new heights through the dubious help of a diminished golden god, the villain’s former helper. As the Foundrysiders begin twinning themselves to each other to share experiences, they find this powerful form of walking in each others’ shoes allows them to forgive, understand, and know each other the way they forgive, understand, and know themselves. Though they already loved each other before, their love deepens with every new addition to their twinned experience. Sancia and the rest hope that such an experience could break the cycle of human enslavement if only everyone could experience through the application of this technique the lows and highs of everyone else.

The narrative seeks to interrogate the fruitlessness of altruism. Only a handful of days pass over the course of the entire story, with a majority of the plot zooming in on small moments to keep the revelations coming as the villain goes about his dirty work. While Foundryside functioned the same way, I found in Shorefall a lack of the action and discovery prevalent in its predecessor. As well, this book went to some darker places, making the villain someone truly horrifying as bodies began piling up in gruesome detail. But I think those who tend to grapple with this kind of thinking may benefit from this stark look at such difficult questions, as well as the answer.

While Shorefall was not the rip-roaring ride of the first installment, I enjoyed the deeper examination of the relationships cultivated between the main characters in the previous events. As well, I had not expected to confront such difficult questions as, how will humanity ever end its barbaric cruelty to other people? and how could the removal of free will or the deepening of empathy potentially be the solutions? I found myself facing my own conclusions about these thoughts and re-examining them as the story progressed. I would recommend this book to readers who like to read about the deep questions and who appreciate clever and fantastical representations of the answers to those questions.

My rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Goodreads rating: 4.24 stars


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Book Review: Foundryside by Robert Jackson Bennett

Foundryside Synopsis


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.

Goodreads

About Robert Jackson Bennett

Award-winning author Robert Jackson Bennett


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.

Robert Bennett’s Website

My Thoughts

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

Plot

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. 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. 

characters

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. 

theme

Changing perspective. The narrative of Foundryside drops 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. 

ending

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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