Review: Foundryside (Founders #1) by 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.

RATING: ☆★☆★☆

*reads a heist book* nice

*reads a heist book with flawlessly executed worldbuilding, a wonderfully diverse cast of characters (the two main characters are black), expertly written character development, and a burgeoning sapphic romance* N I C E

The first in a brand-new series, Foundryside introduces a world that is pure molten menace, one that feels real enough to have its own passport stamp and arresting enough that—even if you wouldn’t want to live there—you’ll want to visit.

In Tevanne, four major Merchant houses hold the thread to power, looking contemptuously upon those who were poorer in possessions and from whom they exacted the most devastating tithes. And there’s one thing the Merchants coveted with so much greed: scrived artifacts. They killed for it, fought wars for it, wasted fortunes mining for it. Scriving is essentially a mountainous violation of reality itself: the act of harnessing bits and pieces and fragments of an alphabet, left behind by ancient, quasi-mythical beings called the Hierophants, to paint sigils upon mindless objects that convince them to behave like something that they aren’t. You can persuade a blade to target the weakest part of whatever it’s swung at or coax a wooden piece into believing that it was dark stone and thus infallible, but a slow trickle of rumors spoke of worse things: of scrived people, enslaved, their minds stolen away so they have no more will than stones.

“This is a rich man’s fight,” said Sancia. “A rich man’s game. And we’re all just pieces on the board to you.”

Every single signpost on the road that started since Sancia Grado was hired to pull off a heist in exchange for an incomprehensibly large amount of money told her this was a very bad idea, and she believed them all. But survival in Foundryside is measured by the thinnest of margins, and for Sancia, this was just another hard edge of a hard life.

Sancia’s particular skillset guaranteed the job would be simple, like a dropped stone falling to a lake with scarcely a ripple: break in—an invisible marauder, unseen and unfelt—steal a specific object and collect the bounty. But her excellently laid scheme soon tears, skewed and fraying, and the shock of Sancia’s discovery—a talking key, named Clef, with a mind of its own—wakes her to the truth of her situation: an item of such unusual power cannot fall into the wrong hands (even though Clef’s attitude left a great deal to be desired). Curiosity and caution appear to have each other do a draw, and Sancia finds herself incapable of moving on until she cracks this mystery open to get to the soft parts hidden inside.

Sancia’s new-forged plan embroils her into snarls both mortal and magical, rushing her, unwary, into “a war that has raged in a time beyond memory”, and she will need every ally ingenuity can yield her. Enter: Captain Dandalo, a righteous cop with a bee in his bonnet about justice, Orso Ignacio, a notorious scriver with a foul reputation and even fouler moods, and Berenice, his sharp and far-more-skilled assistant whom Sancia is absolutely not having a crush on.

“And now you, Sancia Grado,” said Giovanni, tying up the sack, “at all of five foot no inches, and a hundred and nothing pounds, are going to take them all on.” He held it out to her, grinning. “Good luck.”

The contours of the plot will undoubtedly feel familiar to genre fans, but the author continues to adeptly dress the bones of his premise. And dress them. And dress them. The result is a ravishingly vivid and convincing novel, relentlessly erudite and remarkably inventive.

Foundryside is a lavishly ambitious novel, and it delivers on that ambition. Bennett moves through his conceptual tangle with great thoroughness and startling clarity, leaving no stone unturned. His ability to craft a complex, intricate and tightly wound mechanism of a story that brims and bubbles with detail without that information ever seeming tedious or encyclopedic, and to skewer modern tropes with a deft but direct hand, is enormous.

Reading this book, you’re always living in action’s eye, bright and polished. The magic in this world is thrumming with restless energy, an unfathomable force that makes you feel as though you were part of something. It’s what makes Foundrisyde an effortlessly charismatic novel. The story is always striving and seeking, eddying and turning in such slyly unpredictable ways, always delighting in some new twist of cleverness, some brilliance summoned out of the air, that, honestly, I sometimes laughed out loud at Bennett’s ingenuity. But it’s when he lays all his cards down at last that it becomes soundly devastating. Revelations come roaring at the reader, as deafening as any explosion, louder than the rending of the earth, and I drank it all in a daze of fascinated horror. The ending opened the chasm of my curiosity even deeper, kicking up a storm in my mind, the last line setting a nauseating quiver in the marrow of my bones.

While there is plenty original in the above, the success of Foundryside, in my opinion, lies in the way it becomes a laboratory in which Bennett examines, at great length and in cleverly subtle ways, the notions of free will, freedom of choice and the nature of sentience. It’s also a masterful critique of capitalism, one that cuts right to the heart of the matter, to the essential rottenness of the world. Foundryside is a killer story about power, corruption, and vengeance. Tevanne is a world abound with poverty and toil and human terror, governed by the currencies of men who owned so much ground but never bent down enough to touch it. Their greed was a devouring thing that would gulp down lives with pleasure and would only pretend to care about justice or law. Bennett succeeds in making his economic parable unrelentingly engaging, and above that, frighteningly aslant our own reality.

The author also undoubtedly has a keen sense for unique characters whom he infuses with wit, spark, and depth, deftly capturing the nuances of their personalities, so that they unfold along with their gradually changing perspective.

The primary voices are of three characters—Sancia, Captain Gregor Dandalo and Orso Ignacio—each with the weight of the past hanging still upon them like ocean weed, an incessant drag of remorse-fear-despair. Their entanglement, however, stirred no feeling of kinship—only a burn of mistrust. They were strangers watching each other with a sort of obsequious wariness. The air between them was a dead place, as though they trusted their frailty to none but themselves. However, the charming theatrical curtain eventually drops away—slow and steady and devastating—and we see each of the characters for the first time as they really are.

Sancia Grado is a young woman destined to be rootless, like a seed tossed on the wind, staring out windows, wistful, yearning for a distant, unattainable horizon. Her ability—one that would make thieves gnaw on their miserable envy and those who hire them clamor for her loyalty—was more like a curse than a blessing. Sancia paid for it with scars seamed into the side of her head, hideous and crudely sewn, and several agonizing memories brushing against her like a burning iron fresh from the fire. It’s almost a surprise to realize that the atrocious injustices she was made to endure were like a spark falling on dry tinder: they were no match for her kindness and good grace. Sancia’s heart had no talent for grudges. She knew how to value friendships and an open hand. Nevertheless, those who mistook her mildness for yielding always paid a heavy toll. It’s fair to say that I absolutely loved Sancia’s character and I was continuously rooting for her. As for Clef, the less said about him, the better. But I will say this: if you think I did not almost cry my eyes out because of a character who is literally a key, you are gravelly mistaken!

Captain Gregor Dandalo fought the men and slayed the monsters, and at last the hero, having conquered all, earned the thing that he wanted most: to go home, to “find civilization.” So, he picked up and dust off the one thing left over: his honor (alongside a number of inconvenient ideas about justice) and returned to Tevanne. Only Tevanne was not as civilized as he’d liked. Now, Dandalo is willing to set fire to this whole little world of scoundrelly Merchants—even if one of them is his mother—and see what grows out of the ashes. The need to exact justice was a cold spear-point twisting in his guts, but he flung his whole weight against it, strongly enough to make even Sancia, the scion of a crooked city, entertain a few wary hopes as well. “I think he’s broken, just like you and me,” notes Clef matter-of-factly, “he’s just trying to fix the world because it’s the only way he knows how to fix himself.” Gregor’s basckstory is, to be charitable, absolutely heartrending, and I suspect the sequel carries an arsenal of nameless horror still.

Orso Ignacio is a man of a loathsome reputation—blood-soaked and angry—who, now in old age, is feeling the debts of his burning youth. His hubris, greed and tunnel-visioned tenacity has scorched him down to the bone and regrets are swelling in him, ripening. Orso used to work as a hypatus—essentially a head of research—for Candiano Company before his boss, a legendary scriver, forgot how to possess his skill and instead let the skill possess him, before the Candiano house almost came to dust and smoke and life had never again attained the heights of power that it once held. Nonetheless, Orso’s own ambition never abated, the boil of it never calming to a simmer. But, now, the whole poisonous weight of it is coming crashing back down, full force.

Furthermore, Orso’s  relationship with Estelle Candiano holds its own fascination—as does Estelle’s character, as the woman who had her father’s exceptional talent for scriving, but who was repeatedly ignored and cast aside for no reason other than that she was a woman in a business ruled by men who thought the world would fail without them. Orso’s assistant’s—Berenice’s—backstory, on the other hand, is bare-bones but her character is not less riveting. I love her permanently amused attitude, her tendency to walk around with far too many scrived weapons under her cloths and how the dynamics between her and Orso are less akin to what you’d expect from a mentor and his student, and more like a senile grandfather and his indulgent (but slightly irritated) granddaughter. Also, the sheer sapphic vibes emanating from her every interaction with Sancia are the only thing sustaining me until the release of the sequel.

“Justice…God. Why are you doing all this? Why are you out here risking your life?”
“Is justice such an odd thing to desire?”
“Justice is a luxury.”

Overall, Foundryside’s brisk storytelling, bright and chiming prose, and dazzling aptitude for fun culminate in one of the strongest fantasy novels that I’ve read this year. Bennett proves to be a generous author with an abundance of things to say, and I’m sure Foundryside is merely the warm-up for what promises to be a uniquely striking series. If you love Six of Crows, The Gilded Wolves or The Lies of Locke Lamora, Foundryside should be next on your To-Read queue. Hell, if you love a good heist story with amazing characters and an exciting plot, you’ll certainly dig this book!

3 thoughts on “Review: Foundryside (Founders #1) by Robert Jackson Bennett

  1. I would have picked up the book for the cover alone; the blurb is pretty compelling; you pretty much had me at heist book with flawless worldbuilding and diverse cast. Then you go and say things like “molten with menace” and “ravishingly vivid and convincing.” And there’s the sentient key with an attitude. I need this book now!


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