The upstart firm Foundryside is struggling to make it. Orso Igancio and his star employee, former thief Sancia Grado, are accomplishing brilliant things with scriving, the magical art of encoding sentience into everyday objects, but it’s not enough. The massive merchant houses of Tevanne won’t tolerate competition, and they’re willing to do anything to crush Foundryside.
But even the merchant houses of Tevanne might have met their match. An immensely powerful and deadly entity has been resurrected in the shadows of Tevanne, one that’s not interested in wealth or trade routes: a hierophant, one of the ancient practitioners of scriving. And he has a great fascination for Foundryside, and its employees – especially Sancia.
Now Sancia and the rest of Foundryside must race to combat this new menace, which means understanding the origins of scriving itself – before the hierophant burns Tevanne to the ground.
The city of Tevanne seems determined to tear itself in two. In “Shorefall” Bennett lets us back abruptly into his world, with a lot more terror and much less hand-holding. Three years have passed and the Foundrysiders—Sanca, Berenice, Gregor and Orso—keep sidling up to death and dipping their toes in, this time with a Robin-Hood scheme to steal the scrivings the Michiels hoarded like a dragon guarding its treasure, and distribute them back to the people of Tevanne. But you can only sidle up to death so many times before it grabs your ankle and tries to pull you under. And death came to the Foundrysiders in the shape of Crasedes, a powerful hierophant now successfully resurrected by Gregor’s grief-stricken mother.
Scrivings are the coins the city of Tevanne trades in—a practice that divests any object of its intended identity, convincing it to “disobey reality in very unusual ways”—but Crasedes’ will can reshape the very warp and weft of reality itself. Crasedes plans to water the soil of Tevanne with blood, and the Foundrysiders plan to stop him. The first shot was fired three years before, when the mountain of the Candianos collapsed and the Company fell, but it is now that the battle lines are drawn.
This, here, is the beginning of the war.
“The problem with might, you see,” he said, “is that there’s always someone mightier.”
Much like its predecessor, “Shorefall” begins with a heist, and this one is several orders of magnitude more dangerous. It’s a tinderbox opening to the novel, but this is, of course, where the danger comes in: if, at the end of a nail-biting climax, you still have almost 500 pages to go, aren’t you setting your readers up for disappointment? Thankfully, “Shorefall” is a novel that sustains its crackle throughout, maintaining an impeccable consistency, and concluding with a gorgeous sleight of hand that will be familiar to those who enjoyed “Foundryside”.
In so many senses, this series is a perfect distillation of the author’s unerring talent for fantasy and his myriad ideas of what the genre could be, what it can and should strive for. The author’s most perceptive points come out in world-building. Bennett sets his world in motion and follows where it leads, moving through his vast and complicated concepts as easily as an ordinary person might walk across a street. “Shorefall” packs a surprising amount of plot into its single volume. It has answers to your questions, and more often than not, more questions after that. The swift plot quickly leaves the Foundrysiders with a mess on their hands, and suspense mounts as they throw themselves headlong into peril. The threat levels are high and sharp, and the space between each chapter is like the silence after the snap, when you know that something is holding itself still and watching you in the dark.
Bennett also populates his novel with forces we know all too well in the real world, and his razor-sharp critique of a world wracked by war and capitalism, divided against itself, constantly near a breaking point rings a bell that’s a little too resonant. Tevanne is a city that suffers all the usual maladies of real-life cities, and is governed by people who have ridden high, and once they have seen the high places—it made them hungrier, and cold down to the pith. Greed seeps through every crack of Tevanne, and it is corrosive, gnawing at the less fortunate until it turns them into husk. The good guys are outnumbered, drifting as if in waters they could not swim, and the bad guys are always one step ahead. Huge questions of ethics and responsibility also play into the plot here. The Foudrysiders weary of the violence, but they understand its inevitability, and that lends the novel a compelling urgency.
If I have to name a flaw it would be that, while the world is extraordinarily intricate, I found that it muffles the characters at the heart of the book. As Sancia, Berenice, Gregor and Orso scamper and scheme their way into the heart of Tevanne’s deadliest secrets, collecting fresh scars like clockwork, the reader scarcely gets a moment to just stop and breathe and spend time with them. The Foundrysiders walked around each other, filled with things they cannot articulate as though worried one more good tug might rip their seams entirely, and that distance is carried onto the page. I hope we get more of an insight into the characters in the next book, especially Gregor who so deeply inhabited the warrior in his mind’s eye, who had once torn into a hundred enemies and sent others staggering home, but who heart-breakingly still grapples with the choicelessness of his life.
Crasedes’ character, however, held all my attention in his thrall. Crasedes, of course, is the villain—and a genuinely compelling one. He has a well-intentioned savior complex and the arrogance to rationalize it, but under the auspices of saving people, he sometimes exploits, possesses and harms them. But while the Foundrysiders must constantly battle with what’s right and what’s necessary, Crasedes already committed to several courses of action. This gives him a bit of a Machiavellian advantage on the playing field. What’s more, because his motivations are copious and convincing, I found myself thinking, not for the first time, “well… he does have a good point, though.” In one particularly eye-opening section, Crasedes muses: “It is a regrettable thing that in order to fix a monstrous world, one must become a little monstrous in one’s own right.”
If you have yet to read this novel, come join the Foundrysiders for a story—I guarantee you won’t guess how it ends. I’m very much looking forward to the last book in this series.
One dream dies, but another’s born. Let’s make sure it survives.