End Date: September 29th
Author: Robert Jackson Bennett
Pages: 512 (hardcover)
Selected By: Lady Esbe
“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.”
Reality doesn’t matter. If you can change something’s mind enough, it’ll believe whatever reality you choose.
I was torn between this book and another for my selection for the month. I was fairly well set on a Nicholas Eames sequel until I got an email from Amazon that Foundryside was being released. Once I read the description, I was sold and admittedly, Elle Tea made the decision easier since my other option will be the October selection. I can honestly say I’m thrilled I picked this book.
Justice is a Luxury.
Admittedly, it took me about fifteen pages to get into the book. While Bennett’s writing style is still similar to the City of Stairs trilogy, it was also vastly different in those first pages. It was dissimilar to me in that while it started with action of a sort, something about those first few pages just didn’t capture me. However, it was very similar in that his education of the world, the “science” behind the alchemy. It was like reading Kim Harrison without the annoyance of a character like Rachel Morgan. The world he creates in the Foundryside is the haves versus the have-nots. The city is divided amongst four major Merchant houses. They are small city-states or independent boroughs within the larger city. Those within the walls reap the benefits of each house. Those outside of those walls are left to fend the best way they can in the slums which they reside.
How can I remember that if I’m just a key? And, more, a key that was made to break things open, to break open scrivings and locks and doors? I mean. . . It’s not just the idea of being a tool and not knowing it. Of having things built into you by someone else, things you can’t resist. Being or doing. To know myself. I’m a device, Sancia. They took me and put me inside this thing, and rigs aren’t supposed to be self-aware.
Sancia is our heroine. She is an anomaly as a scrived human being. What this means is that like the scrived objects, she has a certain amount of “magic” within her that allows her some experiences/powers that normal humans do not have. She is able to hear the functions of other scrived objects. However, she doesn’t have any real power over them. It is a blessing and a curse for her. Being a scrived person is not something that Sancia requested or even volunteered for. As a slave, she was reduced to a scientific experiment by one of or the conglomerate of the four ruling houses. As we all know, if you are a slave, you have only the rights that your master affords you. There is never the right over your physical person. You are a possession, an item to be treated as any other possession to be used or abused as any other item that the owner would manipulate. It is no wonder that Sancia would believe that there is no justice in the world. She doesn’t sulk or mope about it. She gets on with trying to achieve whatever goal it was for the day.
“No,” said Gregor. “it is not. It is a right. And it is a right that has long been denied.” He stared out at the city. “The chance for reform. . . For real, genuine reform for this city. . . I would shed every drop of blood in my body for such a thing.”
Sancia is quite a strong individual, both mentally and physically. She was strong enough to survive her childhood on the plantation. She was even stronger to survive the experiments performed on her. However, even in that, she could have given up, wallowed in self-pity and not pushed on. Did she make the best decision employment-wise? Probably not, but what else could she have done and not made herself a target. Unfortunately, it seems that her destiny is to be put in difficult situations that put her life in peril. Her most recent of issues is the job she took through her booker to steal an item that she didn’t even have the privy of knowing what it was. As the novel started, she should have known, it was too good to be true in a job. The payout too massive to be without jeopardy. Even as her circumstances unfold, she doesn’t despair. She looks for solutions and works with whomever will achieve the goal of getting her back into safety, of a sort and to avenge her booker’s death.
To edit the scrivings will be to edit reality – To convince the plate within you that, when it was wrought, it was wrought this way, and not that way. This is no simple thing. Reality is a stubborn thing.
Sancia’s mishaps with her relatively successful heist brings us to meeting Clef and Gregor Dandolo. He is more than a scrived key. We find that his soul was transferred into said key, along with power of influence. Honestly, Clef is so entertaining, I wish I had a Clef to talk to me and tell me his observations. He’s struggling with his memory loss, but he understands his function and the like. However, I’m not so sure he volunteered for his current state. Again, was he also a servant/slave that had no true choice in how his life would be permanently altered. While Clef laments his loss of memory, he doesn’t bemoan his current position. He actually takes on challenges with zeal and enthusiasm that is almost Devil-may-care attitude. In essence, he is a show off. Even though he has been solitary for probably hundreds of years, his desire for contact with Sancia is palpable. The short period of time that he knows Sancia does not negate the bond and his desire to sacrifice himself to achieve what he must to secure his and those he love’s freedom and life. It’s as if the two finally found a kindred spirit that could understand what the other has going through and why they needed one another.
Pride. . . It’s so often an excuse for people to be weak.
An unlikely addition to this trio and very much the outsider is Captain Gregor Dandolo. He’s single-minded in his pursuit of justice and order for the Foundry. While he is the scion of a Merchant House. He strikes out to attempt to bring order and an end of corruption throughout the city. He inadvertently steps into the fray with Sancia, Clef and their merry band of misfits when he is pursuing Sancia. While he seems single-minded in his pursuits, Gregor makes no qualms about extended his reach and demanding assistance from those who could possibly assist, including his mother’s chief scriver and his assistant.
“All servants,” he said quietly, “eventually come to doubt their masters.”
Probably something a bit more intriguing about Gregor is he is referred to as the Revenant. Why? This becomes clear by the end of the novel and I won’t give that spoiler away. Suffice it to say that his situation is not that much different from Sancia and Clef. He has had things done to him without his permission that has changed him for life. The major difference here is that, it didn’t matter that he was the scion of a “noble” house, but just like the poor or enslaved, children too do not have anyone to fight for them or to provide them with a choice or even treat them like something other than a possession. My major question here is: is his desire for just so great because he feels wrong and subjugated subconsciously? He attempts to assert his will in his life by joining the army and by returning home and taking a position that has nothing to do with his family’s power.
All in all, I enjoyed this story better than I did the previous series. The banter, the quandry’s of the state of society, the treatment of the downtrodden, the privileges taken by the rich and the build of the magic/alchemy and world of the Foundries is quit compelling. I’m looking forward to the next installment.
Lady Esbe’s Favorite Character(s): Clef, Sancia, and Gregor.
Lady Esbe read the Crown hardcover version of this selection.
This is one of the moments when I wish we could have half-cup ratings, because really, this should be more like a 4.5 or 4.75; in fact, for the overall rating, I’m using the invisible half-cup to offset BillMo’s four-cup rating and give this selection the full five cups it truly deserves. This may seem like cheating a bit, but there is literally only one thing that dragged this novel down a half-cup for me, and while that one thing occurs frequently throughout the story, it’s also kinda-sorta one of the many things I loved about this novel.
“I’m Sancia.” Her face went slack, and she suddenly vomited onto the side of the roof. She coughed and wiped her mouth. “I’m the one who stole your shit.”
But first, let’s get to the good stuff! If you’ve read Bennett’s Divine Cities trilogy, you already know he uses fantastical scenery and plots led by a cast of very believable characters to make highly relevant and powerful statements, and Foundryside is no exception. Rather than international politics and the power of religion, however, the stage this time around is the marvelous city of Tevanne, and the topics are the divisions of class and the race for top technology. On the surface, Tevanne is a magical metropolis ruled for centuries by merchant houses – a handful of rich, well-armed, well-educated families who reside and do business in fortified enclaves within the city itself. As in reality, a majority of the middle class strive to emulate the rich as much as possible, seemingly content with the scraps of education and power that trickle down to them in exchange for space within the enclaves’ walls, while the poor are left to fend for themselves against starvation, disease, and, more often than not, one another in the filthy streets outside the walls. The powerful are also the rich, and they just keep getting richer and more powerful; the powerless are also the very poor, who grossly outnumber the powerful but for the most part fall to marginalizing one another to get even one tiny step ahead of the rest of the rabble, clawing and scrambling to be the kings and queens of the compost heap.
“We don’t have time to amend your dogshit educations!”
Magic is, as with Divine Cities, a core element of Foundryside. Rather than the vague concept of divine power, however, we find instead a magic rooted in physics and a people who have a firm understanding of the fundamentals – the merchant houses of Tevanne already know how to get the most out of their magic, they’ve been manipulating it for years and have woven it into the fabric of their enclaves and daily lives. The magic of Tevanne is primarily housed in what Bennett has dubbed “scrivings”: a language of complex and very specific formulas, equations, and logic that, when written correctly, can convince anything to do or be… well… anything. And as with any technology, most of the residents of Tevanne have used scriving as a way to make their lives a little easier, a little safer, and a bit less labor-intensive: carriages have been scrived to drive themselves, gates are scrived to remain shut until a specific key is provided, scrived lanterns float behind their owners… But, unfortunately, as with any technology, there are those who seek to exploit it, to use it to make themselves as powerful as possible: assassins travel with scrived rigs that allow them to defy gravity, soldiers are armed with scrived projectiles that travel faster, farther, and with more weight behind them than possible otherwise, explosives are scrived to increase their impact radius…
She told herself she was not a slave anymore. She told herself she was free, and strong, that she’d been alone for years, and she’d be alone again one day, and she would, as always, survive. Because surviving was what Sancia did best. And as she scrubbed at her filthy, scarred skin, she tried to tell herself that the drops on her cheeks were just water from the spigots, and nothing more.
Enter our protagonist, Sancia Grado, whose very existence as Tevanne’s only scrived human is both fascinating… and forbidden. Objects may be scrived, or so says the law of the land, but not people; convincing a thing that it’s something else or that it acts in a way contrary to its own nature is one thing… but writing a formula that essentially rewires a person into thinking they’re an object that acts in a way contrary to natural law is something entirely different. How she was scrived is part of Sancia’s secret, and why and how her scrivings work is something we – and Sancia herself – learn about as the story unfolds. As young as she is, Sancia has seen the worst humanity has to offer; from the moment we are introduced to her, it’s clear that she is strong, independent, intelligent, cautious, and harbors a healthy mistrust for almost everyone she meets. And yet one of the key threads woven into this plot is the unmaking and remaking of Sancia – who throughout the story is forced to revisit all of those qualities that made her so powerful in the beginning: she is brought to her knees, she is forced to rely on others, everything she thinks she understands is called into question and then, for the most part, utterly refuted, and, in the end, she learns that sometimes a little trust can go a long way.
“I told you, we can make it safe!” he insisted. “Probably!”
Sancia’s companions are all I would have come to expect from the mind that brought us Shara Komayd, Turyin Mulaghesh, and Sigrud. Captain Gregor Dandolo’s formidable presence and tragic backstory are second only to the poignant depiction of a broken warrior suffering from the self-flagellating combination of survivor guilt and PTSD. Clef’s openness and sense of humor are often a welcome respite from the heavier aspects of the story, and his relationship and communication methods with Sancia go a long way towards softening her overall. Berenice the Fab brings a much-needed sense of calm genius to the party, while Orso Ignacio, though gruff and cantankerous, fills the mad scientist / wacky wizard niche with a touch of heartbreak that endeared him to me by the end.
Why did you work the fields as a slave, why did you sleep in miserable quarters and silently bear your suffering? Because if you didn’t, you’d be killed. Sancia… so long as you think only of survival, only of living to see the next day, you will always bear their chains.
As stated above, a key piece of Foundryside‘s plot relates to technology: the acquisition of it by the highest bidder, their use and increasing misuse of it, its exploitation by those for whom it was never made formally available, and how rapidly things escalate – no sooner do the wealthy have their hands on new technology than one among them begins eyeballing the others, conspiring for even more, to have or be even more than the elite group of which they are a part and who can already claim ownership. In Foundryside, the technology is inseparable from the magic, and the science behind that magic is absolutely astounding.
“We are making these horrors. We are doing this to ourselves. We have to change. We must change.”
Unfortunately, it was this very science behind the magic that got to me after a while. Don’t get me wrong – I loved it, I really did. It’s always refreshing for an author to take some time with their creations, to make something new and to clearly have a background for it rather than leaving it to whimsy (as in the tangled mess that was When the Moon was Ours) or using it as a quick fix to get their characters out of tight spots (as in The Maze Runner‘s psychic gift). There are rules by which Tevanne’s magic is governed, laws it must follow, limitations to which it must bend, and all of these made the possibility of it effortless in which to believe. Yet at the same time…
<Do you feel free?> asked Valeria. <Or do you feel, perhaps, like you have stolen yourself?>
At the same time, Bennett frequently explained away all the joy of it. The scrivings were amazing, and I really loved those moments when the scriving language was made tangible, when we were told of the complicated formulas visibly twining and winding around objects, when we were told what they whispered, what they said to one another and those who could hear them… But too often everything would come to a halt while one character or another droned on about the cause and effect of every.little.thing. And because scriving is such an integral part of the plot, these moments of blah-blah-blah appeared more often than not. I love the science behind it, and I’d prefer an author have a very specific way their magic works and know what that way is ahead of time so the inclusion of it fits into the framework of the story. But at the same time, getting into the weeds to such a depth brought the story grinding to a halt for me, and I would find myself instead pondering the chances that whichever layman character had asked for the scriving in question at that moment would care about the inner workings of said object beyond, “Does it work the way it is supposed to?”
“I don’t know what it is about mortal panic,” he said, “but it keeps giving me the best scrumming ideas!”
The first analogy that comes to mind would be if your friend bought a new car and came to pick you up for lunch. As soon as you get in, you’d probably say, “Wow, nice car.” The sort of response we wouldn’t think twice about would be, “Thanks,” and maybe a little something extra: “I paid a little extra for the tech package,” or, “It’s got such-and-such horsepower,” or, “I had to wait an extra couple days for them to tint the windows.” But you get the idea.
What you wouldn’t expect would be for your friend to respond with, “Really? Well, that purring is from the internal combustion engine, what you’d probably be more likely to refer to as The Motor. It’s burning petrol in the combustion chamber to create energy to move the pistons – now, right now, at this very moment, the pistons at the top of the cylinder have begun moving downward, releasing petrol and air into the cylinder in what is commonly referred to as the intake stroke. Oh, and there they go, the pistons are moving up and up and up… the petrol-air mixture is being compressed inside the cylinder… and – boom, there it is, the power stroke! That’s the second rotation of the crankshaft, when a spark is ignited that hits the petrol and air inside the cylinder and pushes the pistons back down again. Which means now we’re moving into the exhaust stroke – the valve has opened, and the piston is pushing out the by-products of that combustion out of the cylinder. And here… we… go!”
And then they proceeded to tell you all about the inner workings of the car engine all the way to lunch. And through lunch. And all the way home again. And in the end, you don’t care – you never cared, all you wanted was to ride with your buddy to lunch.
You must do as you are intended, or else you will be discarded – the fate of all broken things.
The blah-blah moments aside, Bennett’s writing style is, as usual, totally on point in Foundryside. The districts and enclaves are thriving, busy, hurried urban hubs; action sequences are brutal and occasionally nerve-wracking; each character is given time and attention and is so different that it would still be possible to tell them apart even if their names weren’t included in conversations.
“The choices you make will change you over time, Sancia. Make sure they don’t change you into something you don’t recognize.”
In the end, this was a really great book, and I readily recommend it to anyone who… well, to anyone, really. For me, it wasn’t overall as mind-blowingly awesome as The City of Stairs, but the world of Tevanne, the language of the scrivings, and the core companion group were better than those found in either The City of Blades or The City of Miracles. I definitely look forward to learning what Tevanne has to offer for Sancia & Co. in the second installment!
Elle Tea’s Favorite Character(s): In no particular order: Clef, Capt. Gregor Dandolo, Berenice the Fab, Sancia Grado, and Orso Ignacio.
Elle Tea read the Amazon Kindle version of this selection.
I really liked this book. This was definitely a redemption for Robert Jackson Bennett after City of Miracles. While City of Miracles was written well and an okay book it just did not stand up to City of Stairs or City of Blades; however, Foundryside did. I like the way he can describe things such as, “A struck match sounds like a kiss in the dark, sometimes.” I would have never thought about that but after reading it I can definitely “see” that being how one sounds sometimes.
And finally, sometimes it is paid in blood. Humanity seems most eager to use this latter currency. and we never note how much of it we’re spending, unless it happens to be our own.
One of the things that I did not like was a couple of times in the story it felt like a lecture. He would get really descriptive about the politics between the houses or a part of the story would just go on and on about something that I just wasn’t really interested in.
“I’ve been talking for a hell of a lot longer than you’ve been alive, kid, so really I’m the normal one here.”
I really enjoyed the action and communication between the characters. Mr. Bennett is obviously a very intelligent individual and does a great job telling a story.
“All closed things wish to open.”
I like the idea of being able to scrive objects to make them think differently. To be able to engrave symbols on something like wood to have the wood believe that it is as strong as stone and won’t deteriorate like wood is pretty cool. If I lived in this story I would want to be a scriver. I think it would be so satisfying to be able to do something so intricate and stand back and say, “I made that. That can now float on water because I made it believe that it’s mass was that of a feather.” It’s a really cool idea.
Life was cheap, and cash, as ever, remained dauntingly expensive.
I look forward to the next book. Just as the other books of his we have read I would definitely recommend this and would of course read more of his works.
More quotes I liked:
“He’s just trying to fix the world because it’s the only way he knows to fix himself.”
“They’re compelled to act in one specific fashion. Which is basically the definition of neurotic, if that helps.”
“In a way, you’d be offering her freedom. And people risk many things for that.”
Even in the greatest city on earth, she thought, children go hungry, every day.
“Man’s a shit. But that doesn’t mean you’re decent. I mean, even though I might sympathize with you, that doesn’t mean you’re going to let me go, does it?”
BillMo’s Favorite Character(s): Clef. I love seeing things from his perspective. His conversations with Sancia were great and I love his interactions with other objects. My second favorite character was Gregor. I liked that he was always polite to people even when he was about to beat the beegeezees out of them. He was a true gentleman that wanted to bring good in to the world. That’s a lot for someone to put on their shoulders and I really admire him for it.
BillMo read the Amazon Kindle version of this selection.