Read: June 2020
Author: Robert Jackson Bennett
Length: 512 pgs (hardcover) | 19h 40m (audio)
Selected By: Lady Esbe
A few years ago, Sancia Grado would’ve happily watched Tevanne burn. Now, she’s hoping to transform her city into something new. Something better. Together with allies Orso, Gregor, and Berenice, she’s about to strike a deadly blow against Tevanne’s cruel robber-baron rulers and wrest power from their hands for the first time in decades.
But then comes a terrifying warning: Crasedes Magnus himself, the first of the legendary hierophants, is about to be reborn. And if he returns, Tevanne will be just the first place to feel his wrath.
So, I must first say. HOLY FREAKING COW! I listened while walking and now I’m on my second listen because there’s just so much that happens that you feel like you missed things here and there. Elle Tea and I discussed ad nauseum how this book is timely, considering all that is going on and quite frankly so well planned out. I’m being purely selfish when I say, I’m hoping that COVID-19 has caused him to push out as much of the next installment as possible because I NEED TO KNOW HOW THIS ENDS!!!
The most poignant lesson to be learned from this installment is there may be a common goal of freedom by any of the player’s in the novel, but how to achieve it and what freedom actually means to each player can be at odds or even extreme. The most benign definition would be held by Gregor. Hopefully this is not a spoiler for anyone, but due to the scrivings applied to Gregor, he will always be the Revenant, despite attempts to correct this. Freedom for Gregor would be to be able to have complete and utter control over his being. To not be in fear of someone activating something deadly within him and he is not able to control who is hurt and how badly. Gregor is a soldier, but most importantly, he is a protector. His desire to protect those closest to him is dear, but to protect the city of Tevanne and to not be a part of the problem is probably the purest form of idea of freedom in this novel. Unfortunately, it only goes downhill from here in freedom motivations.
The idea of freedom isn’t something that anyone is opposed to from the various factions who are striving for it. However, the proposed solutions are varying degrees of worrying. There may be moderate views, such as Sancia’s and the rest of the Foundarysiders, where tearing down the establishment and offering up technology to all in order everyone can advance or achieve equality seems reasonable enough. However, the question from there, is “will everyone use it for good”? Who is to say that their methodology and end result is the best result for everyone? An extreme view held by Valeria is that no technology is viable, and it should all be stripped from people. However, as we all know, people are innovative, there will always be inventions and innovations, the question is how it will be used. Crasedes also provides us with the other extreme view of, you can have freedom as long as it aligns with his views on what that entails. This topic is too dense to unpack here and we could have Zoom meeting for hours on end discussing these tenets to no avail.
Per Verbal Kint (The Usual Suspects), “The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist”. Well, this quote isn’t quite on point, but it fits some of the bill when we deal with Valeria. Misguided or misinformed decisions made by Sancia and Co. are based on this. She’s not what she seems, nor is Clef or Crasedes. Yet as we know, those who write history are those who have won, so there may or may not be a skewed. So whatever truth there is in her accounts of what happened all those years ago between her and Crasedes is skewed by what she wants everyone to know. Also, the lore of Crasedes has had an extensive telephone game played over the years, further skewing what happened in the past. Hint, some, not all will be cleared up in this novel, but I do believe Mr. Bennett has much more to reveal to us in the final installment. The question is whether the evil that you know is the better option to go with?
I’m going to say a resounding no to that. Despite Crasedes destructive tendencies, something that gave me pause and thought, “Sancia, you’re backing the wrong horse”, is that Crasedes is transparent. In all his dealings from Ofelia Dandolo, to speaking directly with Sancia, he doesn’t hide his intentions or the methodology of getting there. He makes it known in advance if you are a tool and what is expected of you. However, we cannot same the same for Valeria, but Sancia gives her allowances. Valeria deals in half-truths and only when she is called on the carpet. She never discloses her motives but provides Sancia with palatable explanations. However, when the relationships that Sancia thought she understood becomes clear to her, it will turn everything that you know about Crasedes, Clef and Valeria on its head and you’ll be in the mind blown state like Elle Tea and myself. (Those many conversations had of me trying to discuss without revealing the big reveals in the book was torturous for me.)
There is no need to go into great detail about my feelings on characters, but here is a brief recap:
Sancia- still annoyed with her and matter of fact, I may dislike her more after this novel.
Orso – comic relief, but feel his contribution is indelible.
Berenice – great book smarts, the gentler voice of the team, but weak when I need her to pull through for the rest of the team (one scene in particular with Gregor made me wish she were standing in front of me to slap her).
Gregor – second literary crush. He’s as solid as he has ever been, he’ll take responsibility where others should step up and give him a break.
Bennett’s detailed descriptions of scrivings and other “magical” things was integral to the visualization of the novel. I can say, there is nothing onerous about getting through those detailed scenes, as it feels like this information is important for a later time, whether within the same novel or the next. The building blocks used is amazing and keeps you involved in the story.
If any of our readers happen to be in the film industry, we are your women for producing and casting. We’ve thought of a solid cast for this (nope, not sharing until we land that deal).
Narration Review†: The narration was completed by Tara Sands. Initially, I wasn’t thrilled. However, her portrayal of Clef, Crasedes and especially Valeria turned the tide for me on the narration. I thought, “surely this woman should have been cast as a cylon in Battlestar Galactica.” Good job lady, by the end, I was so stressed out, I didn’t know what to do, but wish for a short wait for the next installment.
Lady Esbe’s Favorite Character(s): Gregor and Crasedes Magnus.
Lady Esbe listened to the Random House Audio edition of this selection, narrated by Tara Sands.
“I know what sins you’ve committed, first of all hierophants.”
Robert Jackson Bennett is going to give me a heart attack.
Shorefall picks up a few years after where Foundryside left off, but Bennett wastes zero time jumping right back into the thick of things. Our core group – Sancia Grado, Orso Ignacio, Berenice the Fabricator, and Gregor Dandolo – has grown closer and more cohesive, a fact we learn on the go as we begin Book 2 of The Founders Trilogy right when they are starting their next big caper.
Which, naturally, doesn’t quite go according to plan. And which, inevitably and with increasing rapidity, leads to much larger plans, plots, and machinations.
“I remember the plan,” said Sancia. “I just also remember there’s a lot of spots in the plan that say, ‘Sancia improvises a bunch of shit.’ Which is not, you know, comforting.”
I’m not going to wax ecstatic on any details of this story, other than to say that reading Foundryside is a must before picking up Shorefall. There are so many twists and turns, so many impressions with which we were left after Book 1 that are turned upside-down and flipped inside-out, that to give even a little hint would be too much. Bennett clearly went through the trouble of setting this all up from the beginning, and you, as the reader for whom he went through all this trouble, truly deserve to be surprised and appalled, to have your heart broken and mended only to be broken again.
“Intellectual property is never terribly interesting to look at.”
We’ve read quite a few selections by this author (City of Stairs, City of Blades, City of Miracles, and Foundryside), and one of the qualities I’ve consistently enjoyed with each of these novels – and Shorefall is no exception – is the question of just what it means to be human. In The Divine Cities Trilogy, human nature and our need for control and desire for power was contrasted against that of the divine and its need for control and power – where does one end and the other begin, what – and whose – purpose do “religious” wars truly serve, and who truly wields the most power over the other, the Creator(s) or their Creations?
“It’s so much better when you learn yourself, isn’t it? Learn what your city has forgotten. What men of power have forgotten time and time again, throughout history – that there is always, always something mightier.”
With The Founders Trilogy, and especially with this second installment, we are posed an even more urgent question, one which is openly playing out across the world today: will human nature permit our species to ever know true equality and live at peace, and, if so, even in theory, whose definitions of peace and equality would we adopt, how would this world of kindness be maintained, and, when necessary, how and by whom would it be enforced while still adhering to these ideals?
What change could possibly be accomplished in the face of such thoughtless, ignorant conviction?
In Shorefall, even the most well-meaning intentions, such as educating and empowering the masses, are analyzed and forced into the spotlight of reality, where the downstream impacts of such overhauls are shown to have lasting negative consequences when combined with the human qualities of free will and independence. Our own history, like that of the characters in this series, does not do us any favors if we’re looking for proof of humankind’s benevolence and mercy. There isn’t a civilization in history that began, lived, and fell with or in peace; the cities we live in today are built on the bones of the conquered, the slain, and the enslaved. No nation is free of that taint, no government is innocent of those crimes. It is, sadly and truly, the natural order of all living things: the powerful take from the powerless, and the more power is amassed, the smaller the circle grows of those who wield it, and the heavier grows the boots on the backs of the oppressed. Until the oppressed eventually stand together, rise up, and take the reins… and eventually become oppressors themselves. And throughout all of these power grabs, the history of each round is predominantly recorded by the winners of each round, who can only be guaranteed one thing: to paint themselves in the best of light while portraying the other side in the worst.
“… if there’s one thing I have learned throughout all the history that I’ve seen, it’s that mankind is quite good at coming up with delightful little innovations… but all of them are eventually turned to cruelty, and oppression, and slavery. Even the simplest ones become weapons.”
In Foundryside, our focus was pretty firmly on the oppressed, and there was a clear delineation of “good guys” versus “bad guys.” But Shorefall, as I said, turns that all on its head, making this one of the most delightfully and appallingly realistic fantasy series on the market today. As in life, every character turns out to be the hero of their own story – no sane person says, “I’m going to be the wickedest and worst MF ever!” – and we learn that each character believes their intentions to be noble, intentions which no one would have derided even had they known about them from the beginning. But we also see how those intentions get away from them as they gain power, how they lose control of themselves and their situations, and how their attempts to resolve the rapidly growing chaos lead to even more questionable methods with their own devastating downstream impact.
“There is no innovation that will ever spring from the minds of men that will not eventually be used for slaughter and control.”
As in the real world, The Founders Trilogy’s cast is not split into just two groups – the oppressed and the oppressors: instead, those in power are shown to be fractured even amongst themselves, scrabbling and scheming over who will be the most powerful, sacrificing their peers and those beneath them as they reach for the tippity-top, while the oppressed are guilty of marginalizing each other, of pushing down those in fewer numbers or who have less influence or education than themselves in order to get to the top of their own sad little hills.
And, again, how do you reconcile the moral and ethical ideal of peace and equality for all when all it would take is one, just one, with a hunger for that which belongs to someone else – or just to have more than they themselves have – to bring it all crashing down?
“Humankind is most innovative at turning innovation to the cruelest ends. Power alters the soul far more than any innovation I could imagine, even at the height of my privileges.”
In Shorefall, we are told quite plainly that it cannot be done. In fact, we are told, numerous civilizations have been lost to history trying to achieve this very thing, this perfect Utopian ideal. Which is parallel to our own real-world history, where the ideas of things like Democracy, Socialism, and Communism all sound well and good on paper, but once applied to human societies, they simply do not work. In their most basic terms, Socialism focuses on the society as a whole, putting the welfare of the people and country in the hands of the communities; Communism focuses on equality and removes the idea of ownership, providing for the people based on their contributions to the society as a whole and their own individual needs; Democracy focuses on leadership at the will of the people, where leaders are chosen from among the population by majority vote to represent their communities to create and enact laws and maintain order. But countless lives have been lost and numerous wars waged with, for, and against all of these ideas, because, in the end, you cannot make everyone happy, and, again, all it takes is for one to reach for more than they had or more than everyone else has or just one to refuse to give up the power or authority they were temporarily granted “for the good of all.”
“If everyone can make scrivings, then everyone’s empowered.”
“And do you believe if everyone could make spears,” said Valeria, “that they would all use them to fish, and there would be no more warfare?”
As bleak and heavy as this all sounds, Bennett’s skill is such that you never get the impression of being spoon-fed a history lesson or force-fed a morality tale. And even more importantly, even with all of the action and dismay and laughter and sorrow in The Founders Trilogy, the undercurrent of hope is always present. Our protagonists march on, they keep trying, they keep fighting, because they have faith that the legacy they leave behind will allow those who come after them to create a world worth living in, without ever knowing the shame and pain of chains or ignorance or hunger or poverty.
An emperor’s hunger for control will always outlast a moralist’s desire for equality and idealism.
In Shorefall, this manifests itself most strongly to me in characters like Gregor and Orso. The former turned his back on a life of privilege in Foundryside because he could not reconcile what was in his heart with what he was being asked to do; in Shorefall, he remains the same man of action I came to appreciate in Book 1 – he doesn’t make grand speeches, but he is the one who will do what needs to be done, no matter the cost to himself, and who will always be there, right at your back, ready to catch you should you stumble or take your place should you fall. Orso, on the other hand, could have elected to remain out of the fray of Foundryside and never known any different, but he didn’t, and while he is an intellectual rather than a fighter, his dependability and steadfast belief in their cause never wavers, not even when faced with Shorefall‘s seemingly insurmountable odds.
“I remember when you were born. How eager you were to come to this world. Not like Domenico, who took hours and hours. You were so hungry to throw yourself into all the turmoil of this broken world of ours.”
Shorefall, like Foundryside and The Divine Cities Trilogy before it, is remarkably well-written. I don’t know for a fact whether Bennett knows how all of this is going to play out, but the plot of The Founders Trilogy has been so seamless and smooth that I truly think he has had the path from beginning to end charted from the moment he sat down and began to write Book 1. I’m actually re-reading Book 1 now simply so I can watch it play out armed with this new post-Book 2 perspective I have of characters and situations and can honestly say that writing like this isn’t just remarkable – it’s rare. It is fantasy and has all the elements of fantasy – noble heroes and wicked villains, cities and structures and societies familiar yet rendered otherworldy, and, yes, even magic – but it is fantasy for thinkers, for grown-ups who want to escape the world for a little while but never stop wanting to be challenged, even down to their core.
“She saw her city making the wrong choices, and struck to try to stop them. We have tried to do the same ourselves. But I suddenly doubt if we would have been any more successful… Conflict and factionalism and treachery… Where does it end? Why play the same game again and again and expect different results?”
My only complaint with Shorefall‘s predecessor was that the magic, which is called “scriving”, was explained to such a degree that I felt it sapped some of the joy out of the whole idea. While scriving loses none of its complication in Shorefall – Bennett’s “magic” is as much a science as an art, and it takes innate skill as well as the proper education to wield effectively – the inner workings and connectivity of scrived items are left to the scrived themselves to explain. I loved the emphasis on this method of explanation – which was also present in Foundryside but was often overshadowed by those lengthy descriptions; switching the focus in Shorefall to how the scrived items communicate with one another to create a specified effect or action means you never feel as if you’re being removed from or stepping outside of the story itself, not even for an instant.
< … though you used to be a pretty good sneak, San, I doubt if you can get the jump on a magic flying man and stab me into his gut or something. >
I cannot convey to you how pumped I was after finishing Shorefall – I described it to everyone, especially that last 25%, as leaving me a bit like Flounder trying to explain why Ariel was late in The Little Mermaid: “And then it chased us, and we tried to, but we couldn’t – and then – grrrr – and then – then we were like WHOOOOOOOA – but then – aaaahhh, then we were safe – but theeeen – “
I’m telling you… Bennett is going to give me a heart attack.
< Listen, if you didn’t think your body was going to be at stake during all the rest of this shit, I don’t know what to tell you. >
I absolutely plan to read Book 3 of this series, though it looks like it might be at least a year before that one sees the light of day. I hope we keep this one on our radars and whichever of us is up for the month following its publication remembers to grab it immediately for their selection.
“I know the hearts of men. I know that so long as humankind possesses a power, they will always, always use it to rule the powerless. And there is no alteration, no scriving, no command that either I or the Maker could ever wield that would burn this impulse out of you.”
In case my thoughts on this selection are still in any way vague, YES, I emphatically and without even the slightest hesitation recommend this book, this series – hell, this author – to all of you. Just make sure to have your best book-loving and / or philosopher buddy on standby, because when Shorefall comes to an end, you’re going to want to call someone, if nothing else, just to calm you down. (And a shout out to Lady Esbe for not just picking this book for our June selection but also for taking that very call from me in the early hours of a workday morning!)
Here are a few additional quotes I really liked:
“But one day, girl, you too might have to choose between the unimaginable and the irredeemable. And no matter what choice you make – it will haunt you for the rest of your days.”
“If we use these tools just for control, we’ll wind up right back here again… [We should] use them to connect, rather than control. And with that connection, we all change together.”
“As always, the powerful are the first to escape the problems that they’ve caused.”
What a wondrous thing, to share my life, and be loved.
Elle Tea’s Favorite Character(s): As with Foundryside, Gregor Dandolo and Orso Ignacio really stood out to me in Shorefall as being the true hearts and souls of the novel. Clef’s presence is not as frequent in this novel, but he still brings that same sense of levity and common sense that I appreciated in Book 1. In an unexpected twist, Crasades Magnus himself comes out very near the top for me; yes, he’s the villain of this installment, but he’s got this whole “V” stark-raving-sane shtick going on, and, if nothing else, you’ve got to admit that he’s just a giant pile of black-cloaked badassness.
Elle read the Amazon Kindle edition of this selection.
Robert Jackson Bennett has another hit on his hands. I actually liked this one better than the first book in the series Foundryside. You already had an established character set that as you read the book you just become more attached to them. You don’t read it and think, “Goodness every character could just die and I wouldn’t feel anything.” No, Bennett has you caring about these characters and you just grow with them.
“They could be a bit grumpy, but at least they were a lot less touchy-feely.”
Sancia is more likeable in this book because she is surrounded by people she cares about and who care about her. She still isn’t my favorite character but she grows on you.
My least favorite character would be….I don’t know. Everyone serves their purpose and you can see things from each character’s point of view so it’s hard to say which one I really don’t like. Hmmmmm….how’s this? I won’t go with a least favorite character but I will say that Gregor’s mother Ophelia made me disappointed in her for the choices that she thought she had to make in her life but even then I can see where she’s coming from. Scratch that we’ll just go with Valeria. She makes me sad and mad. I can also see her point but she really has no feelings so she is easier to dislike. I can also see where she is coming from but pressed for a least favorite I feel less bad about picking her.
I really like Gregor and will say he is my second favorite character. I feel bad for him and just want something good to happen for him so that he doesn’t seem so broken. I think he needs a hug. A big bear hug.
“Yet fires do not care about who they burn.”
I still like the idea of scrivings and being able to use words to create magic. I think it would be awesome to be a scriver as long as I didn’t create something that accidentally turned my body inside out or I scrived something incorrectly that messed with gravity and I somehow turned into a human pancake. It would be great to be able to scrive something into doing the impossible. I will go with what most people would probably pick and say flying. Look I know it’s not original but I want to fly dammit and even though it’s highly suggested not to try this is what I would want to do. Then I would fly far far away from here to a fantastic island of happiness and dragons. Hey if I can scrive magic then I believe there can be dragons in this great new world. No, no there are no dragons in this book but there are in my scriving fantasy dreamland.
“I came to this place to give-my time, or my life-so that others can enjoy what I have.”
The story has really good messages about loving each other and being able to live your own life. While there is war that is happening people can still find love and cling to it. Where there is love there is hope. This story gave me the warm and fuzzies as well as tears.
“But the line between life and death is always blurred. To live is to die, just very, very slowly.”
The book was almost 500 pages but it definitely did not feel like it. This was a quick read and kept you on the edge of your seat the whole time. There was not a point in this story that I sat back and thought I could not see myself finishing it. I’m ready for the third one now. Come one Mr. Bennett let’s have it and see how this thing ends!
I would definitely recommend this book to others and will read more from this author.
Here are some more quotes I liked:
“It was both wonderful and yet somehow crushing, for you learned so much, but you realized instantly how limited your experience of reality had been for the whole of your life.”
“But you understand that we are all glimpsing the world from different angles, and each of us sees only a tiny, fleeting bit of it.”
“The same thing all peoples do in war,” said Gregor. “Try to survive.”
“Stop hoping for shit and get in the damned water!”
“One dream dies, but another’s born. Let’s make sure it survives.”
BillMo’s Favorite Character(s): My favorite character in this book is probably Orso. I like the intelligent, grumpy old man. I picture him as an extremely disheveled version of the old man playing chess in the Pixar short that plays before you watch A Bug’s Life (Geri’s Game). I can picture him with magnifying glasses diligently working away on scrivings. He cracks me up, that pompous old man.
BillMo read the Amazon Kindle edition of this selection.
† Narration “cup” scores do not count towards the overall average score of the selection itself.