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Foundryside by Robert Jackson BennettUK cover4 stars

Buy from IndieBoundRobert Jackson Bennett is a writer who enjoys using fantasy as a means of examining power structures, and as in real life, the way power is hoarded by a small elite who feel no compunction over using it to inflict injustices upon the many. Foundryside is an adventure that follows a familiar template — in which a disparate group of people among the oppressed form an unlikely alliance to take the fight to their oppressors — and delivers wildly entertaining results, with a story full of suspense, humor, nonstop action, smartly fleshed-out characters, and what may be the most science-fictional approach to a magic system I’ve yet seen.

In the city of Tevanne, magic is performed through a method called scriving, in which objects are imbued with sigils that essentially rewrite the reality of that object. So for instance, a simple weapon can be made terrifyingly lethal, or a piece of clothing can be convinced it’s impregnable armor. We’re meant to think of it as very much like programming code, and while this isn’t the first novel to think of its magic system that way (I’m thinking of Kelly McCullough’s WebMage novels in particular), Bennett has thought the system through much more thoroughly than I’ve seen before. Talented scriveners have come up with new and more efficient forms of scriving language. It’s an industrialized form of magic that requires a lot of trial and error before coming up with something that works, and typically, nothing works unless it’s extremely precise.

This is probably the story’s greatest strength. In most fantasy novels, sure, there are magic systems, but they usually stop at how spells are cast and not what a spell actually has to do to work. Bennett’s entire story hinges on the profound and potentially devastating consequences of being in possession of a means by which physical reality, which works by a very specific set of known laws, can simply be changed to suit someone’s will. Magic in fantasy is often a means by which the nature of something’s very existence is made to defy that nature, and Bennett is really keen to take that concept seriously and follow it through in his worldbuilding.

Scriving is an ancient technology, rediscovered and revived by the four insanely powerful merchant houses who run Tevanne. Each merchant house operates within its own vast, walled-off complex, so huge that they are practically cities unto themselves, with their own laws. Think of something like the Forbidden City in Beijing, except several of them. Meanwhile, everyone else lives nestled amongst the outer walls of these huge estates in the Commons, a slum of dark and grimy warrens, alleys and sewers, utterly lawless and dangerous to the unwary.

Sancia Grado is a young woman and former slave earning her living as a thief in the Commons. She has a talent she doesn’t quite understand. She can touch any object, even the ground, and know most everything about it. So she can touch a flight of steps and know how many people have climbed it in a day, or touch a stone wall and find where the easiest handholds are for climbing. And if she touches a scrived item, she can hear the scriving language in her head, reciting its commands, though she doesn’t understand how to do anything about them.

Until her latest job has her stealing a scrived key with a sentient mind and personality, calling itself Clef (a nice little musical pun). If scriving is like programming code, then Clef seems to be an all-purpose hacking tool, able to open any door and even affect other scrived objects in ways that persuade them to defy their coded instructions. As Sancia and Clef begin to bond as actual companions and friends, we learn more about Clef’s possible origin, tied into long-standing rumors and myths about the Occidental Empire. An ancient, extinct civilization that invented scriving, its most powerful scriveners were said to be able to rewrite nature and life itself, even to the point of creating their own gods. Much of this is dismissed as wild myth. But the stories haven’t stopped the merchant houses from ransacking every remnant of Occidental civilization they can find, in the hopes of discovering those all-powerful sigils. Could Clef be a long-lost item from those ancient days? Could the people who hired Sancia be preparing the most dangerous power play in Tevanne’s history?

Bennett hits the ground running with his story and very rarely lets up through the course of its 500 pages. Among the themes the book tackles are the sociopathy of inherited wealth and the way in which an unregulated, hypercapitalist system essentially pursues its own form of world domination, not with armies and siege engines but through absolute control of the economic and practical survival of entire populations.

Sancia, whose past is darker than anyone deserves, is an admirable heroine. Thieves in fantasy fiction are a dime a dozen, but it’s Sancia’s stoicism and sense of self-determination amidst traumatizing levels of adversity that makes her memorable and likable. But in addition to Clef, it’s her unlikely team of allies that make the story. Gregor Dandolo is a Captain of the Guard and the heir of the Dandolo merchant house, but he’s shunned the life he could have led in the wake of some horrendous military experiences, and now has this strangely noble idea of bringing law and order and justice to the Commons. But will his family name ever allow him that degree of independent action?

Ample humor is supplied by Orso Ignacio, an official with the Dandolo house with an agenda his employer might not be pleased to discover. (I desperately want to see Steve Buscemi play this guy.) Orso’s assistant, the scrivener Berenice, is the real brains of the outfit, and she also becomes a love interest for Sancia that helps the young thief experience something like real human compassion for the very first time. With the added help of Claudia and Giovanni, a couple of underground scriveners working illegally in the Commons, the team gets up to some very enjoyable Ocean’s Eleven shenanigans as the story ultimately requires Sancia to break into the largest and most protected stronghold in the entire city.

Yes, some moments are a bit too talky, but mostly I had a whale of a time reading this. Foundryside is just high energy storytelling, cinematic in its sweep and full of likable rogues, bloody fight scenes and stylishly hissable villains, with a plot that keeps raising the stakes, leaving us hungry for its specatcle.

Followed by Shorefall.