Re-Writing The World: Robert Jackson Bennett’s Foundryside


By JJ: I’ve been outspoken here in the past about my appreciation for Robert Jackson Bennett’s Divine Cities trilogy, which was a finalist last year for the Hugo Award for Best Series.

I’ve been looking forward to more work from Bennett, and was delighted to see that he’d published a new novel: Foundryside. This is set in a new universe, and while it’s very different from that of The Divine Cities, it’s a fascinating, fully-realized world which combines fantasy with engineering in what could be called “scriberpunk”.

The engineering in this world, instead of being driven by steam, is driven by inscriptions written on ordinary objects. Linked to, and powered by, “lexicons” – which are essentially databases of definitions of various types of reality – these inscriptions instruct objects to behave in ways contrary to their normal nature.

Imagine the power with which an object could be hurled if you’ve convinced it that it’s falling to the earth from 10,000 feet up. Imagine knowing what is happening right now in a place far away, because you hold an object for which its metaphysical twin is being altered to deliver that news.

The world itself is a complex and contradictory one: wealthy people live in compounds where wonderful food, clothing, shelter, and luxuries are widely available – while poor people beg and steal in the streets outside, trying to survive in their own world of violence and privation.

And this is a world which has risen from the ashes of a much older, more advanced civilization. The scrivings currently being done by the wealthy Founders’ research scientists and by the clever science-inclined denizens of the city’s struggling underclass are merely the comparatively tiny scraps they have desperately managed to reverse-engineer from the relics of that civilization, which fell to an unknown cataclysm.

Sancia is an inhabitant of the poor section of the city of Tevanne, known as Foundryside. She is scrappy and resourceful, a clever thief who hides a frightening secret: she is the lone survivor of the brutal experiments conducted on slave plantations outside the city which attempted to create scrived human beings. Because of the inscriptions which have been placed in her skull, she has abilities of which no one is aware. But she is in danger, because her actions with her special powers have given her away, and there are several powerful people with numerous opposing motives who are all searching for her.

Touching on themes of wealth vs. poverty, the ability of the rich to exploit the poor, slavery, colonialism, and corporations for which the only concern is the accumulation of yet more wealth, Bennett’s novel is a tantalizing view of our own world transferred to a universe where engineers are gods and ordinary people do their best to take care of themselves and each other against seemingly-insurmountable odds.

I found this story utterly engaging and couldn’t put it down until I finished. I can’t wait for the next entry in this world to come out. Shorefall will be released in February 2020.

I received a copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

(Fair notice: all Amazon links are referrer URLs which benefit non-profit SFF fan website Worlds Without End)


Foundryside by Robert Jackson Bennett

In a city that runs on industrialized magic, a secret war will be fought to overwrite reality itself – the first in a dazzling new series from City of Stairs author 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.

Filer comments:

Mark Hepworth: Whew! I don’t know what I was expecting from this, but it wasn’t the fantasy with a cyberpunk plot that I got. I recommend this very highly.

The setting is a city run on industrialised magic, dominated by merchant houses that rule their own areas, leaving the poorest areas to lawless anarchy. The magic based on writing complex instructions to run arcane devices is really interesting (and RJB gives a good lesson in how to ‘splain without being too ‘splainy) but the characters are where it shines. Initially you meet Sancia, an escaped slave who is surviving in the lawless areas by putting a unique talent for thievery to use. She’s not a chirpy urban thief with a heart of gold type though – she wants a big pile of cash to fix her problem and then get as far away from their as she can. Other chars come in later and probably don’t quite rise to Sancia’s level.

When I say it’s a cyberpunk plot, what I mean is that you have a urban environment controlled by big corps, with hardscrabble thieves and other operatives running around doing jobs for mysterious (probably corporate) benefactors, getting their hands on something they weren’t supposed to and getting into Big Trouble as a result. There are some further callouts in the magic-tech that convince me RJB was doing this deliberately.

Similarly to the Divine Cities this is all in service of exploring some big themes about power, how cities and economies work – with technology in particular – oh and the nature of his world and what gods there may be in it.

While this is the start of a series it definitely stands together, leading up to a very satisfying high-octane ending. I’ll be very interested to see if he writes a trilogy with a tighter plot than Divine Cities, or if he goes wider again. I rather hope it’s the latter.

If I were to criticise, I would say that having recently read some novels that tackle the subject of slavery in an unrelentingly grim manner, the treatment here comes over as a bit lightweight – honestly meant, I think, but not as strongly examined as it could be.

Eric Reynolds: I’ve started on Robert Jackson Bennett’s Foundryside. I don’t know what I was expecting, but this is not it. That is not a complaint, by the way. I very much like his worldbuilding and storytelling abilities – too many authors are good at one and not the other.

Doctor Science: Steampunk, and like most of the genre (to me) one keeps accidentally putting a foot through the paper-thin scenery, since the world-building looks better than it functions. (Who is paying the policeman, if there’s no city government? why do pests & diseases respect the walls of the campos? how does sleeping in her clothes keep out lice?) And then there’s using “gypsy” as a generic term for nomadic people, in a fantasy no less. But toward the end the world-building started to get actually interesting to me, and I look forward to reading the next part. I just don’t plan on paying money for it.

Matt Y: I’m a Robert Jackson Bennett fan and at this point I’m envious of his ability to write seemingly any genre and be amazing at it. This book is no different, and is one of those books I feel like I could spend all day pointing out all the little details I loved but this is a great book that’s a fantasy novel where the system of magic is essentially messing with the coding language of reality itself so it’s also oddly kind of a cyberpunk book with coders and hackers and people attempting to get admin level rights even if none of that language is used. Great characters, story, use of different themes, good action, great world, just great all around.

Olav Rokne: Heck yeah, Foundryside! That one’s an absolute banger!

Bonnie McDaniel: I know I’m late to the party, but I’m definitely jumping on this bandwagon. This is a complex thriller that, to me, is a unique marriage of epic fantasy with physics and quantum mechanics, due to its “scriving” magic system that twists and manipulates reality with exacting (and dangerous) strings of symbols, called sigils. There are also themes in this book of colonialism and classism, and what seems to be a recurring Bennett motif: the sins of the past rising up to bite the present big-time. It’s five hundred pages, but it’s well-paced with compelling characters.

bookworm1398: I’m in the middle of Foundryside right now and loving it. The scrying magic system reminded me of software the way it works with simple end-user symbols backed by the complicated dictionaries. The way the security can be hacked by fooling the code about the current time/location. And cooling the stacks is a major problem. (And I have a feeling we are going to get around to uploading minds though we will see). Anyway, great characters, truly imaginative world-building. Acknowledging the greyness of practical moral questions without becoming nihilistic.

Arifel: This is one of my books of 2018 and definitely worth picking up, especially for fans of the Divine Cities series.

Kyra: While it doesn’t quite rise to the level of Bennett’s best work in terms of world-building or characterization (although to be fair, little does), it’s nevertheless a propulsive, engaging story with a lot going for it.

Ken Richards: Now 2/3rds through reading Foundryside and enjoying it.

Other works by Robert Jackson Bennett:

The city of Bulikov once wielded the powers of the gods to conquer the world, enslaving and brutalizing millions – until its divine protectors were killed. Now Bulikov has become just another colonial outpost of the world’s new geopolitical power, but the surreal landscape of the city itself – first shaped, now shattered, by the thousands of miracles its guardians once worked upon it – stands as a constant, haunting reminder of its former supremacy.

Into this broken city steps Shara Thivani. Officially, the unassuming young woman is just another junior diplomat sent by Bulikov’s oppressors. Unofficially, she is one of her country’s most accomplished spies, dispatched to catch a murderer. But as Shara pursues the killer, she starts to suspect that the beings who ruled this terrible place may not be as dead as they seem – and that Bulikov’s cruel reign may not yet be over.

The year is 1919. The McNaughton Corporation is the pinnacle of American industry. They built the guns that won the Great War before it even began. They built the airships that tie the world together. And, above all, they built Evesden – a shining metropolis, the best that the world has to offer. But something is rotten at the heart of the city. Deep underground, a trolley car pulls into a station with eleven dead bodies inside. Four minutes before, the victims were seen boarding at the previous station. Eleven men butchered by hand in the blink of an eye. All are dead. And all are union. Now, one man, Cyril Hayes, must fix this. There is a dark secret behind the inventions of McNaughton and with a war brewing between the executives and the workers, the truth must be discovered before the whole city burns. Caught between the union and the company, between the police and the victims, Hayes must uncover the mystery before it kills him.

It is the time of the Great Depression. Thousands have left their homes looking for a better life, a new life. But Marcus Connelly is not one of them. He searches for one thing, and one thing only: Revenge. Because out there, riding the rails, stalking the camps, is the scarred vagrant who murdered Connelly’s daughter. One man must face a dark truth and answer the question – how much is he willing to sacrifice for his satisfaction?

Vaudeville: mad, mercenary, dreamy, and absurd, a world of clashing cultures and ferocious showmanship and wickedly delightful deceptions. But sixteen-year-old pianist George Carole has joined vaudeville for one reason only: to find the man he suspects to be his father, the great Heironomo Silenus. Yet as he chases down his father’s troupe, he begins to understand that their performances are strange even for vaudeville: for wherever they happen to tour, the very nature of the world seems to change. Because there is a secret within Silenus’s show so ancient and dangerous that it has won him many powerful enemies. And it’s not until after he joins them that George realizes the troupe is not simply touring: they are running for their lives. And soon… he is as well.

Some places are too good to be true. Under a pink moon, there is a perfect little town not found on any map. In that town, there are quiet streets lined with pretty houses, houses that conceal the strangest things. After a couple years of hard traveling, ex-cop Mona Bright inherits her long-dead mother’s home in Wink, New Mexico. And the closer Mona gets to her mother’s past, the more she understands that the people of Wink are very, very different…

Robert Jackson Bennett

Robert Jackson Bennett

Robert Jackson Bennett was born in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. He moved to Austin, Texas, and studied at the University of Texas. Bennett is a two-time award winner of the Shirley Jackson Award for Best Novel, an Edgar Award winner for Best Paperback Original, and is also the 2010 recipient of the Sydney J Bounds Award for Best Newcomer, and a Philip K Dick Award Citation of Excellence. City of Stairs was shortlisted for the Locus Award, the World Fantasy Award, and the Robert Holdstock Award, and The Divine Cities trilogy was a finalist for the Best Series Hugo Award. Bennett lives in Austin with his wife and sons.

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2 thoughts on “Re-Writing The World: Robert Jackson Bennett’s Foundryside

  1. Ken, I had it on my Hugo ballot for Best Novel as well. The author writes so well that I found it absolutely engrossing. I’m really looking forward to the sequel.

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