Foundryside by Robert Jackson Bennett (Book Thoughts)

While I admittedly haven’t done much reading this month, for various reasons, I was finally able to finish Foundryside. The book was an August buddy read on Discord that I was interested in but couldn’t get to on time, and I’m glad I eventually did.

Bookish Quick Facts:

  • Title: Foundryside
  • Series: The Founder’s Trilogy #1
  • Author: Robert Jackson Bennett
  • Publisher & Release: Crown, 2018
  • Length: 513 pages
  • Rate & Recommend: ⭐⭐⭐⭐✨ for fans of the genre that don’t mind a deep dive into magic systems

Here’s the synopsis:

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

Alright so this is a steampunk-y heist fantasy with a very scientific magic system, lots of snark, and a group of characters that are typical individuals in an atypical group. Bear with me on this because the brave and tragic male character isn’t usually portrayed as the third wheel to the women and that’s where this book won me over.

First let’s talk about the narrative voice.  I personally do best with third person limited, where you see the world through the main character’s eyes and mind but the story is told by a separate narrator.  I like the style because I tend to view the book as a movie in my brain while I’m reading it, and if the imagery is realized well enough to create a realistic world for me to get lost in, all the better.

So that’s where I think the author really succeeded here.  Whether in the dumps of Foundryside, the commons, the guild areas of money and waste, or even the dungeon, I had no problem visualizing Tevanne unspooling around Sancia. 

To further tie that into the world building, remember my fixation with guild drama that started with Garth Nix? There’s tons of (but never enough) guild drama, politics, scheming, plotting, old customs, new customs, relics and religion and lore to really flesh out the world build.  Most of the slang was world based too.  “Scrumming” seems to be the Tevanni primary cuss word, and the explanation is just perfect 😂

Ok, let’s briefly do the magic system next.  It’s scientific, and it’s the main info dump of the novel. More than once, Bennett takes a deep dive into the science of his glyph/sigil based magic system called Scriving.  The whole point is to convince objects that reality is something else.  I’m just going to say that it’s by far one of the more interesting magics I’ve seen recently. It was extremely well thought out, although I felt like it bogged the pace down at times when instead of focusing on action, the magic took precedence. I’m not complaining but it made me zone out a bit at times and just felt like too much, so I docked half a star. Really, I’m nitpicking though.

For the most part the action and plotting moved along at a good pace, I may have phased out a few times but never would say J was bored reading. There’s more than enough mystery and nuance to keep it interesting where all else fails.

Alright I saved the best for last, let’s see why the characters are interesting. Sancia is a pretty typical thief, a really great thief, down on her luck needing money.  She has a snarky sidekick (Clef) who ends up being an inanimate object that can talk to her.  Then it’s kind of a mixed bag of people introduced and I was surprised at who ended up being important. There’s a cranky old scientist type (Orso) who I hated at first but he ended up being my favorite character. How amazing can a cranky old guy get? Apparently very. His assistant (Berenice) forms a friendship with Sancia and ends up being pretty bad ass herself. Lastly, the son of a Founder (Gregor) who just wants to make Tevanne a better, more just place, but his fate is in the hands of someone else.  Gregor also ended up with the saddest storyline – a good study in characters with deceptive narratives aka you’re not expecting to have your heart ripped out by them but you do.

Put them all together, and you end up with a super cranky and reluctant mentor figure overseeing two absolutely powerful women, with an equally righteous and brave man that while important, kind of ends up being a third wheel to the women. There’s a lot of nuance and development in the group interaction that I really liked.

Ok let me wrap this up before it gets any longer! If you like steampunk, in depth magic, political intrigue, guild drama, dark and ancient forces at work, world building, and random groups of people working together to topple a capitalist society, you would probably love Foundryside.  It’s not a happy book but it’s got it’s moments of darkness, light, torture, hope, misery, redemption, and all of the above. Overall I had a great time reading it and would definitely recommend.