The Founders Trilogy
by Robert Jackson Bennett
Reviewed by Galen Strickland
Book 1: Foundryside / 2. ? / 3. ?
I received a free e-book of this title from Net Galley in exchange for an honest review. Foundryside will be released in a little over a month, August 21, 2018. In the beginning, I had some reservations about the plot, particularly the magic system introduced. I was thinking I would give this page the title of this book only, and not worry about the sequels. By the end, I was hoping the second book was ready to read now. What sold me were the characters and many exciting action sequences. No word yet on sequel titles, but I am interested.
UPDATE: Foundryside is a finalist for a Locus Award for Best Fantasy Novel.
The majority of the action takes place in the city of Tevanne, in the country of Durazzo. The city is comprised of various districts, including Foundryside, the Commons, Old Ditch, and the Greens, as well as four different campos, the walled enclaves of the merchant houses. Each of the houses produces goods utilizing proprietary sigillums, sigils engraved or painted on devices, 'rigs,' which embues them with specific properties of action. These sigils are based on discoveries from the ancient Occidentals, believed to have achieved god-like status from their use of the sigils, which supposedly derive from the basic laws of physics. The 'scriving' on a rig convinces the object it has properties not inherent in its physical form, such as inducing motion in carriages. Each scriving gets its power from 'lexicons' maintained by the merchant house that produced it. Visualize it like a computer's hard-drive, without which none of its systems will operate. Lexicons contain multiple sigillums, to power multiple scrived devices, and each lexicon has a limited range of effect. Lexicons used by the military are smaller and portable, those that power city systems have to be larger, or else multiple lexicons in various locations are used. One particular effect, apparently abandoned by mutual agreement between the houses, is that of manipulating gravity, although it becomes clear later that at least one house continued their experiments, possibly based on secret discoveries of unique sigillums. Another (supposedly) abandoned avenue of research was that of scriving people. All of this might sound like too much information, but I felt it necessary to make a point. Magic in fantasy can do anything, it is not limited by logic, only limited by the author's (and reader's) imagination. You do need to undertand the 'magic' here, but all of that would be for nought if it wasn't for the interesting characters and what they do within this cultural system.
The main character is Sancia Grado, a former plantation slave who escaped and came to Tevanne some three years prior to the main action. She is a master thief, capable of surreptitious movement and infiltration, enabled by her own scrived rig...herself. She is a product of experimentation done on the plantation, their only successful attempt to scrive a human being, by implanting a scrived metal plate in her head. She has to refrain from touching anyone else, and normally is fully clothed, head to foot, in heavy garments and gloves. Whenever she touches an object, a floor, door, or wall, she can sense its entire composition, including any other object it touches. It enables her to sense any weakness in the structure, the easiest path of ingress or egress. She also has the ability to sense when she is near a scrived rig, and can actually 'hear' the sigillums, although only murmurs, not their specific instructions to the device. Even that changes with her latest acquisition, a golden key she was paid to steal from a safe in the waterfront dock office. She got her instructions from her fence, Sark, but she doesn't know who his client is. She hopes the payment for the job will enable her to pay a physiquére to remove the plate from her head, to become 'normal' again. But her fence is killed, and she is on the run from unknown people, who exhibit powers and devices she doesn't understand. Along the way she acquires several allies, including some she would have previously avoided at all costs. The mystery is which of the merchant houses is involved, or whether it may be a conspiracy between two or more of them, who to suspect, who to trust. Sancia is out of her element within the campos, but her unique abilities, and her inherent intelligence, may enable her to outwit them all. That, and of course the golden key that talks to her. 'He' says his name is Clef, and for a time she thinks of him as the only friend she's ever had.
One merchant house falls, but Foundryside Limited hopes to take its place. The series derives its collective title from those who have created a merchant house. The Founder of Foundryside Limited is Orso, former chief scriver for Dandalo Chartered, and before that with House Candiano, so he knows all their sigillums as well as some he created on his own. As accomplished as he is, he may eventually be overshadowed by his assistant Berenice, who was able to recreate the anti-gravity sigillums Sancia had witnessed, enabling her to attack their opponents to win the day. But only the day, the future is still uncertain. Some foes are vanquished, others are poised to rise, including one who may be an ancient Occidental hierophant ressurrected. Instead of being rid of her curse, Sancia's abilities are enhanced even more, but I won't detail that, except to say the book's tagline says a lot. "The world's a machine. She's the wrench."
Recommended. I gave this 4 stars on Goodreads. While some elements might warrant a slightly higher score, others would knock it down a notch. There are a few minor inconsistencies in the way the scrived devices are described. For instance, experiments into gravity manipulation had been proscribed, and yet what enabled the floating lights to work? Too soon to say if this will equal or surpass Bennett's Divine Cities trilogy, but it is encouraging that the conclusion of that series was the best.
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