Friday, March 15, 2019

Short Book Reviews: A Brilliantly Inventive Fantasy Based on Industrial Magic

Foundryside, by Robert Jackson Bennett (Crown)

I just loved this fantasy adventure, with its compelling heroine and system of “industrialized magic.” The world is an oppressive portrayal of social inequality of the Industrial Revolution. Great families wall themselves up in “campos” and live lives of luxury while the rest of the city suffers pollution and dire poverty. Myths from the past provide tantalizing, terrifying hints of how the entire system of magic came into being.

Young Sancia managed to escape the slave plantations to eke out a living as a thief in the less savory neighborhoods of a great city. She’s able to “listen” to physical materials: “The wall spoke to her. The wall told her of foundry smoke, of hot rains, of creeping moss, of the tiny footfalls of the thousands of ants…” Sancia’s magic aids her in her marginal living, but is dwarfed by the real magic of the city: sigils that are “instructions written upon mindless objects that convinced them to disobey reality in select ways,” such as altering their gravity or adhesion to other objects.

Then Sancia opens a box she has been sent to steal and discovers a sentient key, “Clef,” who can persuade any lock to open, and her world changes forever. She’s not the only one after Clef – her employer will stop at nothing to gain control over the key. But who is her employer and what is that person’s greater plan? Mystery piles on action and personal growth, not only of Sancia herself but other characters. The world and its people are in precarious flux, inwardly and outwardly.

This is not a world in which I would like to live, yet almost from the beginning, I cared about Sancia and the people she encounters, especially Clef, who realizes that he more he uses his power to help his only friend, Sancia, the less of his personality survives. The story built as stakes were raised higher and higher. The magic was an intrinsic part of the world-building, with its own logically consistent rules and its own cost. Highly recommended.

The usual disclaimer: I received a review copy of this book, but no one bribed me to say anything about it. Although chocolates might be nice.

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