By now, every seasoned reader of fantasy is familiar with the pseudo-medieval setting common to epic fantasy and the modern setting of urban fantasy. Robert Jackson Bennett’s Foundryside takes place in a world between these two extremes. Magic itself has been industrialized, with factories (called foundries) churning out items that have been “scrived” for magical operation. There are magical streetlamps and thaumaturgical horseless carriages. And yet, it doesn’t quite feel like steampunk either. The unique flavor of the setting immersed me in the story from the get-go.
Bennett quickly makes the reader fall in love with his characters. The primary drivers of the story are Sancia, a thief who starts to suspect that her latest prize is far more than it appears, and Gregor, the scion of a wealthy merchant house who’s determined to bring some semblance of justice to his corrupt city. Both have some intriguing mysteries in their background, and one can see how their life experiences have shaped their outlooks and behavior. The secondary characters, who include a perpetually cranky researcher, his clever assistant, and a pair of disenfranchised would-be scrivers, are compelling as well. The only misstep here is with the voice chosen for a character who is implied to be ancient, since he speaks with a very modern cadence and vocabulary.
As with the best sci-fi and fantasy, Foundryside examines issues relevant to the real world. Four merchant houses have a stranglehold on the scriving industry. Because of the power in scrived devices and the importance of scriving to the city’s infrastructure, their control of the industry gives them control over society as a whole. There’s a clear allegory here to the outsized influence wielded by major corporations. Colonialism also becomes a major theme later in the book, as we learn more about one character’s past.
Foundryside is the first book in a trilogy. While it sets up the important conflicts for the next book, as well as a new mystery, it doesn’t leave the reader completely without resolution. There’s a satisfying climax and denouement that allowed me to feel like the first chapter in the story, at least, was finished. And it left me looking forward to the next one.