by 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.
I received an eARC of Foundryside from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.
In this Italian-inspired fantasy, the city of Tevanne is ruled by Merchant Houses in a world where the art of scriving can convince an object to have more or less power than it was built for. A sword might be scrived to believe it’s heavier and deadlier than it is, or a locked door forbidden to open inwardly might be convinced it can open outwardly instead.
In this world we meet Sancia Grado, a thief and former slave who has the ability to hear scrivings thanks to an operation she underwent without her consent. When she’s given the opportunity to steal a small box in exchange for an inordinate amount of money that she hopes will afford surgery to remove the scrived plating in her head, she finds herself in possession of a sentient key who can talk to her and, most surprising of all, can open any lock.
Realising that the key, Clef, is far more dangerous in the hands of the Merchant House she’s stolen him for than in her own, Sancia goes into hiding with him, and it’s not long before the whole of Tevanne starts looking for them.
This book starts out fairly slowly, which I think is why it took me a little while to get through it, but that slow start is worth it for Robert Jackson Bennett’s world-building and the introduction of his magic system in the form of scriving. Bennett’s work has been recommended to me a few times, I know both Natalie @ A Sea Change and Deanna @ Deanna Reads Books have both enjoyed previous books of his, and I’m so pleased I finally had the chance to see what all the fuss is about.
Sancia is the kind of heroine I love. She’s brave and sarcastic and afraid, and Bennett’s exploration of her history is done so well; through Sancia and the other characters she meets along the way, both heroes and villains and everyone in-between, Bennett leads his readers through discussions on slavery, the price of freedom and what it means to be a person. This last thread, in particular, is deftly woven into the fabric of Tevanne having been built on scrived objects – if you tamper with an object, at what point does it become a person? And if you tamper with a person, at what point do they become an object? – as well as the wealthy benefiting from slavery and the subjugation of the city’s poorest inhabitants.
Sancia’s friendship with Clef was one of my favourite things about this book, and to be completely honest I never thought I’d feel so attached to a sentient key, but the villains were equally compelling. One villain, in particular, was the kind of villain I love: a villain I understood, and a villain who broke my heart a little because they had such potential to be good if the world in which they lived had only given them the chance.
I was even more pleasantly surprised by the inclusion of an f/f romance. It’s a very small part of this book, to the point where I’m not sure it can entirely be described as a romance when the two women in question are still at the very early stages of showing an interest in each other, but both women were well-written, fleshed out characters and I’d love to see more of this relationship developing throughout the rest of this series.
Though it started out slow, by the time I got to the mid-point all I could think about was how much I wanted to read this book, so much so that I stayed up into the wee hours of the night to finish it. I’m really looking forward to the next book in the series, Hierophant, and recommend this book to anyone in search of a high fantasy novel with a fresh, original magic system!