Published: August 21st, 2018
Publisher: Random House Audio
Genre(s): Fantasy, Heist, Adventure
Length: 19 hrs and 34 mins
Golems from Jewish folklore have always fascinated me, with their heads full of instructions written on a life-giving scroll. A golem is both the creation myth in miniature and a way to codify magic, a sort of early computer programming where the processors are clay giants. It’s strangely comforting to imagine that human beings could control the world in such a fashion, while also terrifying to imagine the many ways it could go wrong.
In Foundryside, Robert Jackson Bennett takes some of those basic elements and introduces a world where craftsmen use the art of scriving to write a reality-controlling language on inanimate objects and give them a form of consciousness; everything in creation is nothing more than a golem waiting for its instructions. Then, he imagines all of the ways that this power could and would go sickeningly, catastrophically, heartbreakingly wrong.
Sancia is a thief, and a damn good one, all thanks to her ability to touch any object and understand how it works. When she touches an object, understands everything about it, which comes in handy when she needs to pick a lock or avoid a trap, but makes it hard to focus when she has to tune out her own clothes.
When the book opens, Sancia is about to start a seemingly mundane job for a mysterious client: steal a small wooden box from the waterfront and deliver it unopened, no questions asked. As you might imagine, the heist goes catastrophically wrong, and Sancia decides she needs to know what she went to all that trouble to get.
Inside the box, she discovers a bizarre scrived key that can open any lock and that also happens to speak in a snarky voice that she can hear in her head. Sancia quickly realizes that she is in deep shit with any number of people who want to kill her, and she sets about trying to find a way to survive.
This wouldn’t be a book about a thief if there wasn’t eventually a bigger, more dangerous heist in the cards. As Sancia comes to understand the true stakes of her situation, she slowly but surely builds out a crew of friends and allies while Jackson Bennett unpacks her history and reveals the horrors of her former life.
Meticulous worldbuilding always feels like the “fun” of an epic fantasy novels, the part of the book that the author obsessed over, sometimes to the detriment of the story. Jackson Bennett’s worldbuilding is fun, but scriving is also the rotten core at the heart of Foundryside.
Sancia’s world and its wonders exist only because of atrocities that seem like ancient history but that happened not so long ago. The worst part is the revelation that the modern-day scrivers only understand a tiny fraction of the language of their ancestors, and all the power will go to the first scriver who puts enough pieces of the language together to remake the world in their image.
Foundryside is the first of Jackson Bennett’s novels that I’ve read. I had heard endless praise for his Divine Cities trilogy, and I’m sure I’ll read it before too much longer, but for whatever reason, I was more drawn to Foundryside’s fascinating premise and high-stakes magical heists. Highly recommended.
Full disclosure: I received a free review copy of this book from NetGalley, but I listened to the audiobook from Audible.