The city of Tevanne is ruled by the four great houses, Candiano, Dandolo, Morsini and Michiel, rivals in the great work of the scrivings, a means by which rough matter may be manipulated and persuaded to believe it is other than it is, that a blade may be sharper, that a column may be stronger, that a chain cannot be broken, that something is heavier or lighter than it should be.
The relationship of the houses a complex and delicate balance of carefully observed rules where rivalry is never permitted to escalate to direct action against each other, beyond their high and guarded walls the rule of law is much looser in the slums of Foundryside where those who cannot find employment within the houses or who have fallen from their favour scrabble for survival.
Among them is the talented thief Sancia Grado, engaged through her usual intermediary on behalf of parties unknown to procure an item from the Waterwatch offices at the Tevanni docks, a job which results in considerably more collateral damage from Sancia’s diversionary pyrotechnics than planned, the price of her escape being that her hopefully discrete nocturnal visit now has half the city speculating.
Worse, something else is talking to Sancia, something unexpected which she was sent to find but which she was told to keep in its box: a key, which calls itself Clef, whose intricate scrivings speak of an ancient power beyond any currently held in Tevanne and with abilities which open doors of possibility for Sancia beyond her lowly station as an orphaned thief, so long as she can keep the secret from the intended buyers.
The first book in Robert Jackson Bennett’s Founders trilogy, Foundryside parallels the miracles of his Divine Cities fantasy trilogy with the way the scrivings are woven through everyday life but only controlled by the elite few to maintain their power over the masses even as they squabble amongst themselves and weave their plots.
The powerful scrivings too endemic, driving every aspect of the city, magical powers in all but name they are dulled by their very ubiquity, as common as electricity; in the right setting this might be remarkable but with Bennett’s micromanagement of action in overwritten scenes it quickly becomes dull despite the heavy cost on Sancia.
What could be an examination or critique of a society where the technology and the weaponry in particular has far outstripped the progress of that culture, overpowered engines of wanton destruction which wound, maim and kill far beyond their intended targets, Foundryside is instead filled with pages devoted to the scrivings, their many uses, their hazards, their history, the lost arts of the ancients and their potential waiting to be rediscovered, Bennett as in thrall to his creation as his characters.
Structured like Mission: Impossible, with raising stakes, incredulous escapes and an array of preposterous gadgets which just happen to be useful come the crunch, Foundryside does improve as it picks up momentum and the bluntly introduced characters become more likeable, but like many of its genre it could easily be streamlined; when even the characters complain of being tired of endless crawling through sewers it is time to edit.
Foundryside is available from now from Jo Fletcher Books