Foundryside, Robert Jackson Bennett; Tara Sands, narrator (Random House Audio, $32.95, digital download, 19.5 hr., unabridged) August 2018.
The city of Tevanne runs on magitech: “Scrivings,” writings based on the relics of an ancient magical civilization, are used to power vehicles and all manner of technological innovations. But only the wealthy merchant guilds and their employees benefit from these, or indeed, from any public services at all. The guildless are left to struggle without social support or much security; little is done to enforce any law except for the comfort of the guilds. One of these unfortunates is Sancia, a former slave turned thief who is both aided and cursed by the magically inscribed plate forcibly implanted in her head, which grants her powerful psychometry but limits her ability to touch anything – or anyone – in a normal way. Her troubles increase exponentially when a client hires her to steal a mysterious box containing a talking key that only she can hear and is capable of opening any lock. Pursued by deadly, well-connected enemies, Sancia finds herself embroiled in a plot that will upend the city’s power structure and bring her to the attention of even more dangerous forces.
It sounds like the setup for a fairly generic fantasy: the plucky thief in a sophisticated city who unwittingly draws the attention of ruthless and highly placed political figures after they take the wrong job. But this is Robert Jackson Bennett we’re talking about, the author of the incredibly nuanced and cerebral Divine Cities trilogy; there had to be more going on here. As I suspected it would, the story opened up, becoming a gripping and thoughtful adventure about socioeconomic divisions that featured a variety of cruelly manipulative plotters, including a mother reminiscent of the monster in The Manchurian Candidate. Once the book had me, I dropped everything to focus on listening.
Tara Sands has a pleasingly girlish voice that was very suitable for Sancia, and also managed to scrub those qualities when voicing older and male characters. However, audiobooks have a tendency to accentuate any egregious repetitions in the dialogue, and in this case, I was forced to notice that the only curse word that anyone ever employed in the book was “scrumming.” To be fair, it did have a rather colorfully disgusting meaning in the story, but there is no way that anyone, let alone everyone, has just one curse word in their vocabulary.
However, Bennett can fix that minor issue in the next book, which I hope comes very soon.
This review and more like it in the January 2019 issue of Locus.
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