Review: Shorefall by Robert Jackson Bennett

Shorefall, Robert Jackson Bennett’s sophomore outing in the Founders series, and the follow-up to 2018’s phenomenal Foundryside, is a fantastic book which straddles high fantasy and techpunk aesthetics, producing a genuinely unique and engaging universe in the process. I got hold of Foundryside at Worldcon last year as a gift from the publisher and they’ve been kind enough to let me see the sequel ahead of publication as well, and I almost bit their hand off at the chance to get back to Tevanne as soon as I could. You absolutely need to have read Book 1 to keep pace with this second instalment, so I need to be very careful with spoilers here, but shelling out for two books, if you have to, is utterly worth it, because this is a clever and appealing world with characters you will root for and love.

Set three years after the first book, we find master thief Sancia Grado, and her compatriots Berenice, Gregor and Orso, running their own consulting merchant house, Foundryside Ltd. They are pursuing their cause of toppling the monopoly of the great merchant houses, who previously kept scriving for themselves, by sharing the secrets of the art with independent scrivers. Their latest plan is to steal the entire lexicon of one of the remaining great houses, but in doing so they set off a deadly battle, one that threatens thousands, but which could be the undoing of their egalitarian ideals should they try to stop it.

What most people really adored about Foundryside, and I was no different, was the delightful world-building and the ingenuity of Bennett’s magic system: scriving, the act of altering the reality of an object via magical instructions inscribed onto it. What’s so great about this approach is that it interrogates the very idea of magic and the imbalance of power it creates in a novel way. Where other writers have decided to restrict the use of magic – either by limiting who can have it, or exacting so much cost from its use that it can’t be overexploited – as a means of stopping their characters simply magicking threats away, Bennett instead directly tackles the questions of what would happen if we could all have that power and the only restrictions were on how to get hold of it. What threats would that actually create? Foundryside addressed the first part of that concern, how to seize the power for yourself, and was fuelled by all the amazing ways that lead character Sancia Grado, and her companions could think to adapt the magic to suit their needs, making it alive and truly a function of the person who wields it, rather than just a flat external solution. It became a book about human inventiveness and you felt the magic was truly a product of the character and not the other way round. Less Bond, more McGuyver, if you will.

Shorefall moves the focus from ingenuity onto the second – arguably, more interesting- concern; what actually happens to the balance of power once you shift it from the privileged to the disenfranchised? As the major merchant houses that were the main enemy in the first book lose their monopoly, are they just replaced with slightly smaller, but no less self-serving alternatives?

This question is explored as the Foundrysiders are embroiled in a battle between the construct Valeria, who Sancia loosed in the previous book, and another godlike being, Valeria’s creator, Crasedes Magnus. He is said to have destroyed empires and sacrificed thousands in the pursuit of his powers, and is about to be summoned back by unseen forces. Lest Crasedes run amok again, the Foundrysiders are forced to pursue the means to allow Valeria to successfully meet this threat. But, what’s to stop her becoming just another threat of the same kind once he’s defeated, precisely because of the techniques the Foundrysiders have used to make her so powerful?

The characters we love are beautifully handled once more, and the context for the magic system, and how the society of the Founders stories has grown up around it, extends the world-building considerably. Arguably, the escalation of the powers described, when these godlike legends get involved, robs this story of some of the inventiveness of the first, flattening the magic a little by making it too easy to apply, and removing its humanity in the process. Scriving gets replaced by the usual pyrotechnics in their hands. But this is a small gripe.

Overall, Shorefall is a sparkling continuation of Sancia’s story, driven by an ensemble of extraordinarily likeable and relatable characters and focused on very timely themes. This is a hopeful book, despite the hurts that arise in it, and that’s a good contrast to a lot of the grimdark takes on fantasy that have gained dominance recently. I highly recommend this book, but do go back and read Foundryside first to do it justice.

An ARC of Shorefall was provided by Jo Fletcher Books in return for an honest review.

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