I never received review copies of Robert Jackson Bennett's The Divine Cities installments, so I never had the opportunity to read and review this acclaimed fantasy series. Hence, when an advance reading copy of Foundryside showed up in my mailbox, I knew this was my chance to finally give this author a shot.

I've heard a lot of good things about Bennett over the years and I was looking forward to another book sequence featuring a grim setting and dark characters. Perhaps my expectations played against me. God knows it wouldn't be the first time. Suffice to say that Foundryside was pretty much the opposite of what I was anticipating. In the end, this lighter fantasy tale with a definite YA tone didn't quite work out for me.

Here's the blurb:

In a city that runs on industrialized magic, a secret war will be fought to overwrite reality itself–the first in a dazzling new fantasy series from City of Stairs author 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.

The industrialized environment was a welcome change from the generic medieval European setting that is so prevalent in the genre and Robert Jackson Bennett did a great job depicting the city of Tevanne and the rest of his universe. His prose is evocative and creates an arresting imagery. The author came up with a complex magic system known as scriving. This is a cool concept, whereby commands etched into inanimate objects can alter their purpose, manipulate their properties, and the way they interact with the world. However, this intricate process can be quite complicated to convey to readers and Bennett had little choice but to rely on massive info-dumps throughout the novel. As a result, the author spends an inordinate amount of time describing it, which gets in the way of the storytelling and can be off-putting. As far as the politicking is concerned, à la Terry Goodkind (but at the other end of the political spectrum), I felt that the moralizing involved could be too heavy-handed at times.

The characterization was likely the aspect that left the most to be desired. Sancia Grado, a young street urchin and thief, is the main protagonist. Subjected to secret experiments on her body during her childhood, she possesses a magical ability that she can't understand or control effectively. Captain Dandolo, a scarred war veteran returned to Tevanne with plans to do good, is the other principal character. Both of them are a little over-the-top in their depiction and are at times little more than caricatures. The supporting cast is made up of more interesting men and women, chief among them Orso and Berenice. Problem is, the interaction between the protagonists kills whatever emotional impact Bennett wished to exude. I heard that The Divine Cities was a stark and brooding affair, but the incessant light-hearted bantering between the characters of Foundryside often made them insufferable. There is nothing worse than someone trying to be funny and failing miserably. The author attempting to make what felt like every conversation akin to the back-and-forth between Jerry and George or Chandler and Joey was simply too much and got old real fast. This, for me at least, was the dealbreaker.

Thankfully, Bennett kept his plot progressing at a good clip. Although the info-dumps can often bog down the narrative, the book didn't suffer from other pacing issues. There are some fascinating ideas and concepts within the pages of Foundryside, but the execution occasionally fell rather flat. Until the storylines converged toward an exciting endgame, it felt as though the novel was little more than a series of heists. The author showed that he has a few tricks up his sleeve, and some unexpected surprises elevated this tale and brought it to a good ending. Which was great, as it closed the show on a more positive note. But it was a case of too little, too late for me.

Overall, I'm not entirely sure how I feel about this book. As I mentioned, there are some cool concepts and ideas that I would like to know more about. Beyond the plot of Foundryside, it's obvious that there is another bigger, more ambitious story arc that will be revealed in the forthcoming sequels. Alas, I'm not sure I can go through another volume if Bennett doesn't improve on the characterization of this series. In addition, I felt that the more YA style and tone of the narrative may not be best suited for the type of tale the author is trying to tell.

After hearing so many good things about Robert Jackson Bennett, I'm afraid that Foundryside was a bit disappointing for me. Time will tell if I will give the next installment a shot. . .

The final verdict: 6.5/10

For more info about this title: Canada, USA, Europe.

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