2020’s Shorefall is the second volume in Robert Jackson Bennett’s secondary-universe industrial-fantasy Founders trilogy. Volume One was reviewed here.
Would-be social revolutionaries Sancia, Berenice, Orso, and Gregor have a plan to block the greed of the established merchant houses in the city of Tevanne. They have founded their own, upstart, merchant house, Foundryside. It’s merely the first step on their ambitious plan to bring social justice to the city.
But reforming Tevanne must soon be set aside in favour of simple survival. Gregor’s mother, Ofelia Dandolo of the Dandolo merchant house, is just as determined as the quartet to bring justice to an unjust world. Her methods are significantly more apocalyptic.
Demi-god Crasedes Magnus invested four thousand years of his immortal life seeking out and punishing exploitive societies. He believed that any innovation in the hands of humans as they are presently configured invariably leads to injustice, slavery, and worse. He envisioned a grand gesture that would forever save humans from themselves. A miscalculation led to his apparent death a thousand years ago.
Crasedes is only mostly dead. Ofelia Dandolo knows how to resurrect him. Although the price will be grim — hundreds of human sacrifices — the deaths are a mere few compared to those who are now dying thanks to Tevanne’s merciless exploitation of the poor. Once Crasedes rises again, he will make sure that justice is done.
Ofelia does not appreciate how the thousands of years of frustration have warped Crasedes. He is willing to sadistically punish the upper classes. He is also largely indifferent to the disenfranchised who perish as collateral damage to his crusade. Justice is worth any amount of death.
Sancia, Berenice, Orso, and Gregor are smart, talented, and determined. They are also vastly outmatched by Crasedes. While the quartet has a demi-god of their own in the form of Crasedes’ former servant, the artificial person Valeria, Valeria has plans to redeem the world that are just as radical as Crasedes’.
Determined to save the world, the four may only be able to decide which of two forms doomsday will take.
This novel isn’t just about trying to survive brutally exploitive societies and gleefully homicidal reformers. It is also about discovering long forgotten historical truths, usually a scene or two too late. One of the side effects of the sequence of civilization-ending apocalypses doled out by Crasedes is a vast cultural amnesia.
I’ve seen speculation that the universe in which this is set is a simulated universe and that the so-called “magic” used by technologies like scriving is just hacking the source code of their game universe. If there’s evidence to contradict this model in this volume, I overlooked it. Still, their pain and terror are quite real to the inhabitants of this universe, regardless of its inherent nature.
The technical innovation that Foundryside is selling to the other merchant houses at the beginning of the book would make a terrible situation even worse. That said, it would be a mistake to focus on the horrifying consequences and not on the genius of the new technique. The new magical technology is genuinely transformative, even if the main transformation it facilitates is living people into corpses.
This volume offers readers a gloomy assessment of social reform. Crasedes would assert that gradual efforts like the quartet’s will fail because the very advantage that allows the friends to change society will inevitably turn them or their successors into the new ruling class1. Valeria only disagrees about what must be done, not about the fundamental issues at hand. The situation seems hopeless.
However! This is the only the middle of three volumes. Middle volumes are often the gloomiest, true solutions being left to the third and final volume2. Here some individuals at least seem capable of decency. Perhaps the surviving characters from this volume will find some third alternative to the solutions proposed by Crasedes and Valeria.
As far as the volume in hand goes, the situation may be terrible, but the plot is fast-moving, the conflicts spectacular, and the protagonists are characters about whose fates readers will care.
1: Even Crasedes would be forced to admit that if he were to succeed in his program, he would be the new ruler … and the new oppressor.
2: Middle volume angst succeeded by concluding volume triumph … hmmm, I need an example. Things are terrible in Dune Messiah but in Children of Dune … maybe that’s the wrong example.