2018’s Foundryside is the first volume in Robert Jackson Bennett’s Founders series.
The Occidental Empire fell long ago, but a handful of relics remain. The people of Tevanne have used these relics to revive (partially) the practice of technomagical scriving. The merchant city now has a monopoly on scriving; it is the center of a new golden age of magic. The masses of the world toil endlessly to enrich a handful of wealthy merchant houses.
Sancia Grado was one of those plantation slaves. She has been used as a human test subject; she now has abilities she does not fully understand.
She has object empathy; she can handle a container and tell what is hidden inside. A fine skill for a thief (thieving is her new career). She has been offered a job that is unusually lucrative, which should be a warning sign that it’s dangerous. But she accepts the commission.
The job does not go well. Sancia is nearly caught and the fire she set as a distraction burns down half the warehouse district, This ensures the full attention of Captain Gregor Dandolo of the Tevanni Waterwatch, who is now dedicated to finding the person or persons responsible.
Sancia is curious about what’s in the box she stole. It must be something special to justify the price she’s being paid. She opens the box and finds an ornate key, inscribed with arcane symbols no modern scriber could match. It is a relic of the Occidental Empire; it’s a treasure that could reshape the world; it’s an intelligent being named Clef.
She makes friends with Clef, who helps her survive an ambush. Her client never intended her to survive once the box was handed over. Sark, her ally and partner in crime is not so lucky.
That’s just her client. There’s another player in the game, a shadowy mastermind who is determined to get possession of the relic. The mastermind controls technology that goes far beyond anything known in Tevanne. Sancia would flee if she could, but flight is impossible. If Sancia is to survive, she needs to find out who commissioned the theft and somehow put an end to their schemes … all of this before the mastermind seizes the key and transforms the evil, exploitive Tevanni Empire into something much, much worse.
She needs a well-placed ally. Someone like Captain Gregor Dandolo.
A minor gripe: the contemporary slang used by the characters kept yanking me out of the story.
On a related note, this is a fantasy novel whose idea of deep time is a thousand years, which suggests the author does not hail from any land where edifices a thousand years old (or more) are in daily use.
An American, in other words. Or possibly Canadian…
It also suggests that the author does not work in a field whose relevant time scales are measured in millions or billions or years.
Given scribing’s nature, and the tendency of people who have mastered the technology to experiment with ways to turn underlings into mind-controlled slaves, I can’t see how Bennett could take his narrative in any direction other than a horrifying dystopia even worse than the current Tevanni Empire (which is already roughly on par with the Congo Free State where human rights are concerned). It seems an inherently abusive technology, wielded freely and lacking any authority with power and will to limit abuse.
Sancia’s gift has a few drawbacks: it can give her terrible headaches and she cannot turn it off. Touching inanimate objects is distracting. Touching living beings (or even formerly living beings, like corpses or meat) is excruciating. Sancia (rather like the X‑Men’s Rogue) wears protective clothing whenever possible.
This book belongs to that subgenre of heist stories in which stealing the item paints a great big target on the burglar’s back. Fear of death is extremely motivating; if the person who commissioned the crime had simply paid off Sancia and let her go, she wouldn’t have been motivated to find out who hired her or to screw with said person’s plans. Don’t stiff the help.
Who doesn’t like a story about underdogs sticking it to the man? Or heist novels about confounding would-be big bads with carefully planned and almost as carefully implemented heists (which, yes, invariably go wrong due to unforeseen factors, but in entertaining ways)? I’ve not read Bennett before but this is a very promising introduction. I am curious to see where he takes the series.