When someone asks you to picture a fantasy world, what often springs to mind is something like the works of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings or George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series, with all the trappings of a pastoral England or medieval Europe. But recently, a number of authors have begun imagining fantasy with new perspectives, where their character’s motivations and story are rooted in more modern concerns. One such recent novel is Robert Jackson Bennett’s Foundryside, the first in a new trilogy that imagines magic almost as though it’s a type of artificial intelligence.
Foundryside was one of my picks for 2018’s best novels, because it has such an interesting take on how fantasy can operate. Certainly, it’s not the first such novel to reimagine magic in a modern setting — there’s a whole genre out there called Urban Fantasy, and works by authors such as Blake Charlton and Max Gladstone have put their own, modernist spins on the genre. But while I was reading Foundryside, I couldn’t help but imagine that the book was essentially a cyberpunk novel, trapped in the clothes of an epic fantasy. It’s a fresh, thrilling adventure that feels extremely relevant in 2018.
Some spoilers for the book ahead.
Bennett’s novel is set in the city of Tevanne in a world where magic — called scriving — is prevalent throughout the world. It’s a process that imbues objects with a sort of low-level intelligence and is used for everything, from lighting city streets, to making building foundations think that they’re stronger than they really are. An arrow shot from a bow will hit its target, but a but a scrived arrow or sword can be made to think that gravity is much greater, prompting it to hit with more force. A door can be made to open when it believes that certain conditions are met, like a key or time, and so forth.
Sancia is a young woman who grows up in Tevanne, and has a special ability: she can sense scrivings, the byproduct of horrific experiments performed upon her brain. If she touches an object, she can sense what it’s been “programmed” to do, or sense things around it, like a person. It’s an ability that makes it hard to interact with the world around her, but it’s an incredibly useful ability as a thief. She’s hired to steal a special object from a heavily-guarded warehouse, and gets more than she bargained: a key, one that seems to have a mind of its own. Because Sancia can hear scrived objects, she learns that it calls itself Clef, and it can open any lock that it’s inserted into, and it could be a really useful tool for her to hold onto.
However, there are forces searching for Clef, and they’re willing to go to great lengths to get their hands on it. Sancia soon learns that Clef is a relic from an ancient civilization that learned to use scrivings to reprogram reality, and that the figures now after her are working to hunt down those secrets to do the same, with disastrous consequences.
Sancia and a group of compatriots band together to try and stop the plot, and Bennett weaves together several characters to lay out an enthralling heist and battle to prevent their enemies actions from being carried out.
While Bennett’s book is most certainly fantasy, it’s his approach to his entire world that makes this story stand out in the genre. Broadly speaking, epic fantasy feels most at home in a pre-industrial world, and doesn’t usually concern itself with the affairs of things like corporations or the ethics of capitalism that came with industrialization. Bennett’s focus here is squarely on that, which makes the book surprisingly relevant in today’s world, where vast tech companies squash their competitors and seek to grow their influence amongst their customers and general public. That’s something that you are more likely to see in a science fiction or thriller novel.
Indeed — Foundryside is essentially a fantastical cyberpunk novel. The book’s characters can be augmented to perform certain actions or tasks, scrived objects are a range of artificial intelligences, and megacorporations loom over everyday life, grinding out the people who buy their wares or work for them. Bennett’s streets teem with unaffiliated scrivers, thieves, and swords-for-hire, and the novel’s final act — a heist and confrontation — sees Sancia breaking into the fantasy equivalent of a smart fortress. It’s a smart, innovative take on the genre that helps demonstrate that fantasy doesn’t have to limit itself to its more durable tropes and settings.
It’s easy to take the trappings of one genre and make some changes, but what ultimately makes Foundryside a great read is that Bennett isn’t just fiddling with the settings — he’s using fantasy to touching on themes like the effects of rampant capitalism, artificial intelligence, and the ethics of technology, all to tell a story that’s pressingly modern and relevant in 2018, and I already can’t to see what he does in the next installment, Hierophant, which comes out August 2019.