Last we left the crew of Foundryside, in the titular first book of Robert Jackson Bennett’s Founders Trilogy, they had just succeeded in pulling off the impossible, saving Tevanne from a brutal plot of attempted godhood, even as they lost a friend along the way. Now, three years later, their own scriving house exists as an open source for any scriver who would seek to grow, learn, and compete in the marketplace against the looming Merchant Houses, provided they leave anything new they make with the crew at Foundryside to disperse to others.
But as scriv-sighted Sancia, brilliant engineer Berenice, irascible but talented leader Orso, and the powerhouse Gregor, still struggling with memory and violence, find their feet under them for the first time since book one, the mysterious Valeria reaches out once more: her Maker, the hierophant Crasedes Magnus, long thought dead, is close to convincing reality he is alive once more. And he seeks to do more than come back to life: he has plans for all of humanity, and it starts in Tevanne, just shy of Shorefall, the holiday of true night everlasting.
Bennett wastes no time in putting the reader right back in the action, bringing us swiftly through the streets of Tevanne, reacquainting us with the four heroes of Foundryside, and giving us gentle reminders into scriving, magic that can imbue inanimate objects with sentience, and argue reality into working in ways it was not intended. Which is good, because our understanding of every single one of those things aspects of the book flip and change, evolving through Bennett’s expert touch and effortless prose. Through Shorefall, we watch as from chapter to chapter, characters are challenged and new facets of their personalities bloom, driving and nuanced. Our understandings of scriving grow, as he introduces concept after concept of what can truly be done when one knows how to argue reality into shifting things like time, mortality, and godhood. And our knowledge of the way we thought the world worked is revealed to only be a glimpse of the truth as Valeria, a scrived artificial intelligence, and her Maker peel back layer after layer of falsehood and assumption, of not just the world, but how these characters thought the world worked. At the end is just truth, bloody, difficult truth, and Shorefall thrives on what happens when our characters know that truth.
It’s always a sheer pleasure reading Robert Jackson Bennett because of his talent at writing work that is both seamless and balanced. For every moment of plot momentum, there is an equal moment dedicated to Sancia and Berenice’s deep love for each other. For every glimpse we get into Gregor’s terror that he’s not in control of his mind or body, there is an equal moment given to someone arguing about the nature of humanity. For every page of philosophy argued, there is an awe-inspiring sequence of action, magic, and motion. Bennett’s work has always been fine-tuned, but Shorefall is a testament to his ability to make a modern epic fantasy flow so seamlessly from scene to scene, never bogged down by excess or pontification. If his books were a scriving rig, they’d be masterworks in convincing reality that somehow a book with ideas, action, characters, and lore this massive isn’t somehow two thousand pages long.
And as packed as this book is, I still could’ve spent another four hundred pages in Bennett’s story. Because in Shorefall, the main conflict about good versus evil; it comes down to two entities who have seen the worst the humanity has to offer, and are both fed up with it. And despite their differences and grudge against one another, they spend the book argue for humanity’s worst instincts. Meanwhile, Sancia and her crew? It’s their job to argue in humanity’s better angels; through their actions, in trying to change the way their city works, to empower and protect those disenfranchised by the Merchant Houses and society, to defend their city in times of conflict, their actions argue that humanity may have its moments, but it’s through connection, through helping one another not just see one another, but understand one another, that we can rise beyond our worse devils. It’s a compelling argument, and one that sets the stage for the conclusion of the Founders Trilogy. From where Bennett leaves things, it’s sure to be one hell of a finish.
Shorefall by Robert Jackson Bennett is a riveting epic fantasy that gives you a little bit of everything, but so seamlessly, you’re going to wonder when you got to the ending. It has heart and intricate characters who love and care for each other. It has wonder and danger, oftentimes attached at the hip. It has upheavals and twists and morality and action, that culminates in a breathless series of events that will have you eagerly awaiting book three. Bennett has written another stunning novel that shows exactly what this genre can do and why we love it. And if Foundryside and Shorefall are any indication, he won’t just stick the landing, he’ll make it seem like no sweat at all.
Shorefall is available from Del Rey.
Martin Cahill is a contributor to Tor.com, as well as Book Riot and Strange Horizons. He has fiction forthcoming at Beneath Ceaseless Skies and Fireside Fiction. You can follow his musings on Twitter @McflyCahill90.