Map of Blue Book Balloon

19 April 2020

Review - Shorefall by Robert Jackson Bennett

Cover design by Rory Kee
Shorefall (The Founders Trilogy, 2)
Robert Jackson Bennett
Jo Fletcher Books, 21 April 2020
Available as trade PB, 496pp, e, audio
Read as PB
ISBN 9781786487896

I'm grateful to Millie Reid at Jo Fletcher books for an advance copy of Shorefall to consider for review.

Following from 2018's Foundryside, Shorefall is a return to the city of Tavenne three years later. In the previous book, thief and ex-slave Sancia Grabo teamed up with Orso Igacio to disrupt the technology of scriving - the use of mystic sigils as essentially a coding language used to reshape reality. Long dominated by the monolithic merchant houses, scriving has now been opened up to upstart firms, dubbed the 'Lamplands', prompting conflict between the Houses.

Meanwhile, revolts continue in the distant slave plantations, the islands which are the other pillar of Tavenne's wealth and dominance.

As Shorefall opens, Sancia, her girlfriend Berenice, and Orso are embarking on their most audacious scam yet, intending to open up the library of one of the houses, the Dandolos, to the scriving community. Sancia's aim is to 'move carefully and bring freedom' but the gamble she's now engaged in looks anything but careful, and likely to upset the fragile ecosystem of Tavenne,

As with Foundryside, I really loved the way that Robert Jackson Bennett creates a consistent, logical basis for what is really a form of magic; turns it into a recognisable technology; and lampoons the excesses of the tech world as it it is used to drive something like a magical-industrial revolution. The basis of scriving is well worked out, clearly explained and hangs together logically. In Foundryside we saw its social and political consequences, which made an absorbing and entertaining story - in Shorefall (named for the annual carnival taking placed as a backdrop to this book) the story is perhaps closer to a familiar, fantasy plot as beings of power toy with the fates of mortals.

Scriving is, you see, all about authority, about control and privileges - in the sense of a system admin. It's about who has been granted, or has hacked, the ability to direct reality at a more or less fundamental level. The very existence of the more mundane scrivings manipulated by the houses and by the Lampland start-ups, point to the possibility of more subtle code, deeper sigils, root privileges.

You can guess how it goes - start meddling with this things and something will wake up. Or perhaps, you might want o wake it up because you think it will serve you? So behind the struggles in Shorefall perhaps there may be something else. We caught a glimpse of this in the previous book with the mysterious Valeria and with Sancia's "friend" the artefact Clef. But there is much more to be discovered.

I really, really enjoyed Shorefall. Robert Jackson Bennet doesn't give us a reprise of Foundryside - welcome though that might be, this is the tricky middle book of a trilogy and things need to move on. During the first third of Shorefall that's happening very quickly and the reader has to recalibrate expectations several times. You can almost hear the mechanism shifting, the scope widening, before the story attains escape velocity and roars away into a tense and conflict-filled finale which will change Tevanne forever. But it's not only about that conflict - Sancia, Berenice, Orso and of course Gregor are well realised, three dimensional characters with flaws and histories. They have things to lose, vulnerabilities and, especially at the start, a set of motivations and ambitions that just don't match h up to the cosmic scale of what happens here (there is one character who appears briefly who is on top of all that but does not play a large part in the story but I suspect we'll be hearing more from here in the final book).

Those vulnerabilities and histories mean there are dangers - not only physical but moral - to be faced, and choices in a world where things suddenly seem very murky. This is far from being a straightforward fight between Good and Evil - just as you'd expect from Robert Jackson Bennett.

A good and absorbing continuation of the Founders trilogy and I look forward to the third and final part.

For more about the book, see the publisher's website here.

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