JOINT REVIEW: Shorefall by Robert Jackson Bennett
Janine: Since Sirius and I both enjoyed Foundryside, Robert Jackson Bennett’s first novel in his Founders Trilogy, we decided to review the sequel, Shorefall, together.
Here is the novel’s blurb:
The upstart firm Foundryside is struggling to make it. Orso Igancio and his star employee, former thief Sancia Grado, are accomplishing brilliant things with scriving, the magical art of encoding sentience into everyday objects, but it’s not enough. The massive merchant houses of Tevanne won’t tolerate competition, and they’re willing to do anything to crush Foundryside.
But even the merchant houses of Tevanne might have met their match. An immensely powerful and deadly entity has been resurrected in the shadows of Tevanne, one that’s not interested in wealth or trade routes: a hierophant, one of the ancient practitioners of scriving. And he has a great fascination for Foundryside, and its employees – especially Sancia.
Now Sancia and the rest of Foundryside must race to combat this new menace, which means understanding the origins of scriving itself – before the hierophant burns Tevanne to the ground.
Sirius: This book starts three years after events of the first one. Did it surprise you?
Janine: Yes, I was surprised. From the way Foundryside ended, it seemed like the main characters had landed in serious trouble with the Houses, so I thought Shorefall would start off with that. What about you?
Sirius: It did. I felt like I missed a chunk of the story but then I figured let me go along with it and see where it takes me and I was not bothered for that long if it makes sense.
Janine: Me too. I want to ask you about the main character, escaped slave and ex-thief Sancia Grado. In the first book, I loved Sancia’s journey. She starts out as a scrappy thief and with a magical ability that was also a kind of disability, and she is isolated and alone. Over the course of the book, she gains friends and agency. That was exciting, especially along with learning about the marvels of Tevanne and scriving at the same time.
In Shorefall she she starts in a more comfortable place, not living on the edge anymore, and her arc is, if anything, the opposite of the one she had in the previous book. Rather than gaining agency, she loses some of it. That’s less upbeat, and for me, it also made Sancia less interesting. How did you feel about her?
Sirius: This goes back to feeling as if I was missing part of the story. I don’t know if I found Sancia less interesting, but I did find her too grown up I guess. It makes sense considering that three years passed, but I would have liked to see her changing rather than just accepting it.
Janine: You’re right. That would have been great.
Sirius: I cannot decide if her losing agency makes her less appealing to me as a character – probably not. I did find her developing romance to be annoying though.
And let me just say it, yes I am fully aware that this is not a romance book! I did not come here looking for romance, but if author does put a relationship in the book I want it to be convincing and it was not to me.
Not even relationship per se, I deliberately did not even look at my review of the first book, but if I remember correctly I was ok with the start of it, but this jump from we are together to we cannot be without each other at all (forced by some external circumstances was jarring to me, I am not at the point of believing in those two being soulmates just yet).
Janine: That’s a good point. Sancia and Berenice’s romantic relationship got a lot more attention in this book, and in that sense there was an improvement. Having Berenice closer to the forefront and Sancia’s relationship with her going strong after three years makes the book feel more focused on marginalized characters than the previous novel, though of course, Sancia being dark-skinned and her one kiss with Berenice made Foundryside diverse too. But I would have liked a deeper sense of Sancia and Berenice’s connection, of what had attracted them to one another, what they loved most about each other.
Sirius: Yes, exactly I wanted to see more of what attracted them to each other.
Janine: What did you think about the tone of the book? I missed Clef a lot. He added a lot of warmth, humor and a magical (in the figurative sense), delightful sense of wonder and discovery to Foundryside. I really felt his absence; without him, a key ingredient was missing. I thought the book felt a bit cold without him.
Sirius: I was missing Clef, but I thought he was lost at the end of book one completely so I tried to make my peace with his death so to speak.
Janine: I wasn’t so sure about that when I finished Foundryside.
The book also felt a bit cold and detached for other reasons. The villains, Cresades and his scrived construct, Valeria, are omnipresent in Shorefall, and the Sancia, Gregor, Orso and Berenice are caught in their crossfire. Cresades and Valeria are more powerful than the villain in Foundryside, and not so easy to relate to. The villain in Foundryside was a bad person, yes, but that person’s goals were human ones, and their agenda wasn’t dwelled on to the same degree. Here the major villains are not human, not rational in one case and not emotional in the other, so it’s harder to connect with them and their imperatives. Their desires are abstract to some extent. For me it made the book’s tone colder.
Sirius: Where the tone of the book was concerned, sure I found it cold and detached at times, but I think it foreshadowed what happens later on – which we obviously cannot discuss.
Valeria was weird to me as a villain. I mean I know she was supposed to have motivations for what she did, but because she was pretty much omniscient I could not relate to her much or at all. Giving Cresades motivations worked a bit better for me, although not by much meaning that at least I could relate to him being initially so upset, but of course not to what he did over ages and what he was doing in this book.
Janine: Agreed. Cresades and Valeria are so powerful that the foundrysiders can’t do much to defeat them, other than do their best to prepare in case an unlikely opportunity presents itself. So their struggles felt less meaningful to me than in the earlier book. The odds were seemed so insurmountable that victory seemed improbable, so it was hard for me to invest as much. I knew some strange luck would help them, and it made me anticipate that if they won out, it would not be entirely due to their ingenuity, skills and courage. Though those gifts are very much on display, the luck factor makes it hard to assign as much power to these qualities as they could otherwise have had. Does that make sense?
Sirius: Yes, it makes sense to me. To me I suppose their struggles felt quite hopeless as opposed to more meaningless. I actually was not sure that luck would help them but based on his previous trilogy of works that I read I knew that this writer is very ruthless to his characters. Quite frankly while I debated with myself if the first book can be called YA (even then I knew it is a stretch but at least I felt that I could stretch it not so here), if I realized that we will be back to the kind of atmosphere that was present in Divine Cities I would not have started this book.
Sirius: Let me ask you this, for me personally even though I found the tone to be cold and detached more often than not as we discussed above, I still found the book to be extremely hard to put down. Unfortunately I cannot figure out why—I mean I get that he is good with words but I didn’t have much to look forward to if that makes sense. When you were reading were you eager to get back to the book or not and why or why not :).
Janine: I can answer your first question in from a writerly perspective. Years ago, in a novel writing class I took, the teacher talked about the importance of story questions to pacing. What I mean by this is that the author can hook a reader into turning the pages by making sure there is always an unanswered question (and actually more than one is better). So the author presents question A, and the reader wonders what will happen next with A, and then, before answering question A, the author presents question B. So now the reader knows what has happened with A, but they have to turn pages to find out what will happen with B, and of course, before answering B, the author plants a third question in the reader’s mind about C. Robert Jackson Bennett is very good at this. There were constantly things I wanted to know more about as I read.
As for whether I was eager—more in the first and last third, but less in the middle. It’s probably unfair, but I kept comparing it to Foundryside in my mind. Foundryside was my second favorite book of 2018. We were introduced to the setting of Tevanne, to the marvels of scriving and how it worked, everything was mysterious, and it all felt very fresh. Shorefall, as the second book, couldn’t possibly duplicate that sense of novelty. That’s not something the author could change, so maybe it’s unreasonable to compare them. There were some new and very creative new ideas about scriving in this book, but I missed Clef a lot.
I care more about the human side than the magical, worldbuilding side, you know? There was a lot of technical stuff to keep abreast of in this book, too, and I found it diluted the emotional impact. When some of the big plot turns took place, I was still trying to catch up, to understand the magical technology, so I was not as engaged with what was happening on the human level. Did you feel that way too?
Sirius: Oh thank you very much for answering from writer’s POV it makes a lot of sense!
I always care about magical side of things! I mean of course I care about human side first – it is boring to read about the settings no matter how sophisticated if I am dissatisfied with the characters and the direction the plot is going. However, the world building, the magics that work in the specific fantasy world and how it works is a very important ingredient of the fantasy book for me. Unfortunately here I feel like it was the most successful one, but even this—the magical technology, etc., if we look at the meta message of the book as I interpreted it, well even treatment of magical technology depressed me a great deal.
Janine: I misspoke earlier. Good worldbuilding does bring a lot of freshness and depth to a fantasy novel, I agree. But as you say, here it was the strongest component and I wanted the human side to be equally strong.
How did you feel about the ending? To me the very end felt messy and frenetic, like too much was happening with too many characters.
Sirius: Yes, I thought the ending was messy, and I have no idea where the plot will take us. I mean I know what Polina set up to do, but I wonder if this what will actually end up happening.
Janine: I am mystified as to what comes next myself.
Sirius: What is your grade Janine? I am torn between C and C+ and only because I was eager to keep turning pages. There is not much about this book that I actually enjoyed.
Janine: Yeah. The book was certainly readable and I still feel affection for the characters, even if I don’t love the direction the author has taken them in. There was creativity to expansion of the magic system. And Bennett has good craftsmanship when it comes to the mechanics of writing, stuff like description, pacing, dialogue, character thoughts, etc. My constant comparison of Shorefall to Foundryside leaves me disappointed with the book, though. We are in a similar place grade-wise. For me it’s a C+.