Tuesday, August 18, 2020

Microreview [book]: Shorefall by Robert Jackson Bennett

Further adventures in magical coding!

Shorefall! The second book in Robert Jackson Bennett's Founders trilogy, continuation of Foundryside - one of my favourite reads in 2018 - and one of my most anticipated sequels of the year. NetGalley, the magical land of books that people sometimes let me have to review, tells me that I have had Shorefall on my virtual shelves since April. Goodreads, the not-so-magical land of unintuitive, Amazon-approved book tracking, says I tried to start reading Shorefall at the beginning of June. The top secret high-tech nerds of a feather scheduling system thankfully does not keep track of how many times I have pushed this review back in our calendar, but I'm fairly certain I have done it at least three times, as I consistently failed to actually read the book. But at last, dear friends, at last I have succeeded in reading a book. Yes, I will accept your congratulations.

With that start, you might be concerned that I'm about to tell you that Shorefall is the kind of book that lends itself to being enthused over and then accidentally not picked up for the best part of six months. Luckily, this could not be further from the truth. Shorefall is another gem of a book, returning to the city of Tevanne for the adventures of Sancia Grado, escaped slave turned reluctantly-magical thief turned less-reluctantly-magical co-founder of an open source magic coding movement, and her fellow open source magic coding movement co-founders Orso (old, privileged but getting over it, kind of great), Gregor (recovering from some very bad magic stuff, cinnamon roll, also great) and Berenice (magic coding prodigy, Sancia's girlfriend, really great). Raising the curtains three years after the events of Foundryside, Shorefall sees the Foundrysiders plunged into stopping a dangerous figure from Tevanne's past, and in doing so pits them once again against the campo families who still control the vast majority of Tevanne's scriving (that's the magical coding) and thus its wealth.

Like the divine magic of The Divine Cities trilogy, the system of scriving in Foundryside and Shorefall is absolutely central to the book's worldbuilding, giving it not just a particular fantasy flavour, but its entire sociopolitical system and power structure. Because scriving in Shorefall relies on knowing the right sigils to convince reality to alter for the particular objects they are applied to (so, for example, a magical projectile might be convinced that when it's shot from a gun, the direction it starts travelling in is "down" and it should obey the laws of gravity accordingly), and more advanced structures need the right infrastructure to shift reality in an entire area, its easy for a few powerful families to remain on top by ensuring that their sigils remain a closely-held secret. In Shorefall, the protagonists have begun to challenge that power by offering new innovations and assistance to scrivers who are willing to donate their work to a library that's open to everyone who visits them, and a community of small-scale scrivers has begun to establish itself outside the control of the noble families; the opening chapters of Shorefall seem to suggest that this continued power struggle might be the source of the book's conflict, but it soon takes a backseat to the arrival of Crasedes, a hierophant resurrected from the earliest and most dangerous days of scriving, whose presence threatens the freedom of Tevanne itself. Unfortunately, the only tools the Foundrysiders have which are powerful enough to take on Crasedes are either bricked or very transparently pursuing their own top secret agendas.

Another reviewer of Foundryside noted that it's effectively fantasy with a cyberpunk plot, with its focus on the overwhelming inequalities between the campos and the commons and the particular plight of Sancia, who was experimented on during her time as a slave and left with "scrived sight", the ability to sense and effectively talk to scrivings in the world around her (sadly, Sancia's "hacking" is a little less Pratchett-esque than some of my favourite scenes in the first book, but there's still some delightful moments where she gets to debate with inanimate objects about the nature of reality). Those dynamics are present again in Shorefall, but this time the focus is far more firmly on unknowable ancient powers, with the representatives of the campo families shown as being equally unable to respond to the threat, despite their greater willingness to attempt to exert control or assume that the chaos might suit their agenda. It's great fun - especially since Crasedes' power is shown to become greater the closer to midnight it gets, giving the book a great cyclical tension structure as we watch each day go by.

In shifting the focus so far away from the internal power struggle in Tevanne, though, Shorefall does drift away from what felt interesting about the set-up in Foundryside, and its own opening: the tentative democratisation of knowledge and power, even as most of the structures of the old order persist. Instead of continuing to tackle that head-on, Shorefall instead throws the question over to rival ancients (saying "they are literally literal deus ex machinae!" feels really trite but... they kind of are), who offer proclamations on humanity's inability to change and offer solutions about what they want to do about it, but don't leave the humans themselves a great deal of agency to decide for themselves. This being a second book, there's clearly plenty of scope for these perceptions to be challenged by plucky humanity in a future volume, but the decision to shift the goalposts from "characters overcome obstacles to make things better for their society, right now" to "characters now need to overcome the turning wheel of human history for their success to be valid" is... interesting. As it is, the tension of Shorefall certainly kept me entertained, but it's left me with more to chew on than I anticipated.

This is a relatively small, high-level niggle, though, and in the grand scheme of things Shorefall provides everything I expected from this series, an adventure with some excellent characters (while I haven't gone into it here, all of the Foundrysiders come away with deeply satisfying - if slightly heartbreaking - personal arcs) which doesn't shy away from tougher questions about inequality, exploitation and marginalisation. This is a series that cements its author as one of my favourites when it comes to juicy secondary world fantasy, and its certainly not a book that deserved to get shoved to the back of my pandemic-addled brain for four months after I intended to start it.

The Math

Baseline Score: 9/10

Bonuses: +1 packed with charming bits like the conversations between Sancia and her scrived object buddies

Penalties: -1 I'm not sold on the direction the new threat takes the political dynamics in; -1 also they kind of are literal deus ex machinae and I don't know how I feel about it

Nerd Coefficient: 8/10

POSTED BY: Adri, Nerds of a Feather co-editor, is a semi-aquatic migratory mammal most often found in the UK. She has many opinions about SFF books, and is also partial to gaming, baking, interacting with dogs, and Asian-style karaoke. Find her on Twitter at @adrijjy.

Reference: Bennett, Robert JacksonShorefall [Del Rey/Jo Fletcher Books, 2020]