While I’ve been aware of this novel, and of its success among my fellow bloggers, for quite some time, I did not manage to add it to my reading queue until I started seeing several posts of people looking forward to its sequel, at which point I decided it was high time for me to download Foundryside on my e-reader. What I found, once I started this long-delayed reading experience, was a compelling story filled with memorable characters, and a very intriguing, very peculiar world.
Tevanne is a city split in two wildly different halves: on one side there are the campos, the walled enclaves where the four ruling merchant companies and their operatives dwell in security and comfort; on the other the commons, the slums where the rest of the population ekes a meager existence threatened by poor living conditions and rampant crime. Sancia Grado is a skillful thief gifted with some uncanny abilities, and as we meet her she’s in the middle of a risky but lucrative heist that will get her the money she desperately needs to remove the metal plate implanted in her head, the one that allows her to “commune” with inanimate objects but also inhibits any normal human contact.
The theft is successful, but there are some details in the whole operation that Sancia finds suspicious, and so she decides, against all common sense, to take a look into the box she stole – a choice with unforeseen and dangerous consequences, but also one leading her toward an unexpected path that will gain her a weird but precious friend as she finds herself enmeshed in a long-planned strategy for upheaval and dominance.
The most striking element in Foundryside is the magic system permeating this world: it was discovered long ago that through scriving – i.e. the engraving of simple or complex symbols upon any given object – it was possible to change the properties of matter and the way it interacts with reality. In other words, a well-conceived scriving could for example convince a piece of wood that it possesses the softness of clay, thus making it easier to carve it in the desired shape. Applied to any substance or item, scriving turns this apparently low-tech society, which seems loosely based on 16th Century Europe, into a more modern world, with driverless carriages needing no dray animals, arrows that behave like ballistic missiles, floating self-powered lights and so on.
What’s fascinating about scriving is that it does not alter the fundamental attributes of things, it just “persuades” them to accept a change in perception and therefore to perform beyond the limits of their nature: more than once I was reminded of the lines of code that build a computer program and lead the machine to execute certain tasks, and in this parallel resides the distinctive feeling of modernity that permeates this world, lending it a steampunk quality that sets it aside from other works in the genre, and maybe places it in a genre of its own. Another intriguing angle of this premise is that a scriver can ‘fool’ objects, which in turn would lead to the assumption that inanimate objects possess a sort of awareness of their existence and function – either normal or modified – which can be detected as some kind of inner, obsessive monologue that at times can be quite disturbing…
There is an exception to this, however, and it’s Clef: I’m thorn between the desire to talk at length about the joys of this character and the need to refrain from spoilers, and I reluctantly have to take the latter road, because Clef and his delightful interactions with Sancia are indeed the highlights of this story and should be enjoyed as the surprise they are. I want to share one thought, however: having read Foundryside shortly after The Book of Koli I could not avoid making comparisons between Clef and Monono, and even though I’m aware it’s like comparing apples and oranges I can’t avoid thinking that my enjoyment of her personality must have prepared the way for my appreciation of Clef and his tongue-in-cheek peculiar brand of humor.
Back to Sancia, she is an intriguing, multilayered character: on the surface she appears like your classic street urchin, hustling a living as a thief in the dilapidated section of Tevanne, but as we get to know her better we learn of her past as a slave on the far-off plantation islands and of her ghastly experience as the subject of medical experiments that awarded her the talent to learn the inner workings of anything she touches, but also the related curse of being unable to be physically close to anyone. Sancia’s condition gives loneliness a whole new shade of meaning, and if she appears to have adapted to it, it’s easy to perceive her burning desire for normality, for the kind of life she has been denied since birth, just as it’s easy to cheer for her as we witness her daring exploits and her stunning transformation.
On the other side of the social scale we find another interesting character, Gregor Dandolo, scion of one of the dominant merchant families: in theory he has everything – power, money, prestige, but there is something deep inside him that makes him strive for justice in a city where this word is almost unknown. Once we get to know him better we learn of a tragic event in his past that might be shaping his present attitude, but it’s only toward the end that the truth about that past is revealed, and it’s far worse than humanly imaginable… Previous tragedies might be the link subconsciously connecting him to Sancia despite their profound differences, because they are both deeply damaged people, but in the end I’m glad this connection was not explored through the conventional path of emotional entanglement, leaving room for something different that I hope will offer some compelling narrative threads in the next book.
If Sancia’s journey is the focus of the story, there is ample space for other characters as well, and the other two that shine here are those of master scriver Orso Ignacio and of his unflappable assistant Berenice: his scathing, irritable disposition and his appearance as a foul-tempered mad scientist offer the perfect foil for Berenice’s unruffled, almost amused approach to her employer’s tantrums, which coupled with her endless supply of scrived devices for any foreseeable necessity makes her a delightful addition to the whole cast.
Where it would be difficult to categorize Foundryside in the genre, because of its unique blend of diverse narrative themes, it’s easy to acknowledge its intriguing analysis of subjects like power and the way it affects those who wield it; or freedom and survival and how the latter becomes meaningless without the former; or again the limits in the research and application of science, and which kind of ethics should be observed. I enjoyed very much how the novel started as a run-of-the-mill heist and then transformed into an exciting race against time and human greed while the world was subjected to profound changes, and if at times the explanations about the workings of the magic/science of scriving became a little too intrusive, it still turned out into a stunning reading experience that I hope to replicate with the next book.