Shorefall by Robert Jackson Bennett

5/5 stars — a playful yet deep fantasy tale with steampunk flavor

Shorefall is the sequel to Foundryside and the second installment in the Founders trilogy. Like Foundryside, it takes place in Tevanne, one of a group of city-states inspired by Renaissance Venice and built on and by magic. A bit of personal disclosure here: I somehow missed? forgot? that Shorefall was a sequel until I was a few chapters in, so I haven’t read Foundryside! I chose to continue reading even after my realization; it wasn’t hard to make sense of the magic system and familiarize myself with the characters, although I was clearly missing some worldbuilding information and character backstory. I loved Shorefall and I’ll review it alone for now, but I plan to read Foundryside ASAP and I’ll make any relevant additions/notes to this review when I’m done. Sancia is a brilliant character—in-world and to experience as a reader. Her ability to interfere with scrivings because of the panel in her head offers insight into the magic system and allows her to interact with magical devices in unique ways. Gregor: I think I missed an important section of his story in Foundryside, but in Shorefall, it seems he's a person who tries to champion the weak but is occasionally turned into an unwilling killer by a scriving similar to Sancia's panel. The conundrum of his intentions versus the atrocities he's forced to commit makes him one of the most interesting characters in the book. Orso: a master scriver who thought he’d finally achieved some of his life’s dreams but found out he’d actually opened the door for the destruction of everything he holds dear. Very smart, very rough around the edges despite a privileged past, very chaotic neutral: he’s in it to push the boundaries of striving as an intellectual pursuit, and if he can do good with it, then that’s a bonus. Berenice is the perfect complement to Sancia. I loved them as an established relationship and I’m hoping the first book shows how they ended up that way. I'm such a sucker for an opposites-attract wlw relationship, and this had two very intelligent women who're smart in different ways, plus a sweet vs. grumpy and neat vs. messy dichotomy. I loved the group dynamic. The characters aren’t quite a found family, although some pairs of them have family dynamics, but it’s clear from their closeness they’ve got emotional bonds forged by adventure and adversity. They talk and squabble and comfort each other so realistically that I could picture scenes clearly in my head—the dialogue especially is very cinematic. The fight/action scenes also play out like part of a movie, and the rapport between the characters comes into play then as well. The political and economic system is built around four trade houses, one in ruins: the epitome of mega-corporations functioning as super wealthy individuals, but they’re also sort of like mob families. There's a big focus on classism and those in power taking advantage of everyone else. The theme of how power and innovation can corrupt and be corrupted was fascinating, and it was explored in depth since it was involved in creating the (absolutely terrifying) villain. The commentary on inequality, especially economic, rang almost painfully true, and the philosophical debate about whether humans are innately good or innately evil (framed as "will people always use positive inventions for bad purposes") added a layer of big-picture man vs. self conflict to the story. The magic, as I've mentioned, is called scriving. It's based on logic and laws of physics and kind of reminds me of computer programming. It’s basically changing the code of reality to make things work in ways they normally wouldn’t—the feel is almost like steampunk but with magic in place of technology. If you're a fan of intricate magic systems with well-defined rules, this is for you!

I'd be remiss not to mention the prose. It's nothing short of stellar, capturing gut-wrenching emotions that only escalate over the course of the book. There are dozens of chill-inducing one-liners: take antagonist Crasedes Magnus saying "The problem with might, you see, is that there's always someone mightier," and side character Polina's pithy comment that "As always, the powerful are the first to escape the problems that they've caused." This kind of dramatic writing is exactly to my taste, even down to the unexpected but refreshing bursts of humor amid an otherwise fairly dark story. Shorefall will likely appeal to fans of The Gilded Wolves and the video game Dragon Age: Inquisition. I enjoyed it immensely even without reading in proper series order and I'm excited to find out how the trilogy will conclude when the next book releases. I definitely recommend reading this book...just avoid my mistake and pick up Foundryside first!

Content warnings: suicide, gore, mass murder, rape mention ** I received an advance copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. **