Foundryside (Founders #1) by Robert Jackson Bennett

Hands down my favorite fantasy novel of 2018 so far. In large part because it isn’t a fantasy novel or, as I described it to Bookclub chat, is really a meaty sci-fi novel in a delicious fantasy shell. It’s smart and witty and heartfelt, and I laughed and cried and gasped in sheer astonishment in turn. It is a terrific book, easily one of the best fantasy novels of all time (and if the sequels are just as good — or even better — whoo boy, are we in for a treat!)

To be perfectly honest, I wasn’t too enamored when I first started reading it: street urchin is a skilled thief by virtue of having special spooky secret powers, who gets sent to steal something so super secret, she’s not supposed to look in the box to see what it is she’s stolen. We know how that always goes, and I was just flipping pages, nodding along, when Clef enters the scene and all of a sudden, I realized that this was not the book I thought it was. Clef is hilarious, and has been described by the author as a fantasy version of the hacker on overwatch talking in the hero’s ear as she navigates an unknown and probably deadly area. There are, as a matter of fact, a lot of decidedly tech-based story angles given their fantasy analogues here, set in a city-state where capitalism has evolved into its worst possible structure, where people are seen as commodities and justice is a privilege extended only to the rich. Foundryside tackles tough political and social topics with the kind of verve you usually find in sci-fi a/o thriller novels. The last time a fantasy novel moved me with its philosophy and ethics was Vic James’ terrific Gilded Cage but even that is a pale shadow to the yummy intellectual and ethical goodness that is Foundryside.

To start, nearly everyone is a person of color. The romances are handled deftly and there is terrific non-heterosexual representation. Old people aren’t relegated to thin supporting roles with no or inactive personal lives. The bad guys, while still being obviously evil, are complicated and interesting. Friendship is important. And that ending is so enormously satisfying while still making me want the next book right now. Barring the first bit, this is an almost distressingly perfect novel.

I’ve now added Robert Jackson Bennett to my list of must-read authors, and just bought a Kindle omnibus edition of his other fantasy series for $3! Speaking of Kindle, his notes on Foundryside on Goodreads are a delight. I have a crush, for sure.

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