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Exclusive: Robert Jackson Bennett on industrialized magic in his new novel, Foundryside

Contributed by
Aug 21, 2018

Some fantastic wizardry this way comes in award-winning fantasy author Robert Jackson Bennett's newest literary work, Foundryside. The acclaimed Austin-based author was recently nominated for a 2018 Hugo Award for his The Divine Cities trilogy in the Best Series category.

Crown Publishing has just released Foundryside to a rousing wave of critical acclaim, and expectations are high for this fascinating new concoction of archaic magic, deep mysteries, and dynastic trade guilds.

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The labyrinthine plot revolves around a Renaissance-flavored fictional city named Tevanne that operates on a complicated network of industrialized magic controlling everyday objects. A clandestine war is brewing between the squabbling trade unions who control these amazing conjurations, a conflict that has the potential to actually rewrite reality itself.

Caught in the center of this struggle is Sancia Grado, a wily female thief tasked with stealing a sacred artifact from a fortified warehouse on Tevanne’s grimy docks. This desirable treasure is one of unimaginable power and holds the key to the kingdom's ages-old magical technology known as "scriving." These sinister Merchant Houses have already used their arcane powers to transform Tevanne into a sprawling, remorseless capitalist society, but if they can tap into the artifact’s secrets, they will radically transform the world itself to their needs.

Sancia must flee for her life in an attempt to thwart this dangerous transformation, feed into the coveted artifact's fathomless resources, and fulfill her destiny alongside a crew of unanticipated allies.

SYFY WIRE spoke to Bennett on this spellbinding first novel in his new The Founders Trilogy, and learned the intricacies of its complete system of industrialized sorcery, where the wild ideas erupt from, and what mysteries lie ahead for fevered fans and fresh readers as they enter the imaginative gates of Tevanne.

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Can you take us on a quick tour of Foundryside and its main characters?

Robert Jackson Bennett: Foundryside is set in Tevanne, a city that's become ultra-powerful due to the magical innovation known as "scriving" -- a technique where someone can alter the source code of reality, and convince everyday objects to disobey physics in a select way. Scriving is controlled by four separate merchant houses that not only control Tevanne, but also trade routes around the world. 

Sancia Grado is an escaped slave and a professional thief operating in the poorest quarters of Tevanne, and she's managed to steer clear of the merchant houses so far -- until she unintentionally steals an ancient artifact that could completely undermine the innovation of scriving, rendering the merchant houses powerless. Suddenly, a lot of very powerful people want Sancia very dead.

To survive, she has to enlist the help of Gregor Dandolo, chief of the city's waterfront police force, who personally would love to just arrest her; Orso Ignacio, the brilliant, irascible, and possibly insane head of R&D at one of the merchant houses; and his assistant, Berenice Grimaldi, who, despite being much quieter than Orso, might actually be quite smarter.

What were the inspirations and foundations for Tevanne's magical systems and methods?

I was staying at a hotel, and I suddenly thought -- what is magic but a command? A direction, or an order? If magic were real, I thought, it wouldn’t be some hidden mystery -- it would be a series of instructions given to the world to make it be different, to distort reality into something it wasn’t.

But reality, like any natural phenomena, wouldn’t want to change: It’d have gravity, momentum. It would have to be convinced, and magic would be the language you’d use to convince it to change. And then I thought to myself, “Magic is just a way of programming reality like one might write code for an application.”

While I was having these thoughts, Uber and Lyft were assailing the Austin City Council over their fingerprinting requirement for their drivers. There were campaign signs and commercials and constant phone calls. We'd never witnessed this sudden, incredible tidal wave of force. I found myself thinking, "It's like we're being colonized by tech firms!" And that was about when it all clicked into place.

Where did the research process lead you, and what were some surprises you learned in completing this first book in a new series?

Since I made up a lot of the book, there wasn't a lot of research. I occasionally googled Renaissance clothing, armor, and weapons, but it was mostly just to steal a word, since the Tevanni iteration of such a thing would be so different, since they'd have scrived methods of producing or altering it.

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With high fantasy injected with sorcery and spell very popular today, how did you give Foundryside a distinctive edge in the market?

I think of Foundryside as a cyberpunk story dressed up in high fantasy clothing. It's got beards, swords, spells, and power, but they're industrialized, commodified, and optimized. But as I wrote it, this wasn't as unusual as one might think. Power is power. There's a lot of common ground between someone like Prince Joffrey and the child of a petulant business tycoon. As anyone watching the news would know.

Did you have a role in choosing the evocative cover design, and what was your reaction when you first saw the art?

Nope, but the artist is Will Staehle, whose work is always nothing short of fabulous.


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