SHOREFALL by Robert Jackson Bennett (Book Review)
Shorefall is the much-anticipated second book in the Founders Trilogy by Hugo-nominated author Robert Jackson Bennett, and it might be helpful to familiarise yourself with my review of the first book, Foundryside, for context – and to save myself repeating much of it. And if you want to avoid reading the rest of this review, let me just say that Shorefall maintains the all-action, techno-magic-mayhem of the first, while upping the ante on epic stakes, compelling characters, and the mind-bending worldbuilding that is the author’s trademark.
To recap, these books are set in a world where people have learned to control reality by use of a complex language of coded instructions and definition databases. Yes, it’s like they’ve hacked the world, re-writing the very laws of physics in limited, but vastly powerful ways. This is effectively the magic system of the book, and though it can feel a bit cyber-punky at times, it’s otherwise very much fantasy – and epic fantasy at that.
That epic-ness was only hinted at in the first book, in which the scriving system was mainly the backdrop for a variety of action scenes and ambitious heists. The second book, beginning three years later, skips over most of the more mundane consequences of book one and straight into the epic showdown between god-like beings imbued with the reality-bending power of scriving. Which is not to say there aren’t plenty of action scenes and ambitious heists, but this book delves much deeper into the costs of exploiting these powers to their ultimate ends, as well as the history and ambitions of these god-like Makers.
Man vs Gods is a bit of a theme for Robert Jackson Bennett, following on from his brilliant Divine Cities trilogy, and as such this book does recall those a lot more than its predecessor. However, the major difference that remains is that this is an action movie of a book, rather than spy thriller mysteries like Divine Cities. It’s cyber-fantasy Marvel Cinematic Universe type book, with a band of brains-over-brawn, Tony Stark-style superheroes up against a villain of Thanotic ambitions. (And this is just book two!)
The scriving comes thick and fast, as do the stakes, both personal and apocalyptic. Understanding the complex consequences of different scriving ploys, and their world-warping powers, can be a bit dizzying at times. Whereas the first book used scriving to create over-the top action sequences, here we are subjected to a bit more of a metaphysical mind-fuck, as the power goes beyond simply making flying soldiers or super-deadly weapons and into things like resetting time and duplicating space.The author does a skilful job of making it comprehensible, though I think I caught at least one time when even he lost track (it was an ARC, rather than a final copy).
Luckily, and perhaps more-so than I found in Foundryside, the author balances this staggering techno-magic with the humanity of the cast of characters. Now firmly established as anti-establishment social-techno revolutionaries, the main quartet is faced with the advent of a bogeyman only they can hope to combat, and have to put their plans to gently upset their city’s society on hold to face this greater threat. (Some part of me would probably have preferred that other story, but that’s my taste.) The intervening (off-page) years have made them into a comfortable team and found family, supportive, united, and willing to make sacrifices for each other. As I remarked while reviewing the first book, it’s refreshing to read about good people these days.
That’s not to say everyone is nice, especially the main antagonist, who is one of those brilliantly twisted supervillains who have enormous power and are using it to try to do good…in the worst ways imaginable. That he runs amok in a city largely populated by other terrible people makes him no less horrific, really, but the fact he’s not just kicking puppies adds depth to his character and allows the reader to take a bit of perverse pleasure in some of his gruesome activity. He’s a lot of fun, and compellingly flawed – which goes some way to making up for the fact that one of the liveliest characters from book one is largely missing.
The plot has a few more twists than book one, too, which you’d expect in one unravelling the mysteries of these ancient scriving masters, and how to defeat them, as well as the past of one major character in particular. There’s also a bit more emotional heft to the book, which you might expect as characterisation deepens and stakes get higher. So overall, I’d say it’s an improvement on an already-impressive opening, answering some of my reservations about Foundryside and asking a lot of questions about how the third book will wrap all this up – something I look forward to finding out!
Shorefall is available from 21st April 2020