Review: Shorefall

May contain spoilers.

When we last left our heroes, we saw the beginnings of the titular Foundryside, a newly established merchant house born in the wake of Orso's cunning plan to escape the wrath of the city council. I really liked that ending: after the squeaky bum time that was Orso's trial, our motley crew nabbed a well-deserved spot next to the other merchant houses of Tevanne. A happy ending to an exciting adventure romp.

Shorefall, then, is the Empire Strikes Back of Robert Jackson Bennett's Founders trilogy. Three years after the events of Foundryside, Sancia and co. now face the wrath of Crasedes Magnus, the "first of all hierophants" who was repeatedly mentioned in the first novel but who never appeared, until right at the very end. Crasedes has finally arrived in Tevanne with a vengeance, wreaking havoc as he unfolds his plans to regain his former powers. The stakes are as high as they get, stretched to their breaking point. And just like The Empire Strikes Back, this story has an ending that's more bitter than sweet.

Crasedes is Thanos from the Marvel Cinematic Universe, in a nutshell. Name whispered in hushed tones before making an actual appearance? Check. Incredible, piss-inducing power? Check. An idealistic and utopian goal, but achieved through wantonly ruthless means? Check, and... check. Don't get me wrong, he is a reasonably effective and engaging villain, despite being a Thanos clone. My quibble is that he's flippant in a way that feels forced and overused, and which gets on my nerves since we're given his point of view quite a bit. I liked him a lot more in the first novel (ironic, given his absence then), and the image of him as a powerful undead dude in fancy dress doesn't jive well with the Lovecraftian monster I was led to expect. Doesn't help that Crasedes is always floating through the air in a "weirdly meditative cross-legged pose".

I found all the villains in Shorefall compelling and nicely cloaked in shades of grey, but Ofelia Dandolo was my favourite of the Terrible Trio, insofar as she's more villain than victim. Even though all the antagonists have similar noble but distorted ideals, Ofelia being the only truly human one struck all the right chords for me. Her personal story is wrapped in a tragedy that taints Gregor, and my heart broke every time she confronts him, right till the very end. Those poor, poor Dandolos.

The cyberpunk markings really shine here, and I eagerly lapped them all up. We see the full extent of Sancia's decker-like abilities, and each merchant house has its own proprietary scriving language. Orso, on the other hand, has turned Foundryside into an open source creative commons. There's talk of escalating permissions and privileges to bend reality, and I felt a bit like a l33t m4g1c14n popping a root shell in Renaissance Italy.

Beyond the interesting setting, the characters were what kept me hooked after Foundryside. Here, Sancia and Berenice are the only ones who emerge from the ruins of Tevanne in one piece. Gregor just can't catch a break! I loved his calm idealism and unwavering sense of justice, and cheered when he stormed the Perch and Lark in Foundryside. But then he was transformed into the Winter Soldier, and his vim and vigour is gone as he grapples with his terrible scriving. That's perfectly fine with me, and I saw it as a metaphor for mental illness, but then in the space of a few chapters, he's a) forced to kill his family and b) merged with a rogue AI god. Still, I'm clinging on to the hope that this isn't the last we'll see of him. This can't be how the Revenant of Dantua finally perishes.

But Orso gets an even rougher deal, in my opinion. He's portrayed as mean, ungrateful and prejudiced in Foundryside, but turns out he now has grand visions of liberating Tevanne from the merchant houses and creating a more egalitarian society in its place. A true friend of the people. Granted, Shorefall takes place three years later, but I still would've liked to see his character develop in real time. He doesn't really contribute much to this story, and he's abruptly, cruelly sent to certain death at the end.

The philosophical ideas are more concrete here, and the central question becomes clearer: does humanity inevitably use technology to oppress each other (scriving being the stand-in for technology here)? Crasedes and Valeria both think so; the former sees the forfeiture of free will as a solution, while the latter wishes to remove scriving from the equation entirely. Sancia hints at using Orso's twinning technique to "connect" people; I really hope this doesn't turn out super cheesy or super creepy.

The action is just as thrilling as ever. Bennett seems to have piled on the horror elements with relish in Shorefallβ€”the ghost ship at the start is just one genuinely terrifying example. It's much darker than Foundryside overall, dripping with blood and guts and self-mutilation.

It's okay, I guess. Similar writing, but not as good of a story as Foundryside. But good enough that I'll pick up the third novel when it drops.

Day 9 of #100DaysToOffload

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