Review: Shorefall

Posted: April 23, 2020 by in Books We Don't Like (2/5 single_star) Meta: Robert Jackson Bennett, Fantasy

This book is one of the 2020 releases that I have been most excited to get to read. Short of the next Expanse book or the next (two!) Dresden Files books, this was it. After reading FOUNDRYSIDE (EBR Review) this guy’s stuff again rocketed to the top of my list. The only problem with that? You may be familiar with the phrase, “The bigger they are the harder they fall”? Yeah. It fell hard. This reading experience is going to stymie me for a while.

SHOREFALL (Amazon) is the second book in the Founders series, and would you just look at that cover art? I think it’s pretty spiffy and instantly makes you wonder who the dude in the robe and the tricorn hat is. Easily on par with the cover art of the previous book. Someone over at Del Rey doing things right. Love it.

This story picks up things about three years after the end of FOUNDRYSIDE. Essentially all of the main characters of that book are now bound together into a single group and doing their darnedest to bring down the might of the remaining merchant houses of the city of Tevanne. With the destruction of one under their belts, they can taste the blood in the water. In the intervening time, Sancia Grado (the main protagonist of this series so far) and her friends have developed a pretty good bead on how they’re going to it. The story opens with them offering to sell some new scriving technology to one of the remaining large merchant houses. Seems like a deal that’s almost too good to be true, and that is definitely correct. For the team has ulterior motives for selling this new technology, as it’s going to allow them to initiate the beginning of the end for this merchant house.

Shortly after the transaction, Sancia is warned by a somewhat self-aware construct that she released from imprisonment near the end of the previous book that Crasedes Magnus, the first of the legendary heirophants of history, has been brought back to life and he’s coming to Tevanne. The construct is terrified of what the first heirophant, her previous master, wants to do to humanity, and she warns Sancia and her friends that they need to do everything they can to keep him from the city. Soon, they’re off and running, and they don’t get a chance to stop until the very end.

First, let’s go with writing. RJB is really good at stringing words together. He’s one of those that is typically able to make you forget that you’re reading a book. I’m one that can fall into visualizing what’s going on in a story pretty easily if the writing is up to par, and that is definitely the case here. Just as good as in the previous book. You know what’s going on. There’s a good sense of place and lots of detail where detail is needed. One place that I felt detail was missing though was when it came to continuing to describe the city of Tevanne. In FOUNDRYSIDE there was a solid feel to the city, the buildings, the districts, the technology and it’s peoples. SHOREFALL seems to almost completely set the city aside though. Detail and description of it and it’s contents are sparse at best, and I really missed that aspect of the story. This lack of detail was especially surprising in light of one of the major plots turns near the end of the story. No spoilers, but it really bothered me.

Second, let’s hit up the characters. I’m going to have to harass RJB the same way I did Joe Abercrombie about his most recent book, A LITTLE HATRED (EBR Review). There are just too many characters that get POV time in this story and they’re all right of top of one another. This did two things to the narrative that made it difficult for me to enjoy. First, there’s not enough time to really develop solid character because of all of the different POVs. Second, nearly all of them end up sounding the same and telling the same story instead of being anything near distinct. Gregor Dandolo gets lost in the mess, and even though there is an interesting reveal about his past, there’s nowhere near the impact that FOUNDRYSIDE contained. There we had separate storylines and character and motivations. Here it just kind of turns into one big mush of “character” and they all seem to have the same drive. Orso gets totally lost in the mix, as do most of the others. There were a couple moments between Sancia and her girlfriend, Berenice, that started to look hopeful, but that was about the extent of goodness that I found. This lack of solid characterization made the large majority of their reactions feel very melodramatic. Of course, the fact that essentially the entire story is Sancia and her buddies running around, finding something else amazing or horrific, and then repeatedly responding with a “Holy S**t!”, only served to reinforce that opinion.

SHOREFALL continues the story of Sancia Grado and her group of friends as their fight against those that would oppress them takes a turn for the apocalyptic

Next… how bout the magic system? Everyone should have read FOUNDRYSIDE by now, and if you haven’t, shame on you (because you’re actually reading this review instead of reading that book — go fix that). Scriving is one of the coolest magic systems that I’ve come across in recent years. Has so much potential and so many ways that you could play with it, but all of that just fell apart in SHOREFALL. One of the mild difficulties I had with the magic system presented in FOUNDRYSIDE was that it sometimes got a little “technical”, and I felt like I kind of got lost in the details of it. But it was still FUN. Here, the details are essentially thrown out the window. The interesting conversations between Sancia/Clef the heirophantic key, and the various scrived components that make up the city and how Sancia disentangled them made for some humorous times indeed. Regardless, the process of scriving always seemed detailed and complicated and hard. But here, they’re making new scrivings for all of this crazy stuff that is only minimally described and everything seems to work perfectly on the first go. The magic completely collapsed into something that felt simple and easy. Something that could just be thrown around. This was especially the case after Crasedes comes into play. He’s the big wig after all and he can do literally anything he wants, it seems, with a simple wave of his hand. Took all the fun out of what was a really cool part of the story.

Last (because I have to stop somewhere and despite all appearances, having to write this review about this book is nearly killing me), I feel like I need to talk about the flow of the story. Understanding the motivations of the characters and how those motivations drove the story was easily one of the biggest issues I had with FOUNDRYSIDE. Ultimately it wasn’t enough to negatively impact my impression of the book. In this case, it absolutely did. Repeatedly, it felt like characters would come to conclusions that seemed completely beyond the scope of their understanding, but allowed the pacing of the story to stay high and keep moving because they were always right. This story is, if anything, a fast mover. There’s literally no time for anyone to sit down and rest. The whole thing happens over the course of a handful (maybe?) of days.

If I had to make a comparison about the experience of reading this book, I’d have to say that it would be akin to watching the movie Pacific Rim. If you aren’t familiar with that movie, it’s about a bunch of monsters that crawl up out of a crack in the Earth’s crust and the people that build massive Robotech-sized robots and then use them to go fight those monsters. If you don’t want to think about what’s going on with the story, or see the impact of those goings on other than just knowing they have something to do with “crimes against humanity!” or “mass slavery!” or “magic solves all my problems!”, then you’ll likely enjoy this story very much. It’ll be a lot like watching Pacific Rim: lots of shiny but not much substance. If you’re more like me though… you’re gonna have issues.

Despite the fact that I really didn’t like this book, I can’t help but wonder where he’s going to go with the next one. This story got WAY too big for its britches WAY too fast, but it definitely upped the stakes. Apocalypto to the maximo! Wish it had just told a better story along the way.

  • Recommended Age: 14+
  • Language: Frequent scatalogical references, but no F-words
  • Violence: Graphic references to death and self-mutilation
  • Sex: Several references to sexuality and nudity

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