5 reasons to love the world-building in Robert Jackson Bennet's Foundryside
Updated: Jan 21
If any of you read my Foul post this month, you'll remember I was pretty hard on Foundryside. I felt like I was being hard, anyway.
Side note: If you want to read that post, here it is!
Though I really did like it, and I think Bennett is a very talented writer.
Today I want us to discuss why his fantasy is so great.
I may not have liked Foundryside as much as the Divine Cities books, but I enjoyed it all the same. What I find remarkable about Bennett's work is how well integrated his fantasy worlds are. Nothing seems unbelievable.
He is able to brilliantly incorporate gods and mythology, magic systems, technology, economies, political systems, and class systems in his books to make a real-feeling world for his readers. Unlike many other imaginative worlds, Bennett's could easily translate into reality if it weren't for the fact that magic (of the fantasy kind) doesn't exist.
I like to use an example of the Black Panther movie to iterate my point. The film was fun and entertaining, but there were a few striking problems with its fantasy world. One of these problems was the fur-wearing Jabari. Not only must they have killed those animals for their fur, but they also live in a climate where they probably wouldn't be able to grow vegetables.
Yet they are vegetarian?
Worse still, Wakanda's political system makes NO sense in the technologically advanced world that they set it up. To have a booming technological sector (to have even a portion of a population that can invent), you need to have a thriving economy. In any stable economy, there are going to be people with money and interests in that economy. NEVER would such a place just allow any jackass with muscle to stroll in and put the whole system at risk. NEVER.
But ok. I'll let it all go for the sake of sitting back and enjoying the movie. Turn off the editor's brain…
And I can and will do that for books as well. Just to get through. But that is why it is so refreshing to come across books where the author has tried really hard to avoid these mistakes. Foundryside was one of those, and I knew it would be because the Divine Cities series was too. It's why I was so looking forward to reading this book, and it didn't disappoint!
So here are 5 reasons why Foundryside has some of the best fantasy world-building you will see. I tried to keep this list to things that writers may not automatically think about when creating theirs.
1. Intricate lore that is revealed to you organically through the entire plot.
I think the most crucial point to make here is that it is actually integral to the plot. But it is never dumped on us, even though it is detailed and intricate. One of my favorite things about the Divine Cities books was how much of the world's history was presented to us at the beginning of chapters as quotes from fictional holy texts and the like.
Bennett also made sure that every bit of information he gave served a purpose and was not just told for its own sake. Too many fantasies provide us with information that is cool but really doesn't matter in the grand scheme of things.
I aslo love how Bennett's books raise and integrate the stakes from personal to societal to global by the end of the book! That is what a good fantasy novel needs to do!
2. Magic that has an origin
Another reason the gods and lore of Foundryside are so great is that they give his magic systems an origin story.
Magic is not present just because it is fantasy and should be there. People don't have magical powers because some people just have magical powers in that world. Bennett's magic is there for a reason. In Foundryside, a group of people had come across the gods' written language a long time ago that gave them the ability to do godlike things. In a pinch. I'm oversimplifying.
Is it necessary for magic to have an origin story in a magical world? Not really. But I love it!
3. A technology sector and economy that is built around magic.
In a world where magic allows people to do amazing things, it only makes sense that an economy would build up around it. Not many fantasy novels do this, and I don't know why. I get that it does not always make sense to the plot to include this stuff, and that's fine. Less is more in that regard.
When the economy included in the story seems to disregard the very magic developed in the book, however, my feathers get ruffled.
In Foundryside, the markets and black markets revolve around the development and sale of magical goods, because why wouldn't they? If something existed in the world that made people's lives exponentially easier, don't you think it would get used? Frequently?
Think of what happened when computers and smartphones came into existence. First available only to the moderately wealthy, and eventually, they became cheap enough for most people to afford it. Those technologies have also changed the way people do business and live their everyday lives.
Magic would do that, too, but on a grand scale! Your fantasy world should reflect that.
4. A political system that seems a natural progression of the economy and technology.
In Foundryside, politicians are replaced with heads of merchant houses, who have taken power by possessing magical assets and successfully competing directly with the other houses. This competition drives the economy (and the plot) and feels like a realistic progression of a power system if all those variables were really present.
Many fantasies rely on real-world political structures like monarchies, or dictatorships, that don't make a whole lot of sense in the fantasy world the author has created. Kings and Queens, even everyday people have powerful magics or mages at their disposal, yet the worlds do not differ a whole lot from historical Europe (or wherever place they're based off). The only difference is magic is real. Sometimes this can make sense, most of the time, it doesn't.
5. Systems of power that don't subjugate those without power for no reason.
Where there is power, there is subjugation or those oppressed who do not have power. In many
fantasies, the people in power keep those down for the simple reason that they are evil tyrants. Don't get me wrong, these people exist, but even your most evil character needs a reason for doing something in fiction. In Foundryside, the class distinction makes sense. Economies of magic have made natural and realistic disparities between the haves and the have-nots.
There are so many things to say about world-building, but I will hardly start that conversation right now. I think maybe in the future I will do a course on the subject, there is that much to say.
Don't worry. If I do make a course, it will be free to everyone already on FFF's email list!
See what I did there?