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Intrigue, murder, and infrastructure meet in Bennett's The Tainted Cup

·609 words·3 mins
Articles Books Reviews Fantasy Mystery Robert Jackson Bennett
Daniel Andrlik
Daniel Andrlik lives in the suburbs of Philadelphia. By day he manages product teams. The rest of the time he is a podcast host and producer, writer of speculative fiction, a rabid reader, and a programmer.

Robert Jackson Bennett has been one of my favorite authors for a while now. His fantasy worlds are realized in stunning detail, with rich characters and intricately woven plots. His latest book, The Tainted Cup, a fantasy murder mystery that kicks off his new Shadow of the Leviathan series, is no exception.

Cover of The Tainted Cup. Depicts a stylized image of a fallen goblet with skull headed flowers sprouting above it. The title appears on a long roll of parchment crossing the image.
The Tainted Cup, Del Rey Books, 2024

The book follows the exploits of Dinios Kol in his role as an apprentice assistant to Ana Dolabra, a brilliant but eccentric investigator who rarely leaves the walls of her home. The two must solve a series of murders enacted via a weaponized plant that bursts forth from the victims in a deadly bloom. Dolabra cannot abide any overstimulation to her senses, and so Kol, a magically altered human who remembers everything he experiences with perfect clarity, serves as her eyes and ears while she confines herself to her quarters. Their Holmes and Watson relationship is familiar, but Dolabra has a streak of Hannibal Lecter to her that is pleasantly unsettling.

Oh, people love the Legion, with their swords and their walls and their bombards. But though they receive no worship, it’s the maintenance folk who keep the Empire going. Someone, after all, must do the undignified labor to keep the grand works of our era from tumbling down.

Ana Dolabra

The victims are members of the Engineers, those tasked with the upkeep of the empire’s infrastructure. Most notably, these fallen are responsible for the upkeep of the mighty walls that protect the populace from destructive incursions of leviathans that regularly rise from the sea. With the threat of the next leviathan looming, Kol and Dolabra race to connect the clues, and soon find themselves embroiled in the politics of the powerful and uncovering shameful events that many would kill to have forgotten. As they close in on the killer, Kol is amazed by Dolabra’s keen intellect, and must contend with his fear that the very same will reveal his own secrets.

Civilization is often a task that is only barely managed. But harden your heart and slow your blood. The towers of justice are built one brick at a time. We have more to build yet.

Ana Dolabra

This book is expertly plotted and paced; it was almost impossible for me to put down. The characters are well drawn, and the mystery is delightfully twisty. Bennett’s focus on how infrastructure keeps an empire alive, and what happens when the process of maintenance is corrupted in the name of profit, is yet another example of the cerebral themes Bennett is capable of weaving within a rollicking story.

[…Most] critically, I focus on the theme. All of the worldbuilding and character development needs to refer back to the overarching theme of the story, whether directly or obliquely. For THE DIVINE CITIES, for example, it was about how people use history to excuse their actions in the present. For FOUNDRYSIDE, it’s about how technology empowers and then disempowers people, leading to lulls and booms. (I personally think we are living through a lull now.)

For THE TAINTED CUP, this is a story about an Empire that harnessed biological magic to fend off enormous, catastrophic threats that regularly occur. Its theme is about evolution, metamorphosis, and change; so, in this story, the villains are usually people who do NOT want things to change. They prefer the status quo, and will use the incumbent powers of their wealth and legal apparatus to maintain it.

Robert Jackson Bennett, Reddit AMA

The Tainted Cup is a must read and I heartily recommend it. I cannot wait until the next book in the series.


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