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eARC Review: The Tainted Cup by Robert Jackson Bennett

Release date:  6 February 2024

Rating:  5/5

Book boxes:  Inkstone Books Quarter 1 2024, Aardvark Book Club February Pick, The Broken Binding SE

Synopsis:  In Daretana’s most opulent mansion, a high Imperial officer lies dead—killed, to all appearances, when a tree spontaneously erupted from his body. Even in this canton at the borders of the Empire, where contagions abound and the blood of the Leviathans works strange magical changes, it’s a death at once terrifying and impossible.


Called in to investigate this mystery is Ana Dolabra, an investigator whose reputation for brilliance is matched only by her eccentricities.


At her side is her new assistant, Dinios Kol. Din is an engraver, magically altered to possess a perfect memory. His job is to observe and report, and act as his superior’s eyes and ears--quite literally, in this case, as among Ana’s quirks are her insistence on wearing a blindfold at all times, and her refusal to step outside the walls of her home.


Din is most perplexed by Ana’s ravenous appetite for information and her mind’s frenzied leaps—not to mention her cheerful disregard for propriety and the apparent joy she takes in scandalizing her young counterpart. Yet as the case unfolds and Ana makes one startling deduction after the next, he finds it hard to deny that she is, indeed, the Empire’s greatest detective.


As the two close in on a mastermind and uncover a scheme that threatens the safety of the Empire itself, Din realizes he’s barely begun to assemble the puzzle that is Ana Dolabra—and wonders how long he’ll be able to keep his own secrets safe from her piercing intellect.

 

Review


If you find yourself in a situation where you absolutely love high fantasy and want to scratch a mystery book itch, pick this book up stat.  The Tainted Cup took me by complete surprise.  I rarely—very rarely—read mysteries.  I find them very dull, as I can usually guess what’s going on, and the general setting and plot usually don’t cater to my taste because, well, I like fantasy books.  Bennett’s impeccable world and character building propelled me by force through this plot.  About halfway through, I didn’t care about the mystery—I just wanted to keep reading.  I’d say, for readers who hate fantasy but love mystery, or alternately hate mystery but love fantasy—this book is a great mesh of the two that proves a great crossover to whet the appetite for readers of both preferences.


To best understand the world building here, I’d have to frame the reference with some popular movies.  Pacific Rim (minus the mechs) and Moby Dick come to mind most, other than the obvious Sherlock Holmes.  Behemoth leviathans surge from the sea during wet seasons and plague the Empire.  Instead of moving farther inland, past the reach of the leviathans, the Empire stays right on the coast and builds walls to keep them out, chasing them to the sea and killing them to repel them each year.  It is in the midst of this chaos, on the brink of a wet season, that Dolabra and Kol begin their investigation into the murder of a well-connected officer.  


Kol possesses a magical alteration, as do most of the rest of the citizens and officers of the Empire.  This form of magic system, or I’d say genetic manipulation, spins the typical magic-grouping/ability-grouping systems I’ve seen in books before on its head a bit.  Though it’s reminiscent to me of the different factions in Divergent and the Grisha from Shadow and Bone, different MOS’s in the Empire form around what the members can do after they’ve been altered.  Bennett did a great job here making the magic system (or manipulation system) relevant to the story and not just a gimmicky, useless bit of fluff to bait readers.  


Within these parameters, the story in The Tainted Cup comes to life.  Bennett’s storytelling shines with brilliance.  I could not put the book down, especially past the halfway mark.  Kol and Dolabra made a perfect pair, and I absolutely cannot wait to read the future installments in this series.  


The drawbacks are few for me here, though the one or two there are resound significantly.  If a fantasy world goes so far as to create different place names, different names for months, different ways bodies work, and so on, it should stand to reason that the foul language in the new fantasy world should also be world-specific.  Dolabra and a few other characters use quite a lot of explicatives in the book, and they really do jar one out of the fantasy world.  Additionally, though the concept of leviathan creatures that come out every wet season to harass the land-dwellers is pretty fascinating, I didn’t really comprehend the reasoning for the folks living right on the coast and struggling to keep these beasts at bay every year with less and less effectiveness to continue to live where they live.  It would make sense to just not live right where there is constant, large-scale destruction.  The logic doesn’t really connect with me.  Perhaps the latter will be explained a bit better in future installments to the series.


My thanks to Del Rey and NetGalley for the eARC, for which I willingly give my own, honest opinion.


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