by D.M. Cornish
David M Cornish was born in 1972 in Adelaide Australia. He would study illustration at the University of South Australia and up stakes a year after graduating and head to the great city of Sidney for nine years. After that he traveled through the United States, visited London and Paris, and arrived right back where he started from in Adelaide. He got a job illustrating children's books, and one day was sitting around shooting the breeze with his editor when a notebook labeled 23 fell out of his bag. His editor swooped upon it like a starving woman on her favorite meal. Mr. Cornish had to confess that it was the notes and scribbles of the people, places, and creatures of a fantasy world he had been laboring on for ten years. She swiftly demanded he write a book about it. Foundling, the book that resulted from that demand was published in 2006 by Firebird Fantasy, an imprint for teenage/adult fantasy novels under Penguin books which is owned by (say it with me) Random House. Seriously I'm gonna find a way to start playing the imperial march every time they come up here (And I’m going to find a way to use Necromancy to resurrect Theodore Roosevelt). Anyways, enough comparing a publisher that publishes over half the books in your book store to evil empires, back to the book.
The humans of the half continent share their world with a wide variety of creatures that they refer to as monsters. Most of them are sapient, although some of them are not and even among the sapient ones there are a great many malevolent creatures who view humanity as nothing more than a source of meat and leather. Humanity or everymen as they are called in the book have adapted their society to protect themselves from these creatures and fight them for land and resource in a number of ways. They live in fortified settlements with armed guards, constantly patrolling their lands for incursions, and maintain great roads lit by lamps even in the darkest nights. The majority of human settlements are unified into the Haacobin Empire (named after the current ruling dynasty), it's not a very centralized empire though and is divided into semi-autonomous city states not unlike the Holy Roman Empire. Each city state has its own armed force, its own laws and policies and its own ruling family. Although they all owe allegiance to the Emperor. Humanity has also created an organic technology that exists alongside technology that we would recognize (like flintlock pistols and cannons), these organic creations provide their users with abilities like being able to see in the dark or provide power to more mundane objects like river boats. They also employ specialists to combat the monsters, one group being called Skolds. Skolds are a kind of combat chemist, who using their understanding of chemistry to create various potions and brews that serve as anti-monster weapons, repellents, and for medical purposes. So skolds are also a kind of medic on the field of battle as well. Lately they have been overshadowed by a second group of monster hunters known as lahzars but I will return to them later. Both Skolds and Lahzars and other specialists are referred to as teratologists or monster hunters. Monster hunters are considered a glamorous, scandalous lot; living lives of adventure, glory, and hardship and as often as not, dying alone in some benighted wasteland to have their flesh devoured by their enemies.
Our main character Rossamund isn't a monster hunter. He's an orphan boy with a girl's name being raised in the Madam Opera's Society for Foundling Boys and Girls, an orphanage run by and for the ultimate benefit of the navy. The children of the society are raised and trained to the various skills and duties of sailors and the Navy gets first pick of all the orphans. Rossamund himself thinks that being a sailor or a vinegaroon (the oceans are referred to as the vinegar seas because of a collection of exotic salts that create a multi-colored ocean that will kill any unprotected human swimming in it within 90 minutes) is the highest calling that a he could achieve.. As one might guess, Rossamund isn't recruited into the navy but is instead offered a position in the lamplighters. The lamplighters are a branch of the army stationed along lonely roads in wild places to light, protect, and maintain the lamps that help keep the roads from becoming ambush zones for various monster tribes. It isn't glamours work, but it's vital and well paying. Rossamund accepts the offer and for the first time in his life sets out alone into the world. For him it's going to be one hell of a trip as everything that can go wrong will go wrong. Whether it's running into river pirates, monster bandits or having to care for an injured and potentially murderous lahzar able to shoot electricity out of her body or figuring out how to replace his ruined paperwork, Rossamund has a lot to deal with.
Now I’ve got to be honest, in the grand tradition of young protagonists everywhere, Rossamund comes across as not too bright and having a lot of growing to do. On the flip side, he's a brave young man. He’s decisive and his willingness to commit to a imperfect plan and swiftly execute it can make up for a lack of a lot of things. While the book starts him off in the orphanage he grew up in and shows him as a by nature rather timid and reserved boy, he rises quickly to events and learns to deal with things as they come. I also like that while lamplighter isn't Rossamund's first choice of a career, he doesn't mope and whine about it but sets out determined to do the job he was hired for. Rossamund comes across as determined even in the face of understandable immaturity and discomfort in an adult world he doesn't quite grasp. So I find myself liking the kid and cheering him on, even has he does things like jumping off a boat into a monster filled river in the middle of a firefight, or dragging a fully grown but injured woman several miles in the dark to an inn. He is able to accomplish things that men twice his age wouldn't but still acts and feels like a young boy who hasn't even started shaving yet. He's got grit and that's worth a lot. Now, let's talk about that lahzar...
Lahzars are men and women who have had their bodies surgically altered. In a process that is illegal and unknown except in one far away city state, alien (most likely monstrous) organs and glands are implanted into the body of the volunteer. It's an expensive process that can take days of being strapped to the operating table and over a year to recover from. If you survive however you will wield power beyond what any other individual human can whether it be to attack with electricity or invisible force. The price isn't just measured in money however, the human body does not kindly to having strange, alien bits and pieces shoved into it and constantly works to reject them. So there is a constant dull ache and you are forever dependent on taking regular drafts of a potion known as a draft to keep organ rejection at bay. Lahzars are also known to have mood swings and even psychotic episodes as a result of the constant struggle their bodies are undergoing. Miss Europe, a woman who finds Rossamund and elects to bring him along since their journeys are heading the same way, is one of these people. Miss Europe is a mystery to Rossamund, as she is often swinging from nearly affectionate and friendly to stand offish and sullen. While at first she seems rather glamorous, the downsides to her life make themselves rather self evident to Rossamund to his eternal disillusionment. In a lot of ways Miss Europe seems less mature than Rossamund as she simply doesn't deal with people very well. She is however very brave and sure of herself and won't put up with being looked down on. She's better at dealing with people then her servant, factorum and Leer Licurius. Now a Leer is a person who has undergone training in focusing their senses on noticing small details and remembering what they have seen. They have also undergone treatments to their eyes to greatly enhance their vision. They also use organic technology in the form of sensing organs in special boxes that strap on their faces. Licurius is frankly someone on the verge of going insane and Miss Europe is too dependent on him to notice. While the relationship isn't something that the book goes deeply into, it's an interesting peek at how even a platonic relationship can led you to make excuses for someone you care about and avoid confronting the truth.
Mr. Cornish creates a very realistic society that reads like something out of Charles Dickens, but with monsters and surgically altered super-powered fighters. That said I do think that Rossamund and Oliver Twist for example would get along with each other just fine. As one might imagine, this society is deeply riven with class differences, one example that really drives it home is when an innkeeper wants to eject Miss Europe from a nice room in her inn under the fright that no one of “quality” would ever want it again if they knew someone like Miss Europe had slept there. I have to admit that hit a bit home for me as it was a rendition of the same old song of being good enough to fight and die for you but not good enough for you to treat as if I was a worthwhile person. I think just about anyone in uniform has at least one story along those lines, even in the United States where things have tended to swing the other way. Sometimes a bit too far but that's another subject. Foundling provides an excellent and distinct fantasy world populated with memorable characters and a likable protagonist serving as our guide to the world. The pacing is wonderful and I love the fact that there's an appendix at the back of the book where it bloody belongs! I do encourage readers to go through it as it is great reading all on it's own. Foundling by D.M. Cornish gets an A.
Next week, we go east to look at a Soviet classic that has managed to cross the iron curtain and have a lot of influence on western entertainment. Next week, Solaris by Stanislaw Lem. Keep Reading!
Red text is your editor Dr. Ben Allen
Black text is your reviewer Garvin Anders.