The Tainted Cup

The Tainted Cup by Robert Jackson Bennett

Hodderscape, £22, hardback

Reviewed by Nadya Mercik

I always find this combination of a detective story and fantasy alluring. Not only is there a mystery of whodunit, but it is also tied in with the world you want to explore. And Robert Jackson Bennett definitely delivers on both fronts. So, if you are looking for a Sherlock Holmes-style investigation with charismatic and flawed detectives set in a fantasy empire that is threatened by leviathan monsters every wet season and in which people are amplified to fulfil their duties, The Tainted Cup is the story for you.

Dinios Kol has been assigned to the investigator Ana Dolabra for a few months since she was exiled to their small town of Daretana. He’s passed his exams but isn’t yet a fully qualified Assistant Investigator. Even the sword he is allowed to carry is only wooden. Most of the cases they deal with are frauds. That is until a high-ranking Engineer of the anti-leviathan wall is killed in a cruel fashion and not just somewhere but in the mansion of one of the most influential families in the empire. The case is a very suspicious one. What was engineer Blas doing in the mansion when even the hosts were not there? Why did the murderer choose such a weird weapon – a contagious grass, the spores of which would grow anywhere; the grass that once destroyed a whole canton but was now modified to grow only within a human body?

Dinios’s boss, Ana, is an unusual person herself. She wears a blindfold, though she isn’t blind. She spends her time reading a lot (through touch) and thinking. She doesn’t even visit the crime scene. Not that she has a need for it since Dinios is an engraver – a person who was altered in such a way that he remembers everything he hears or sees. To add to this, it is a mystery how she ended up in Daretana – the backwaters of the empire.

As the investigation progresses, all the clues seem to be leading to the city of Talagray, which maintains the anti-leviathan wall. Ana and Dinios are invited there after a section of the wall collapses because of the same contagion. The beginning of the wet season and the activation of the monsters put additional pressure on the detectives as more and more people seem to be involved. The ball of mysteries only grows as one murder reveals another, unrolling back into the distant past and a bigger conspiracy. Meanwhile, the Leviathans threaten to crush Talagray away.

The story is a wonderful and balanced combination of charismatic characters, lush worldbuilding and the well of mysteries that never seem to dry. Ana Dolabra reminds me of Sherlock Holmes in some ways, only to beat him on so many accounts. A female detective, she too looks very antisocial, shutting herself in her rooms, wearing the blindfold, and going all sarcastic towards people without differentiating whether they are her equals or important imperial figures. She is never unjust, though, and tough as it might be for her to say sorry, she is capable of that. Dinios, just like Watson, admires and is appalled by Ana’s behaviour in equal measure, though he gradually gets used to her quirks. As her assistant, he takes protecting her from harm very seriously, even though there is no love interest between the two. However, unlike Watson, Dinios has a secret; you’d think that as an engraver, he’d excel in everything that requires brain work, but he has trouble reading, and he has failed all the exams apart from the one for the Iudex Investigator station.

Bennett devises an interesting ‘magical’ system. Bordering on science, as it requires grafts and mixtures to interfere with the body, ‘magic’ transforms humans, enhancing some of their abilities, be it memory, sense of smell or vision, or physical strength. There are always visual signs of modifications as well as consequences. There are Conzulates who live long but pay for that with constant growth to the point that they find it difficult to move. Engravers, especially if they find themselves in less pleasant circumstances, suffer from migraines and afflictions, having to remember all the bad stuff as well.

The leviathan monsters might remind you of Lovecraftian creatures but also bring to mind Japanese kaiju like Godzilla, their skeletons remaining as part of the landscape and sprouting lush growth or being kept as prizes by wealthy families. Bennett might not go into details, describing different peoples of the empire; however, there is a strong sense of diversity and the wrongs the empire has done to some of them.

Theme-wise, the novel touches on two big topics – the economics and works of the empire and justice. Sen sez imperiya, repeat some of the characters the motto of the Empire – You are the empire. It is ingrained in the people that the empire is there to protect them from the leviathans, and it is the only way they can survive. The characters may not argue with that, especially when the leviathan threat is on their doorstep, but some of them do question who makes up the empire. Is it only the gentry and those with power who count? Or perhaps it is the maintenance people who built the backbone of the country. What is the value of a small person on the huge mechanism of the empire? The idea is tied in with the motivation for the original crime, and, at some point, it even brought to my mind Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment.

I do hope that Bennett is going to continue to write about Ana and Dinios’s adventures in the future. Not only did I take a liking to the characters, but I would also like to see more of the empire, which is huge, and of the world’s magic at work. With some revelations about Ana at the end of the book, there is hope that we will see more.

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