February 13, 2024

Review: The Tainted Cup

The Tainted Cup The Tainted Cup by Robert Jackson Bennett
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Robert Jackson Bennett is pretty much an insta-buy for me, and this book ups his considerable game. This is a fascinating world set against a well-constructed puzzle box of a mystery that reveals some unpleasant cracks in this world's Empire, and a conspiracy that leads all the way to the Empire's equivalent of our 1%, the tremendously wealthy and influential clan Hazas.

Our protagonist is Dinios Kol, an "engraver" who has been genetically engineered to have a perfect memory and total recall, working as an apprentice investigator to Anagosa Dolabra. The first chapter opens with him being called to an estate where a man has been killed, by the novel method of a plant erupting from his body and literally eating him up. This is our introduction to this world, with its extensive genetic engineering:

Which wasn't to say it was not opulent. Miniature mai-trees had been altered to grow down from the ceiling, acting as chandeliers--something I'd never seen before--their fruits full to bursting with the glowing little mai-worms, which cast a flickering blue light about us. I wondered if even the air was expensive in here, then saw it was: a massive kirpis mushroom had been built into the corner of every main room--a tall, black fungus built to suck in air, clean it, and exhale it out at a cooler temperature.

This is made possible through the industry of "reagents" and "suffusions," substances grown and built to be ingested and change DNA in specific ways. This takes up tremendous amounts of land in the inner Rings of this Empire, but this entire process is based on the blood and bodies of the "leviathans," the monstrous kaiju of this world who emerge from the seas every year in the "wet season" and rampage through the Empire--or at least they did, until the massive seawalls were built to keep them out.

This backstory and worldbuilding could have taken up literal chapters, but it is doled out in the precise fractions we need to serve the story. I am in awe of the author's economy in doing this, and at the same time making this complex and fascinating world understandable. As a reader I never felt lost, never had any WTF or head-scratching moments. Our focus is on the unfolding murder mystery and the gradual, inexorable raising of stakes, until the final confrontation when Ana reveals all--which takes place as another leviathan is coming ashore and triggering mass panic. This juxtaposition of the investigator Dolabra revealing who committed the murders and why, and the leviathan drawing ever closer, creates some almost unbearable suspense in the final chapters.

Ana and Din are also well-drawn characters. Obviously they're based on Holmes and Watson, but Ana is a good deal more ruthless and predatory than Sherlock: she has incredible investigative abilities and also comes across as somewhere on the autism spectrum, since she wears blindfolds in public to avoid too much stimulation and is inclined to hide away in her house or room to stay away from people. Din, on the other hand, with his reading and writing difficulties, is meant to be dyslexic, I think. But his determination to pass his exams to become an Iudex apprentice, and his willingness to bend the rules to do so, marks him as the exact sort of assistant Ana needs.

The mystery involves the Hazas clan and its hubris and greed, and the unthinking consequences it doles out to people considered beneath it in its pursuit of what it wants. This includes the province of Oypat, destroyed years ago by an experimental, fast-growing reagent called "dappleglass" that got away from the Engineers of Oypat, threatening to eat the entire province and its inhabitants, until Oypat had to be burned to the ground and locked away. The echoes of this crime and those who enabled it, and the revenge plot formulated by the survivors, is the focus of this story. There was apparently a neutralizing reagent created for dappleglass, but bureaucratic inertia (later discovered to be deliberate) doomed the entire province:

"And....what did the Preservation Boards do regarding Oypat?"

"They moved quickly. Or....they tried to. But the cantons that would have to grow the reagents for the cure...Well, they brought many concerns. They protested how creating these new reagents could lead to environmental issues with all their other reagents and agriculture. They demanded tests and studies, wanting to ensure that there was no commingling or mutagenic possibilities."

"I see," said Ana softly. "Then what happened?"

"The process simply took too long. The dappleglass reached a critical point. It had devoured too much land. Too long a border for it to ever be properly neutralized. Like a tumor infecting the bone, or the tissue of the heart, it was too late. So we evacuated the canton, and then....then we applied a phalm oil burn."

This book touches on current fears of genetic engineering run amuck and what might happen if it gets out of control, and the greed of anyone who thinks themselves better than others just because they are rich. It's a complex, absorbing story with a fascinating, horrifying world I would love to revisit again and again.

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