Hello everyone! I'm Rina's brother Evan. She's invited me to be a regular contributer to this book review blog, and I hope to provide my fair share of opinions. Needless to say, though our tastes often overlap (I'm the one who introduced her to her first fantasy book), our reviews do not necessarily represent the other's opinion.
D. M. Cornish's Foundling, the first book in The Foundling Trilogy (originally The Monster Blood Tattoo Trilogy), recounts the journey of young, naive Rossamünd from an orphanage down a pirate-frequented river and through monster-haunted wilderness to a promised job as an Imperial Lamplighter. On the way, he falls in with Europe, a professional monster-slayer, despite his qualms about whether monsters should indeed be killed.
I read this book recently, after seeing it recommended on several different websites and reading an interview with the author on portrayals of religion in fantasy. (Curiously, religion hasn't made an appearance so far... perhaps it will in the sequels.) At the beginning, the protagonist's naivitë and high hopes caused me to nod knowingly awaiting his growth in response to adventures. When the world opened before me, I gasped in awe at the worldbuilding. Unfortunately, the development does not fully live up to this promise. The protagonist remains naivë and passive throughout, and few other characters are developed.
Mr. Cornish's worldbuilding should be a lesson to all authors. The government system is left vague — as it should be; Rossamünd doesn't know much about it — but what is there avoids the twin perils of unrealistically exciting anarchy and oversimplified totalitarianism. A far-off Emperor protects trade through the monster-infested wilderness between mostly-independent city states. Meanwhile, the city states try with more or less success to crack down on local lawbreakers while private fighters supplement the Imperial services by slaying monsters for bounties. Mr. Cornish discusses in tantalizing detail the traditions of the monster-slayers, popular heroes, with intriguing hints that the monsters just might be on the verge of winning the struggle.
The central conflict of the trilogy, I'm guessing, will be the multi-generational war of humans against monsters. Who are the monsters? Where do they come from? I don't know, because our protagonist doesn't. Probably, no human knows — whenever someone tries to understand the monsters from a vaguely-sympathetic viewpoint, he's killed as a traitor. (Yes, Rossamünd does notice what a bad thing this is.) Various characters hint, however, that there's some big secret waiting to be discovered. How do the humans fight? Traditionally, with herbs in mysterious mixtures to repel monsters; more recently, they stride forth to attack monsters with sensory aids and whole new organ systems grafted into their bodies. (It's probably magic, despite the half-realistic treatment of immune rejection, though no character seems to care about the distinction.) These warriors are considered heroes, and their deeds are sung in songs, although many people would be quite nervous to meet one in person. Which side is in the right? It's treason to even ask the question in-universe, but our protagonist is starting to doubt. All this wonderful work keeps me reading attentively, waiting for the next revelation.
This brings me to the main shortcoming of this book: our protagonist never grows enough to phrase the problem in these terms. When Europe kills a monster, he cries out in anguish — why? Because it looked sympathetic while dying. Because Europe attacked first. For all he knew, the monster had killed a dozen babies for breakfast and was about to slaughter ten more when Europe intervened. Yes, Rossamünd who is newly come from a sheltered orphanage might well act like this, but this shows that he is nowhere near heroism. Unfortunately, he doesn't change. He lets himself be swept along by events and emotion without anticipating or planning for the future. This caused my interest to flag at some points - when the protagonist surrenders himself to be a victim of circumstances, why should I care in his stead?
For example, Rossamünd meets Europe the monster-slayer at the end of chapter 6, while walking south to an appointment for his lamplighter job. From there through chapter 12, he only mentions his job once, in passing. His decision to delay his journey and help Europe recover from an illness could be portrayed as admirable charity or reprehensible promise-breaking, but it doesn't even occur to Rossamünd that he's promised to go elsewhere! Even when Europe offers him another job, his previous commitment only passes through his mind once. Mr. Cornish might not have intended to portray Rossamünd as so negligent, but when he apparently ignores his commitments for so many chapters, that is the impression produced in my mind.
I hope all the flaws of this book will be addressed in the rest of the trilogy. Naivë Rossamünd will learn heroism; mysterious Europe's personality will be more fully revealed; everyone will squarely face the question of when monsters should be killed. As a story in itself, this book sadly fails to live up to the promise of its worldbuilding. As a first third of a story, however, this book would probably be an excellent introduction to a protagonist slowly developing in character as he faces a largely-ignored problem. I plan to soon read the other two books of the trilogy, where I hope Mr. Cornish will tie together the threads of the story.
Age rec: I'm not as good at estimating this as my sister is, but I'd say 8 and up. There're a few instances of violence when Europe is killing monsters, as I've already discussed.