Review: The Tainted Cup by Robert Jackson Bennett


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OFFICIAL AUTHOR BIO: Robert is the author of American Elsewhere, The Troupe, The Company Man, Mr. Shivers, as well as The Divine Cities trilogy and The Founders Trilogy.

His work has received the Edgar Award, the Shirley Jackson Award, and the Phillip K. Dick Citation of Excellence, and he has been shortlisted for the World Fantasy, British Fantasy, and Locus Awards.

He lives in Austin with his wife and two sons, one of whom is very large and one of whom is very loud, and he focuses on writing and not maintaining his website.

The Tainted Cup will be published on February 6th, 2024 by Del Rey. It is 432 pages and told in the first person from Dinios Kol’s POV. It will be available in hardcover, ebook, and audiobook formats.

OVERVIEW/ANALYSIS: Commander Blas has been murdered in a most unusual manner: a tree spontaneously and explosively grew inside (and through) him.   But it’s not the local investigator who shows up to the crime scene, but her assistant, Dinios Kol. Ana Dolabra, his master, is a curious woman who never leaves her home unless she has to, yet she is renowned for solving all manner of cases without ever visiting the crime scene. That’s in part to the aid of Kol, who has been magically altered to remember every single thing he ever experiences, from a conversation to a splatter of blood in the corner. Together, the two work to uncover what happened to Blas, only to find themselves untangling a conspiracy that may threaten the whole of the empire.

The Tainted Cup is a comfortingly familiar murder mystery that exists in a strange, eerie, even macabre world. The murder itself goes through the usual twists and turns, starting as something seemingly simple (even if it is bizarre), and gradually expanding into a string of murders on a much grander scale.  I do feel at times that the author was leaning a little too much on the Watson/Holmes archetypes, down to the Holmes-like character of Ana craving drugs when she doesn’t have an interesting case to engage with. The initial mystery itself was solved so quickly it left me surprised, but it soon becomes clear that that was merely the opening act, a way of introducing the reader to the world and to how Dinios and Ana work. As the story progressed, Dinios and Ana began to stand on their own, and I fell into a rhythm with the book.

The real stand-out in The Tainted Cup is the world itself. This is a country that lives in constant fear of the “wet season,” the time of year when enormous creatures called leviathans arise from the ocean and begin a rampage inland. All the machinations of the empire go towards defending and maintaining huge walls to try and delay the leviathans long enough for them to be killed. This particular mystery happens as the wet season is beginning, so our heroes are attempting to solve the crime as the weight of an impending leviathan attack hangs overhead, knowing that at any moment, a monster could appear and wreak havoc.

But that isn’t the eeriest part of all. That honor belongs to both the plants of this world and the grotesque alchemy they allow. The author has created all manner of strange plants that have their uses, from providing natural air cooling to building materials. More importantly, many people of this world alter themselves, gaining abilities like a perfect memory, great strength, a prodigious mind for calculations, but always at some kind of cost, like a shorter life span. What’s more, people also live in fear of contagion, of some plant or experiment that has gone wrong and will unleash death on anyone who comes into contact with it until it is contained. In short, this is a world with a casual acceptance of looming terror around every corner, where short term gain is accepted against long term tradeoffs, all in the service of the empire that leads the effort to keep the monster at bay.

CONCLUSION: You’ll come to The Tainted Cup for the mystery, but it is the world that you’ll remember long after the story is done. I find myself thinking about it constantly, with its oppressive, gloomy atmosphere and curious plants. There are more mysteries to come in the empire of Khanum and I’ll be back to read them, if only to explore more of the strange secrets hiding in the empire’s corners.

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