Called in to investigate this mystery is Ana Dolabra, an investigator whose reputation for brilliance is matched only by her eccentricities.
At her side is her new assistant, Dinios Kol. Din is an engraver, magically altered to possess a perfect memory. His job is to observe and report, and act as his superior’s eyes and ears--quite literally, in this case, as among Ana’s quirks are her insistence on wearing a blindfold at all times, and her refusal to step outside the walls of her home.
Din is most perplexed by Ana’s ravenous appetite for information and her mind’s frenzied leaps—not to mention her cheerful disregard for propriety and the apparent joy she takes in scandalizing her young counterpart. Yet as the case unfolds and Ana makes one startling deduction after the next, he finds it hard to deny that she is, indeed, the Empire’s greatest detective.
As the two close in on a mastermind and uncover a scheme that threatens the safety of the Empire itself, Din realizes he’s barely begun to assemble the puzzle that is Ana Dolabra—and wonders how long he’ll be able to keep his own secrets safe from her piercing intellect."
After reading and not really liking Foundryside, I really thought Robert Jackson Bennett just might not be an author for me. But when I heard about The Tainted Cup, I was really excited by the premise and decided I needed to check it out and give RJB another chance... and my god am I glad I did because I loved The Tainted Cup. This was magnificent. Leviathans? Plants and poisons? Yes, please to all of these!
If you like the idea of a Sherlock Holmes/Agatha Christie-style murder but with a much more fantastical setting and stakes that are ultimately much higher, this is the book you're looking for. The story opens on a most unusual murder scene in which a man has been killed by what is essentially a large tree that has sprouted from his body. From here, we are introduced to the assistant of the investigator and our protagonist, Dinios Kol (also known as Din), and eventually to the main investigator, Ana Dolabra.
Din is an extreme delight of a protagonist and being in his head was one of the best reading experiences I've had in a while. He is unfailingly professional and polite when needed, while also somehow maintaining a very distinct personality and sense of truthfulness that makes him effortlessly endearing. He is incredibly sharp, loyal, and really comes across as someone who is thoughtful about the world around him, especially as he is introduced to more of the different types of power that exist in this world and how that affects the entire societal setup around him.
I also really loved watching the relationship between Din and Ana grow throughout the story (to clarify: professional relationship), as I think through their interactions we really got to know more about both Din and Ana. Ana is one fo those characters you can't help but be riveted by every time she's in a scene because you absolutely never know what's going to come out of her mouth or what she's going to do, but you know it's going to be something you want to hear. She's a bit eccentric in all the best ways and is not someone I would ever want on my bad side, and her intelligence and perceptiveness is something that I can only admire.
The world-building in The Tainted Cup is incredible. This is an empire surrounded by seas that are filled with Leviathans that are so threatening and dangerous that enormous sea walls have been constructed in order to attempt to prevent them from getting in and ravaging the empire. For some reason, anything with beings on a leviathan scale is just so terrifying and captivating to me because of the sheer horror it invokes to actually imagine something on that scale as a real, tangible threat. There is also so much political intrigue that is gradually uncovered throughout this book, and the depth of conspiracies and secrets and everything in between is shown to be much more than any of us–characters and readers alike–could imagine. This world has so much to explore and uncover within it, and I feel like this first book has really only given us a taste of what's to come.
People in this world are also able to attain various types of physical and mental alterations, which is basically a magical modification that allows people to have various abilities enhanced. For instance, Din is an engraver, which means he has been altered to the point that he has a faultless memory and can remember things in perfect detail. Others have altered senses of smell or even physical abilities that make then strong enough to handle tasks related to caring for the sea wall and impending Leviathans. Most of these alterations do come with a price, however, as many with them live much shorter lives or eventually begin to have afflictions later in life related to their alterations. I was fascinated by the idea of all these alterations people can do to themselves and how they often do them for the empire itself, as it takes a level of either dedication or desperation to commit yourself in such ways.
The pacing and writing in The Tainted Cup are both excellently crafted. As one might expect in an investigation-focused story, there's a lot of methodical sleuthing and questioning and the like, and absolutely none of it is a drag at any point. I was genuinely hooked at every turn and was so eager to keep reading and find out what next thing would be uncovered that would either shock me or make me feel giddy at the thought of what might happen next (not giddy in a way that I take pleasure in what might happen per se, but moreso that giddy feeling you get when you've figured something out and can't wait to see what happens–you know what I mean, right?).
Overall, I've given The Tainted Cup five stars. I loved this book and cannot wait for the next one! I'm not lying when I say this is one of the best and most captivating fantasy books I've read lately and I absolutely adored the characters to the extent that I'm genuinely eager to reunite with them in the sequel. The wait for the next book is going to feel torturous!