The Tainted Cup – Robert Jackson Bennett

Wow, this was an unexpected treat! I was very excited to be offered The Tainted Cup by the publisher – my first of many, I hope. Usually, I am solicited by the authors themselves, which is equally fantastic. The Tainted Cup is outside of my usual historical mystery/romance genres, and in the related fantastical mystery (mysterious fantasy?) genre. This made me skeptical, at first, as I am not a big fantasy person. I have very little bandwidth for invented worlds as I couldn’t even begin to conceptualize one. However, I couldn’t have been more wrong. I found the world-building well-done, plot excellent, and characters endearing. I give this novel four stars – I felt five would have been a little unfair as this is the only mysterious fantasy that I’ve read and have little to compare it to.

Disclaimer: I have a hard time with fantasy as a genre because my imagination is very limited – I can accept fictional characters in real settings, but that’s the biggest stretch I can reach, usually. My father read the Lord of the Rings series to me when I was little (it is a foundational part of my childhood) and I thought that the Balrog (big, fiery demon) was a ball on a string (ball). So, that tells you what you need to know about my imagination, I think. It is why I 100% struggle with fantasy books. I just can’t conceptualize

Disclaimer 2: I will be using some words in this review that will only make sense in the context of this book. 

As I said in my first paragraph, I was not looking forward to reading this book but thought I’d give it a go because the mystery sounded good and it was a solicited review. As I’ve also stated, I was incredibly wrong. I probably conceptualized and pictured 40% of Bennett’s intended world but boy, was it a good one. I was very engaged in the strange plants, creatures, gifts, etc. The characters were well done and I was impressed with how their gifts shaped all of their personalities and purposes. 

Din is an engraver, which means he remembers everything. He’s a valuable tool for an investigator and discovers along the way that he’s not so bad at interpreting information, himself. He’s as honest as the day is long and has a great sense of integrity and honor. This makes it a little difficult for him to function in the workings of the Empire as, like most governments, corruption is rampant. Ana is an excellent counterbalance for him, as her world is almost a completely grey area, she has no issues bending the truth, and gives very few explanations. Together, Din and Ana make an unusual but very effective team. 

Din and Ana make their way through a multilayered and convoluted plot. There were some well-done red herrings, quite a few surprises, and nice reveals. There is an element of added danger, too, as a leviathan may be about to breach the sea wall. So, aside from the internal turmoil of the case and the threats posed within that, there’s also the greater threat to Ana and Din’s entire world. It’s quite enthralling! 

The case itself takes us from the backwoods of the provinces to the world of the gentry. It introduces a variety of characters, all moderately suspicious, and world-builds very thoroughly for a book that’s only 400 pages. I so enjoyed the world-building; Bennett is a wonderful writer in that he can convey a lot without having to write very much. I see books where the world is described separately from the events taking place within it, which can get tedious. Bennett weaves his descriptions among the dialogue and action, which produces an eloquent and engaging novel.

All in all, there was a lot that was appealing about this novel. My only question is why, in this world, are they still using carriages, horses, and swords? It’s probably more of an evolutionary question that Bennett can answer, but the modifications in this world made me wonder why there aren’t more efficient transportation methods or personal weaponry. It’s just a query and something I felt was a juxtaposition. Regardless, I really liked The Tainted Cup and would have read the second one immediately if it was available. If you’re up for a mystery whether you like fantasy or not, give this a try!

Published by SamIAmReading

I am an avid reader and lover of historical mysteries and romances, but happy to take review requests and expand my horizons! All opinions in this blog are my own and have been given freely.

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