This review is based on an eARC (Advance Reading Copy) provided by the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. The Tainted Cup will be released on February 6, 2024.
Robert Jackson Bennett’s acclaimed Divine Cities trilogy came out shortly before I returned from a school-induced genre hiatus, and ever since, he’s been one of the authors I’ve been wanting to circle back to. I’ve heard nothing but good things, just hadn’t had the right push to the top of the TBR. The release of a new fantasy mystery novel The Tainted Cup provided just the push, and now I can see what the hype is about.
The Tainted Cup takes place in a secondary world with a deeply weird ecology. Worms are cultivated for their light, locked doors are guarded with flesh-eating vines only kept at bay by the right key, people receive implants to give anything from perfect memory to super strength, and all of society is organized around keeping back the leviathans that rise out of the sea during the annual wet season. And in this world, a man is found brutally poisoned in the house of one of its richest families. And unraveling the mystery of that murder may shake the land to its core.
The Tainted Cup is told from the perspective of an investigative assistant whose brain has been modified to yield perfect recall. He observes a scene and takes his observations back to the eccentric genius with the mind to put things together. As such, the telling is very much in the spirit of Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson, only with a fantasy setting, a more observant Watson, and a lady Holmes. And The Tainted Cup is the rare fantasy mystery that truly lives up to both genres. So often, a fantasy mystery is just a fantasy novel with a body at the beginning—mystery conventions regarding clues and suspects are followed irregularly, if at all. But here, every piece of evidence is delivered through the observations of the lead, and the suspects are all perfectly available for the reader to evaluate, even if the hopes of matching the in-universe savant are slim.
And it doesn’t just live up to the billing as a proper mystery, it’s a really gripping one. The initial crime scene opens up a host of possibilities and gives the reader a natural on-ramp into a strange and fascinating world. And it just keeps going from there. The investigator may solve little pieces of the mystery—she is a genius, after all—but there are always questions about the bigger picture that drive the plot forward, especially as the world enters the wet season and the external dangers get more and more severe.
As more and more pieces of the web are revealed, the excellent scenes with a detective showing off her skills are supplemented with some clandestine investigation and a handful of action sequences that keep the tension ratcheted up. All the while, the inexperienced main character learns more and more about himself and grows more confident in his role. It’s not necessarily a mind-blowing character arc, but it serves to buttress the action and mystery to keep the story engaging from start to finish.
Ultimately, The Tainted Cup was pretty much just what I wanted from a fantasy murder mystery. The mystery itself is intriguing, it’s well-paced with tension that ratchets up as the novel goes on, there’s a fun character dynamic, and there’s a satisfying ending that leaves room for more stories taking place in the same universe. “Drop everything and read it now”? Perhaps not. But an excellent example of a subgenre that’s rarely executed half so well? Absolutely.
Recommended if you like: fantasy mysteries, the Holmes and Watson archetypes, weird ecology.
Can I use it for Bingo? It’s hard mode for Mythical Beasts, Queernorm Setting, and Mundane Jobs, if you focus on the detective and not the magical. It’s also a Coastal Setting, and if you wait two months, it’ll be Published in 2024 for the next Bingo.
Overall rating: 17 of Tar Vol’s 20. Five stars on Goodreads.