Nisi Shawl reviews Robert Jackson Bennett’s "Foundryside," Nick Mamatas' “The People’s Republic of Everything” and Joshua Mattson’s debut novel, "A Short Film about Disappointment."

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Book reviews

The hallmark of hearing a witty pronouncement is surprised agreement. An authentic wit shares truths that are both instantly recognizable and completely unfamiliar.  The books covered here are witty in different ways, but all three share the quality of unexpected rightness.

As in his previous novels (most notably “American Elsewhere” and the Divine Cities trilogy), the magic in Robert Jackson Bennett’s latest book, “Foundryside” (Crown, 512 pp., $27), travels unusual paths. Set in a pseudo-Venetian city where the remnants of an empire of cosmos-disrupting mages piece together a system of industrialized wizardry, “Foundryside” pits the city’s four magical corporations against an impossibly lucky thief named Sancia Grado. Due to the results of some extremely illegal experimentation on human subjects, Grado has secret powers — but she’s also prey to nasty vulnerabilities resulting from those same experiments.

Magical spells are cast by “scriving” — writing commands on ordinary objects using a secret alphabet. However, the Renaissance-level technology employed means these commands must be backed up by building-sized “lexicons” — think early mainframe computers like UNIVAC. Lust for the lost efficiencies of the corporations’ forerunners motivates an anonymous stockholder to hire Grado to procure one of these wizards’ ancient artifacts. Her success is more than the status quo can handle.

“Foundryside’s” main material elements — stinking canals, chatty keys, neurotic locks — aren’t your typical fantasy trappings. Bennett wields them with great charm and apparent ease in order to communicate the novel’s core concerns: the unfairness of inherited power and the addictive quality of wealth. Those points are instantly understandable, though they’re made in such a strange setting. The thoughts and actions of the grimly determined Grado and Bennett’s other highly relatable characters help him tell all his truth, but, as Emily Dickinson advised, to “tell it slant.”

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Bay Area author Nick Mamatas is renowned in his work and in his online presence as witty and perspicacious; his new collection, “The People’s Republic of Everything” (Tachyon Publications, 336 pp., $15.95), will bolster that reputation.

Only “The Glottal Stop,” a fast-and-furious account of a harassed woman’s last date, is original to this book. Many of the rest of the stories, though, are gathered from venues either obscure, defunct, or both.

The title story, for instance, originally appeared in the e-anthology “West Coast Crime Wave.” My personal favorite, “The Great Armored Train,” an adventure involving Trotsky, were-owls and Red Army sharpshooters, first appeared in the late, lamented magazine Dark Discoveries. Not that these ephemera are the only noteworthy examples of Mamatas’ genre-jumping capabilities.

No mere observer of horror’s contentious fascination with H.P. Lovecraft — see “I Am Providence,” his murder mystery set at an imaginary Lovecraft convention — he crosses near-future personality-emulation technology with the genre’s reverence for “The King of Weird” in the collection’s opener, “Walking with a Ghost.” “North Shore Friday” combines alternate history and typographic trickery. It was published by the field’s most stalwart (though not stodgy) venue, Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine; “Walking with a Ghost” came out from a leading competitor, Clarkesworld. There are nongenre credits here as well, in literary magazines such as Gargoyle and New Haven Review.

All of which goes to show that the brilliant, oddball speculations of Mamatas surround us on every side. It only takes the focus of this thoughtfully curated collection to bring out their gloriously surprising details.

“Witty” is the adjective frequently applied to Joshua Mattson’s debut novel, “A Short Film about Disappointment” (Penguin, 288 pp., $25).  Written as a collection of brief reviews of imaginary movies, with their sometimes absurd, sometimes precious titles serving as chapter headings (“The Hairdresser Returns,” “Rats in their Sunday Clothing,” “Tender Fronds”), it depicts the reviewer’s exploits in a semi-dystopian near future.

Readers can enjoy the usual science-fictional pleasure of piecing together a particular future from clues seeded throughout the narrative, gathering that “nodes” and “Hubs” have replaced cities as standard units of political organization; that a virus-induced crash destroyed the internet; and that ghettoized refugees, now known as “guests,” form an economic underclass. Meanwhile, the story of protagonist Noah Body’s budding directorial career, and his loves, losses, schemes, feuds and bouts of remorse, is an entertaining one.

The hipsterishness this novel sets up to mock, however, has to be familiar to its audience — maybe even overly familiar — for the irony pervading it to really hit home. If, like me, you’re somewhat removed from the realms of intellectual one-upmanship “A Short Film” parodies — by race, age, gender or inclination — you’re less likely to find it witty. Knowing the initial shape of what’s being warped is requisite to taking pleasure in the results; slant truth needs a level by which it can be gauged.