Book Review: The Tainted Cup (Shadow of the Leviathan, #1) by Robert Jackson Bennett

Book Review: The Tainted Cup (Shadow of the Leviathan, #1) by Robert Jackson Bennett

This review is a copy of the transcript of my video review of The Tainted Cup.

ARC provided by the publisher—Del Rey Books—in exchange for an honest review.

Cover art designed by Will Staehle

The Tainted Cup by Robert Jackson Bennett

My rating: 4.5 of 5 stars

Series: Shadow of the Leviathan (Book #1)

Genre: Fantasy, Murder Mystery, High Fantasy

Pages: 432 pages (Kindle edition)

Publish date: 6th February 2024 by Del Rey (US) & Hodder (UK)

The Tainted Cup is a compelling and rewarding murder mystery in a high fantasy setting redolent of Attack on Titan and The Last of Us.

Robert Jackson Bennett is one of my favorite authors. Every time Bennet releases a new book in a new series, I feel it is mandatory for me to mention that fact. As a fan of The Divine Cities trilogy and The Founders trilogy by him, I believe he is another SFF author deserving of so much more recognition. When I need engaging and inventive science fiction or fantasy books, I know it is safe to always rely on reading Bennett’s books. And he never fails to deliver. I am a reader who loves reading fantasy novels, Japanese manga, or Korean manhwa. I love storytelling, period. And there is satisfaction in reading stories that blend these sources into their creation, intentionally or not. Like how My Hero Academia manga by Kohei Horikoshi was born of the author’s love for Western Superheroes and comics. And in the case of The Tainted Cup, the first book in The Shadow of the Leviathan series by Robert Jackson Bennett, it felt like a mix of Knives Out in a setting inspired by Attack on Titan and The Last of Us. So what is the premise of The Tainted Cup?

“Oh, you’ve always got to smile a little, Din… Even during, you know, the abysmally fucking awful times.”

The Tainted Cup revolves around an eccentric detective named Ana Dolabra—an investigator whose reputation for brilliance is matched only by her eccentricities—and her long-suffering assistant, Dinios Kol—an engraver magically altered to possess a perfect memory. In Daretana’s most opulent mansion, a high Imperial officer lies dead—killed, to all appearances, when a tree spontaneously erupted from his body. Even in this canton at the borders of the Empire, where contagions abound and the blood of the Leviathans works strange magical changes, it’s a death at once terrifying and impossible. Din’s job is to observe, report, and act as Ana’s eyes and ears—quite literally because 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’s skill for observation and perfect memory with Ana’s impeccable deductions and mind, the two of them must cooperate to untangle a web of magic, deceit, and murder that endangers the safety of the Empire.

“Oh, people love the Legion, with their swords and their walls and their bombards. But though they receive no worship, it’s the maintenance folk who keep the Empire going. Someone, after all, must do the undignified labor to keep the grand works of our era from tumbling down.”

The Tainted Cup rightfully belongs in the high fantasy genre due to its setting and world-building, no doubt about that. But if I were asked to recommend The Tainted Cup to readers, I would recommend it—more strongly—to readers who love reading murder mystery rather than fantasy novels due to the way Bennett structured the narrative. Of course, it would be even better if you are a fan of both genres, but fascination with murder mystery stories is more important here. I mentioned Attack on Titan (or Shingeki no Kyojin in Japanese) by Hajime Isayama earlier. The story in Attack on Titan begins with the Colossal Titan and the Armored Titan destroying the wall of Maria. Due to this unforeseen event, Eren, Mikasa, Armin, Levi, and many other characters in the series struggle to battle against the oppressive violence and horrors of the Titans. The Tainted Cup begins with something akin to that premise. Immediately after the murder mystery begins, a breach to the massive wall of their civilization is inflicted by a titan—called Leviathan in the novel. However, it is worth noting that The Tainted Cup is not an action-packed narrative centering on repelling the dangers the leviathan poses to the empire. The threats of the Leviathan loomed in the background, and I assume this will be explored further in the sequel. But at its core, The Tainted Cup is a murder mystery-centered narrative in a high fantasy setting, with a touch of The Last of Us owed to the Dappleglass contagion in the storyline.

“It’s not all walls and death and plotting! Nor is it dreary dispensations and bureaucracy! We do these ugly, dull things for a reason— to make a space where folk can live, celebrate, and know joy and love.

When we speak about detectives and their assistants in stories, it is difficult to avoid the names Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson. This setup and duo are popular in murder mystery stories for many valid reasons. After more readers read The Tainted Cup, the duo of Din and Ana will remind readers of Holmes and Watson. Or, to make a comparison to a recently published fantasy series, the names Justice Konrad Vonvalt and Helena Sedanka from Empire of the Wolf trilogy by Richard Swan will be mentioned frequently. And none of these would be a mistake. Compared to The Divine Cities trilogy and The Founders trilogy, Bennett’s narrative in The Tainted Cup is more plot-driven rather than character-driven. Understandably. In The Tainted Cup, the story is narrated from the perspective of Din instead of Ana. Throughout the novel, we have not seen a lot of exploration into Din’s character and background. With the exception of Din’s ability to retain memory and information as an Engraver, making him a living library of information, Ana is, in comparison, a more interesting character. Bennett himself has mentioned Ana is a mix of Nero Wolfe and Hannibal Lecter. But Din and Ana complement each other. Every investigation, clue, and report Din discovered for Ana, and every scene they were together, resulted in a relentlessly captivating reading experience.

“I have never liked the company of too many people, Din. I have always preferred patterns and the consumption of information to socializing. I have preferred and will always prefer staying in my residence and will avoid stimulation at all costs. This is simply who I am.”

If you have read City of Stairs by Robert Jackson Bennett, then you will know The Tainted Cup is not Bennett’s first dive into writing murder mystery stories. And still, I was impressed by how everything clicked together in the last 13% of the The Tainted Cup. The barrage of revelations was absolutely thrilling. It made me feel as if I was watching Sherlock Holmes or Knives Out in a fantasy setting. Even if you manage to predict the perpetrator, one of the best things about a murder mystery story is finding out how every puzzle fits the bigger picture nicely. It is in the details. A good revelation or plot twist is not only about shock value. It also means when you reread a story or think back upon it, you can see the puzzles and hints laid out for you, whether you realize their existence or not on your first traversal. As Bennet said, a murder mystery story is largely a process of logistics and ensuring the timelines work and the right evidence fits in the right place at the right time. And all of these have been accomplished brilliantly in The Tainted Cup.

“It’s the maintenance folk who keep the Empire going. Someone, after all, must do the undignified labor to keep the grand works of our era from tumbling down. I simply perform maintenance, in my own little way. And you have ably assisted me in that, of course.”

I was on a streak of books ranging from disappointing to good quality. The Tainted Cup stopped the streak. The world-building is fascinating. The storyline is entertaining. And there are still tons of mysteries about the Leviathans and the two main characters to be given in the next books. The Tainted Cup is the beginning of an incredible murder mystery series in the high fantasy genre. The duo of Ana and Din will mark their spot in the detective’s hall of remembrance. I can certainly envisage The Shadow of the Leviathan series spanning many volumes, and I will be grateful. Bennett mentioned he had fun writing the novel and is looking forward to reading more murder mystery novels in the series. It is reflected in the narrative. I always find it odd that despite having murder mystery as one of my favorite types of stories to consume, as proven in many fantasy and sci-fi books with this plot included, I almost never read non-SFF murder mystery novels. And somehow, even though it is marked as a fantasy novel, I believe The Tainted Cup has ignited my passion to read more non-SFF murder mystery books. It has been a pleasure and an honor to read this book early, and I already can’t wait to read the next book in the series as soon as it’s available. If you love the sound of reading a murder mystery novel with a compelling duo in an intriguing fantasy setting redolent of Attack on Titan, read The Tainted Cup by Robert Jackson Bennett.

You can pre-order this book from: Amazon | Blackwells (Free International shipping)

The quotes in this review were taken from an ARC and are subject to change upon publication.

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