Rossamund Bookchild is a foundling boy with a girl’s name. This name was given to him by the paper pinned to his blanket when he was left on the front stoop of Madam Opera’s Estimable Marine Society for Foundling Boys and Girls, and it has tormented him ever since. As the object of frequent jibes and bullying fists, he eagerly looks forward to the day when he can leave the foundlingery and enter the navy, and thus a life full of adventure on the high seas. His dreams are dashed, though, when he is chosen to be a simple lamplighter. The hopelessly boring life that he anticipates, though, ends up being anything but (at least for the moment), as he is abducted, rescued, and then forced into service by one of the most famous monster hunters on the Half-Continent.
Foundling is the first in the interchangeably titled Monster Blood Tattoo/The Foundling’s Tale trilogy by Australian author D. M. Cornish. (This trilogy was titled Monster Blood Tattoo for its first American release but didn’t do very well, which prompted the publishers to change the name to the more benign and significantly less interesting The Foundling’s Tale.) Because of the depth the author has built into its world, the trilogy has been compared to J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, a classic renowned (and notorious) for the level of detail put into the cultures that populate the setting. This is a deceptive comparison at first, as there is nothing remotely epic about the storyline, nor any high-stakes goal that has to be reached (nothing on the level of Destroy-This-Ring-or-The-World-Will-End!, anyway). It’s just a kid running into trouble as he travels to a distant city. The deeper into the story one reads, however, the more sense these comparisons begin to make.
Cornish is a detailed creator; his dark, pre-industrial, monster-ridden world of the Half-Continent is among the better-realized in modern YA fantasy. The majority of his detail, though, is devoted to the culture of his monster-hunters and the alchemy-like magic surrounding them. These monster-hunters are not born magicians but people who, for example, employ a violent form of chemistry to dispatch monster threats or even have extra organs sewn inside their bodies to attain near-magical powers. Half the fun of reading this novel is simply relishing in its morbid world-building.
The novel’s main strength, however, ends up causing some of weak points, too. Early on, I felt so overwhelmed by the intricacy of novel’s world that I had to stop reading for a while, just to get it all organized in my head, and even after I picked it back up, there were multiple times when I thought, “GRRRRGH! When is something going to HAPPEN?” So much energy is spent introducing the reader to the mechanics of the world that its plot and pacing suffer significantly, at least at the beginning. Once I hit the middle of the book, I read voraciously to the end and was disappointed to discover that the last hundred pages of my book were actually not story, but appendices about the world of the novel (another similarity shared with Tolkien, who was a huge fan of super-detailed appendices).
All this said, this is not a novel for casual fantasy readers. This is a novel for readers who have read the popular fantasy novels and are ready to graduate to the deeper cuts. This is a novel for the readers who are okay with a little bit of slowness because the setting in which the slowness happens is just that awesome.
It’s also a novel that, fortunately, is part of a body of similar works, if you know what titles to look for. If you enjoy reading about bizarre monsters in harsh worlds like the Half Continent, you may like The Edge Chronicles series by Paul Stewart and Chris Riddell (which is technically shelved with the children’s books, but is nonetheless one of my single favorite series EVER). If you enjoy super-detailed worlds in general, sci-fi classic Dune by Frank Herbert is a must-read. And of course, there is everything J.R.R. Tolkien.