These Shrooms Are The Best Shrooms: The Tainted Cup by Robert Jackson Bennett

Posted 1st February 2024 by Sia in Crescent Classics, Fantasy Reviews, Queer Lit, Reviews / 2 Comments

The Tainted Cup (Shadow of the Leviathan, #1) by Robert Jackson Bennett
Genres: Fantasy, Queer Protagonists
Representation: MLM MC
PoV: 1st-person,
Published on: 6th February 2024
ISBN: 1984820729

A Holmes and Watson-style detective duo take the stage in this fantasy with a mystery twist, from the Edgar-winning, multiple Hugo-nominated Robert Jackson Bennett
In Daretana’s greatest mansion, a high imperial officer lies dead—killed, to all appearances, when a tree erupted from his body. Even here at the Empire’s borders, where contagions abound and the blood of the leviathans works strange magical changes, it’s a death both terrifying and impossible.

Assigned to investigate is Ana Dolabra, a detective whose reputation for brilliance is matched only by her eccentricities. Rumor has it that she wears a blindfold at all times, and that she can solve impossible cases without even stepping outside the walls of her home.

At her side is her new assistant, Dinios Kol, magically altered in ways that make him the perfect aide to Ana’s brilliance. Din is at turns scandalized, perplexed, and utterly infuriated by his new superior—but as the case unfolds and he watches Ana’s mind leap from one startling deduction to the next, he must admit that she is, indeed, the Empire’s greatest detective.

As the two close in on a mastermind and uncover a scheme that threatens the Empire itself, Din realizes he’s barely begun to assemble the puzzle that is Ana Dolabra—and wonders how long he’ll be able to keep his own secrets safe from her piercing intellect.

By an “endlessly inventive” (Vulture) author with a “wicked sense of humor” (NPR), The Tainted Cup mixes the charms of detective fiction with brilliant world-building to deliver a fiendishly clever mystery that’s at once instantly recognizable and thrillingly new.

I received this book for free from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.


~magic mushrooms!
~which are magic because MONSTER BLOOD
~the murder weapon…is a tree
~the greatest detective!…who never leaves her room
~how much would you give to keep your world going?

I don’t know how to tell you how much sheer FUN this was!

Any story with a genius detective + sidekick combo is inevitably going to get Sherlock Holmes comparisons, but every aspect of The Tainted Cup is wildly original. This is not Katherine Addison’s Angel of the Crows or even Alexis Hall’s The Affair of the Mysterious Letter, both of which are deliberate Sherlock retellings that draw significantly from the source material (the Watson character in both is an ex-military man with a limp and cane, for example, and Angel in particular recreates a number of the cases Sherlock and Watson investigate in Arthur Conan Doyle’s novels).




Bennett has, AGAIN, created a ridiculously interesting world like none I’ve ever seen before – I’m willing to argue it’s his most unique one to date. Here, we have an Empire where life revolves around plants – specifically, magically mutated ones. Houses are built out of fernpaper, while enormous mushrooms keep rooms cool and pillows are stuffed with moss, and potted plants detect whether any guests have been exposed to contagions before they enter the property. More radically, we have hundreds of forms of human augmentation – people who can see in the dark or whose sense of smell is incredibly heightened; people who grow to enormous size and strength; and even people who are functionally immortal. All of these abilities and transformations come from plants and fungi, a little like how we get a lot of our medicine from plants – but much more extreme! Everyone seems to have some kind of augmentation, especially those who work in one of the all-important government branches, and Bennett has made sure all of this is reflected in how people act and even speak; the Empire, for example, has ‘rings’ like a tree, with the inner rings being safer and richer, and the outer rings being in far more danger from the annual attack of leviathans…

Lashes as thick as a stonetree’s trunk

This is the kind of worldbuilding I live for, and the attention to detail made me so happy. Rings! Rings like a tree!! YES THANK YOU MORE PLEASE!!!

The world is fascinating and so well thought-out, but it’s the characters who stole my heart. Kol is our first-person narrator, altered so that he remembers perfectly everything he sees – making him the perfect assistant for a detective who wears a blindfold and rarely leaves her bedroom. Theirs is such an odd set-up that I can’t help but love it; Kol goes to the crime scene, memorises it, then comes back to tell Ana all about it, and Ana then puts the pieces together. Hi, I adore this utterly. And while it’s obvious from the beginning that Ana is a(n extremely eccentric) genius, if you’re paying attention it becomes quite clear that Kol is no slouch either. I don’t think he would recognise it as such, but he does investigate – if he didn’t, he’d be much less use to Ana. He doesn’t just walk through the rooms and take note of all he sees; he puts together what he sees to uncover clues that aren’t immediately apparent, and brings those back to Ana too.

That’s very, very important.

But even the most minor of characters is fully realised; and not just fully realised, but interesting, packed full of quirks and secrets. Possibly (probably) I am far too trusting, but even when Ana swiftly realises that someone on the investigation is, at best, compromised… I couldn’t suspect a single one of the cast. I liked them all so much! Even the ones who are not likeable make for brilliant characters (the best characters are often the ones you wouldn’t want to be friends with in real life, am I right?) Which is not weird, because at this point, I think Bennett’s known for his compelling characters as much as he is his very unique worldbuilding. I just feel like it needs emphasising: the characters here? All of them? Are SO GREAT.

As for the plot – as a general rule of thumb, I don’t care about murder mysteries/investigative type stories, but Bennett held me glued to the pages. Kol’s slightly dry, very ProperTM voice is wonderful, and as he’s from the backwater, we get to discover more about how the Empire works and what kind of people live in it right alongside him when he and Ana move to a more urbanised area. He doesn’t even know the nobility are a thing! And that’s the least of all we get to learn and explore.

I thought Bennett did an excellent job of balancing the investigation (and why we should care about it) with…all the other things going on; the more we uncover, the more complex and Big Picture the case becomes, until we reached a point where, personally, I was firmly on the side of the murderer. (Not that I had a clue who it was. I never do, unless a story is predictable to the point of pain.) Bennett engages our emotions when it comes to the case, to its complexities and the motivations behind it, and that’s something I don’t think I’ve ever seen a murder investigation plot do before. More often, an investigation feels like an excuse for the author to do or show the reader something else – and there was definitely more going on, a lot more, than ‘just’ figuring out a murder! But at the same time – I am immensely impressed with how much Bennett made me care, maybe not about the victim, but about the crime itself and how it was accomplished and what led to it.

Bravo, sir.

“Civilization is often a task that is only barely managed … The towers of justice are built one brick at a time. We have more to build yet.”

It’s a little funny, and a lot impressive, that when you take a step back and look at this world Bennett’s come up with…it’s pretty bleak. Every Wet Season – so, every year – impossibly immense sea-creatures called leviathans do their best to…enter the empire. I don’t want to say they attack it, because that implies a level of aggression and/or maliciousness that doesn’t seem to be present, but they do an enormous amount of damage. Even when successfully repelled by the defenders of the enormous sea walls, dead leviathans leave their mark, with their strange blood wreaking untold havoc. And when they do make it past the walls, you can add devastating levels of destruction and death to the unpredictably mutating magic of their blood. Why do the leviathans do this? Where are they trying to go, when they breech the walls and head inland? No one seems to know, and in the outer rings especially, people live knowing that the leviathans are coming every year – never knowing if this is the year, the day, the hour that one gets through.

Bleak, right?

But what’s so impressive is that very little of Tainted Cup feels bleak. Instead, it’s so much fun, and I’m really struggling to understand or pinpoint how on earth Bennett manages such a juxtaposition between world and tone. We’re talking about a world where humans have to give up their humanity – with the magical plant augmentations – just to hold their society together–

“That’s the nature of Khanum, eh? Safety and security for strangeness.

–and yet…things don’t feel hopeless. I’m not sure I’d go so far as to say Tainted Cup feels optimistic, as such, but…there’s definitely something being said about the resilience of humanity; about how we find ways to adapt to just about anything; about our ability to build civilisation in circumstances and places that, if we thought about it logically, ought to be impossible. No one plans to build an empire that is annually raided by giant sea monsters, and if you asked people beforehand, I’m sure they’d prefer to build somewhere else. But finding themselves in the situation of having to deal with leviathans? They deal. And you cannot say that’s not impressive. You can’t not feel…proud? Almost? Respect. You can’t help but respect that.

You can’t not feel impressed, and proud, and respect the fact that, leviathans or no, they’re still here. There is a lot to be said for that.

For my money, we’ll eventually find out what’s going on with the leviathans – the trilogy is called Shadow of the Leviathan, after all – and I’m sure it will turn everything upside-down. But even without giving us those answers yet, Tainted Cup is an amazing series-opener – if you haven’t read anything of Bennett’s before, I think this is the perfect book of his to start with – and I can already say, with great confidence, that this is going to be all over the Best of 2024 lists come December.

Put simply, this book rocks, and I loved it, and I’m pretty damn sure you’ll love it too!

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