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The Tainted Cup
Cover of The Tainted Cup
The Tainted Cup
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
“Superbly blends mystery and fantasy . . . Give me more of this world and these characters ASAP!”—#1 New York Times bestselling author Meg Gardiner

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.
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
“Superbly blends mystery and fantasy . . . Give me more of this world and these characters ASAP!”—#1 New York Times bestselling author Meg Gardiner

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.
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  • From the cover Chapter 1

    The walls of the estate emerged from the morning fog before me, long and dark and rounded like the skin of some beached sea creature. I walked along them, trying to ignore the flutter of my heart and the trickle of sweat down my neck. A faint blue light glimmered in the mist ahead. With each step it calcified into a mai-lantern hanging above the estate’s servants’ gate; and there, leaning against the walls beside the gate, was the figure of a uniformed man in a shining steel cap waiting for me.

    The princeps watched me approach. He cocked an eyebrow at me, and it climbed higher up his forehead the closer I came to him. By the time I’d finally stopped before him it’d almost joined the hair atop his head.

    I cleared my throat in what I hoped was an authoritative manner, and said, “Signum Dinios Kol, assistant to the investigator. I’m here about the body.”

    The princeps blinked, then looked me up and down. Being as I was nearly a head taller than him, it took him a moment. “I see, sir,” he said. He gave me a short bow—a quarter of a full bow, maybe a third—but then did not move.

    “You do have a body, yes?” I asked.

    “Well, we do, sir,” he said slowly. He glanced over my shoulder down the fog-strewn lane behind me.

    “Then what seems to be the issue?”

    “Well, ah . . .” Again, a glance down the lane behind me. “Pardon, sir, but—where’s the other one?”

    “I’m sorry?” I asked. “Other one?”

    “The investigator? When will she be arriving?”

    I suppressed a flicker of worry. I’d dealt with this question when working other matters for my master, but doing so when the situation involved a dead body was another thing entirely. “The investigator isn’t able to attend,” I said. “I’m here to review the scene, interview the staff and any witnesses, and report back to her.”

    “The investigator is choosing to proceed with the investigation . . . without being present?” he said. “Might I ask why, sir?”

    I took him in. His short mail shirt glinted in the low light, each ringlet dabbed with tiny pearls of condensation. Very fancy. Ornate belt at his waist, slightly soft belly hanging over the buckle—a consequence of early middle age. Same for the thread of gray in his beard. Black boots highly polished, trim woven with seaweed-stained leather. The only standard-issue item on his body was the longsword in his scabbard and his dark red cloak, indicating he was an Apothetikal: an imperial officer responsible for managing the Empire’s many organic alterations. The rest of it he must’ve purchased himself, probably for a princely sum.

    All this told me that even though I was a signum and thus technically outranked him, this man was not only older and wealthier than me, but he’d probably seen more in his career than I could imagine. I couldn’t blame him for wondering why the investigator had sent this twenty-year-old boy in ratty boots to a death scene all on his own.

    “The investigator usually is not present at investigations, Princeps,” I said. “She sends me to assess the situation and uses my report to make the appropriate conclusions.”

    “The appropriate conclusions,” the princeps echoed.

    “Correct,” I said.

    I waited for him to permit me inside. He just stood there. I wondered if I was going to have to order him to let me into the estate. I’d never given a...
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  • Publisher's Weekly

    Starred review from November 20, 2023
    Bennett (the Founders trilogy) brilliantly melds genres in this exceptional mystery-fantasy, the first in his Shadow of the Leviathan series. Dinios Kol has been tapped to serve as the new assistant to Ana Dolabra, an eccentric investigator with a reputation for solving cases blindfolded and without leaving her home. Dolabra’s recently been reassigned from the Khanum Empire’s richest enclaves to a dull backwater, where she and Kol get a knotty problem to untangle. Kol, whose prior experience consists of investigating pay fraud in the Khanum military, is dispatched to the scene of an unnatural death at the estate of the Haza clan, one of the wealthiest in the land, who mysteriously maintain a house out in the sticks. Commander Taqtasa Blas was found in a guest bedroom with some leafy trees sprouting through his body. Blas, a friend of the Hazas, had a reputation for harassing the estate’s female staff. Kol uses magic fluid to “engrave” the crime scene, impressing every detail on his mind to relate to his superior. Dolabra is intrigued by the apparently supernatural killing and sets about using her superior deductive skills to identify the killer. The worldbuilding is immediately involving, Bennett’s take on a classic detective duo dynamic feels fresh and exciting, and the mystery itself twists and turns delightfully. Readers will be wowed. Agent: Cameron McClure, Donald Maass Literary.

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