A while back we read Senlin Ascends, by Josiah Bancroft, for our book club (review here). It was a very divisive book for us, which is rare, with ratings all over the place (though still mostly high). I personally came in at the highest impression of the book (giving it a 9/10), but some of my fellow editors more tepid reactions resulted in me delaying my continuation of the series with book two, The Arm of the Sphinx. Well, I have finally gotten around to reading the second book in this incredible series and I can definitely say that my co-contributors can suck it because these books are absolutely incredible.
For those unfamiliar with the first book, you should probably stop reading this and go check it out. However, as a refresher Senlin Ascends follows the story of an obscenely optimistic and naive school teacher who loses his wife in a more or less infinitely tall labyrinth of a tower. He must then take on the tower in search of her, growing into a very different man as he progresses through it. When we had last left our intrepid group from book one, they had stolen an airship and taken to the skies to evade pursuit. Arm of the Sphinx picks up relatively where the first book leaves off; with Senlin assembling a crew (Edith, Iren, Adam, and Voleta) on the stolen ship, the Stone Cloud, consisting of people who have mostly betrayed and been horrible to him and still planning ways to rescue his wife.
Senlin Ascends was our introduction to the tower and its inhabitants. The cast of Senlin Ascends could sometimes be difficult and unpleasant to read about (a cause of several of the mixed reviews in our book club) because those characters were difficult and unpleasant people. However this is a series about growth and change, and the crew each just began to grow and change by the end of book one. Now in Arm of the Sphinx is where these individuals really start to evolve into new more lovable people. Weirdly the thing that Arm of the Sphinx reminded me of most was Mass Effect 2, which is a game hopefully most of you are familiar with. The game is a favorite of people everywhere despite the fact that it did relatively little to progress the overarching story in a series about story. This is because instead of focusing on the plot of the world and larger events, Mass Effect 2 focused on its characters and had you spend the game building and connecting with a crew of people to tackle huge world ending threats in its third installment. This was exactly what I felt was happening in Sphinx as well. Sphinx spends a lot less time showcasing the tower and progressing Senlin’s rescue of his wife than the first book did, and instead focuses on five wonderful character arcs that are told in tandem. The two focal plot points of the book are journeying to meet the Sphinx and meeting the Sphinx, and not much else happens. Instead you get to understand more about each of the battered and broken Stone Cloud crew and watch them slowly change into better and stronger people.
I love the characters of this book. I am not sure how he did it but Josiah has managed to make a set of truly unique and interesting people that I have never come across in books so far. I have fallen in love with each of the crew one at a time, and I found myself constantly surprised at how they changed and who they became as the book progressed. I really just can’t get enough of them, I have not felt this attached to characters since I read Malazan – which is probably the highest compliment I can give a book. On top of all of this, Josiah uses the character arcs to introduce you to the Sphinx, an enigmatic and fascinating overlord of the Tower of Babel. He is a brilliant engineer and an architect of thousands of marvels and seeing the inside of his workshops felt like coming down to Christmas morning as a child – pure joy. The new characters Josiah introduces in this book are just as wonderful as the crew of the Stone Cloud, and just as unique. Through these new characters you learn several new things about the tower and its goings on, and he foreshadows enough plot to fill at least five more novels. So as I said in the review title, this better not be a trilogy because I am not ready to let all of this go after one more book.
The Books of Babel are one of those unfortunate series that lose a handful of initial readers because it is a story about unlikable strangers growing into lovable friends, and some do not have the patience to stick with these characters through the bad times. There is nothing wrong with that, but those that don’t keep reading don’t get to experience the beautiful and soul warming end result of who these people become, and that makes me sad. We are only a few weeks into January and I have already read one of the best books of the year, The Arm of the Sphinx by Josiah Bancroft.
Rating: The Arm of the Sphinx – 10/10
-Andrew: This post is dedicated to my co-contributors, Sean and Will, who can both suck it.