The Hod King – Hat Of The Sphinx

51tbh9qip2lI am running late on this review and I feel a deep sense of shame. Orbit was kind enough to send me a super advanced copy, which I promptly shelved because it was too early to review it. Unfortunately, my December reading schedule was a nightmare, so I am only getting to The Hod King now, and I am keenly aware that I should have read it weeks ago. Anyway, welcome to my review of the third Tower of Babel book, The Hod King, by Josiah Bancroft. If you missed my reviews of the first two books they can be found here, and here. Although you probably won’t care about this review until you read the first two books – there are no explicit spoilers so you are free to take a look even if you ignored my explicit advice to pick up this series (for which I am judging you).

The Books of Babel are shaping up to be a really hard series to holistically review. Although each book shares the same gripping plot, Bancroft’s incredible prose, and a delightful sense of humor,they also each have very different narrative styles that will pull readers towards one over the other. Senlin Ascends has a boyish naivety to it, and the storytelling is focused mostly on exploring the tower and introducing you to many of its marvels without revealing its secrets. The Arm of the Sphinx, my personal favorite, focuses more on building out the story. It takes the foundation and plot snippets that Senlin Ascends laid and builds them into a plot to rival any of the best fantasy stories out there. The Hod King takes the next logical step and fleshes out the characters to a heightened degree. However, don’t get me wrong – all three books have a lot of wonder, story, and character building in each.

The Books of Babel has been a story about characters from the start, and while we have witnessed Senlin’s slow change from selfish naive schoolteacher to selfless brilliant hero – the rest of the series amazing cast had not nearly been explored enough. To remedy this, The Hod King is split into roughly three equal 200-page parts. Each of these sections tells the same-ish section of the story from a different set of characters POV. Normally, I am not a huge fan of this style of storytelling. While it is always interesting to experience an event through the eyes of a variety of cast members, it can get really boring when 2/3rds of the book rehashes scenes where you already know the outcome. Bancroft remedies this brilliantly in two ways: first, his characters are so interesting that I was able to move past my initial reservations and have a wonderful time hearing about scenes a second time. And second, while the three sections of the story did have large overlaps, they also each moved the plot forward with different plot lines. That being said, if I had one complaint about The Hod King it would be that I don’t feel the plot made enough progress after 600 pages. I don’t really feel like any improvements were made toward remedying the imminent threat to the cast– we just know more about said threat.

At the same time, holy cow is the writing compelling. Every damn chapter is a cliffhanger that will have you burning through the pages to find out what happens. Bancroft has steadily improved his combat writing, and a number of the fight scenes had me on the edge of my seat sweating. The Hod King also has the most heart, due to its character focus, out of the books so far and there were a number of heartfelt and touching scenes that deeply moved me. The book also does an incredible job setting up the story for final fourth book – a release date I am now watching like a hawk.

In summary, The Hod King is great. The Books of Babel series continues to cement itself as one of the best character stories in the fantasy genre, and Senlin and his crew are an original group of rogues of whom I can’t get enough. The only complaint I have against The Hod King is that there wasn’t enough of it to feed my Bancroft addiction. The fourth installment of this modern classic cannot come soon enough, and if you aren’t reading these books, you don’t know what you are missing.

Rating: The Hod King – 9.0/10
-Andrew

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Arm Of The Sphinx – There Better Not Just Be Three Of These

armofthesphinx-coverA 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.