Format: oversized paperback, first trade paperback edition, 2018
Reading Time: about 9 hours
One sentence synopsis: Thomas Senlin and his crew look for a safe place to hole up as Senlin moves closer to finding his wife, but danger soon throws them into the path of the mysterious and god-like figure known as the Sphinx.
Last year, Josiah Bancroft’s Senlin Ascends blew me away…his imaginative world dripped with fantastic imagery and elegant prose that in my mind made it a literary classic, and was one of my favorite stories of all time. I approached this sequel with a mix of excitement and trepidation: the bar had been set high by the first book…could Arm of the Sphinx possibly live up to my lofty expectations? Read on to find out, but first here’s a look at some other reviews from around cyberspace…
James Tivendale of Fantasy Book Review states: “There are a larger number of point of view perspectives in the Arm of the Sphinx than in the previous entry. Written in the 3rd person, the characters we follow in addition to Senlin are the one-armed and trustworthy first mate Edith, the inquisitive and adventurous Voleta, her engineer and perhaps untrustworthy brother Adam, and finally, Iren who previously acted as a bouncer/bodyguard within one of the Ringdom’s seedy criminal underworld. The character development is excellent and the above-mentioned members of The Stone Cloud really grow and shine and they are no longer merely side characters in “The Thomas Senlin Show.” We are introduced to these characters’ personal thoughts and feelings which adds heightened affinity and I truly cared about each of these very different individuals. Bancroft writes an exquisite mix of fantasy and steampunk. As further mysteries of the Tower unfold science-fiction elements are introduced and merge seamlessly. The world-building is brilliant and totally unique. The grandiose and labyrinthine Tower is arguably the main character in this series and in this novel new Ringdom’s are introduced for the first time including the Silk Gardens. Each of the Tower’s many Ringdom’s is the size of a city and they all have great differences aesthetically, socially and politically. The only common denominator is that they can all present an extreme degree of danger.”
Writer Dan from Elitist Book Reviews opines: “There were two aspects of the novel, however, that significantly detracted from the goodness of the book. The first you might have already guessed: point of view. Instead of the focused, driven, single (overwhelmingly) perspective of Tom Senlin we got in SENLIN ASCENDS, nearly every secondary character that calls Tom a friend got POV time, and there were even a few others that never even met the man. The main difficulty with this is that none of these various characters had anywhere near the motivation, drive, or persona of Tom Senlin, and so this diluted the story significantly. Additionally, there were egregious examples of head-jumping, which I just can’t abide…The second issue that really made me lose some of my steam for the book was the ending. With the title of the book being “Arm of the Sphinx” I fully expected that Edith would be a focus of the story, and she was. In my opinion, her POV was the only one that was justified though, and she should have gotten considerably more attention in the story. All of the others but Tom could have been removed, and it would have made the books much the better. With all the resulting dilution of the story, however, the ending really kind of fizzled for me, and it ended up feeling very much like the second book in a trilogy, or more directly: a setup novel for the final book. Granted, it was only the ending that made me feel this way. So much of the adventure of the entire book was exactly what I’d been looking for. With a lot more focus and energy, this book could have been just as good as its predecessor.”
Finally, Dorian Hart of dorianhart.com writes: “First, the sentence-crafting is every bit as good as in Senlin Ascends. Bancroft’s sublime artistry with imagery and metaphors is on full display, making the story a joy to read on its lowest level. I found myself stopping to take notes on particularly lovely turns of phrase, which is not something I typically do while reading…It did feel to me like the author couldn’t quite bring himself to commit either to 3rd-person limited or true 3rd-person omniscient narration, and I did find the head-hopping to be distracting at times. Changes in POV sometimes felt haphazard and unexpected. But the story’s willingness to break its single-lead-character shackles was more a strength than a weakness; it allowed the author to treat us a tale of wider scope and at the same time give us wonderfully detailed characterizations. Of all the types of virtuosity on display in Arm of the Sphinx, my favorite was the author’s ability to present complex physical action with an almost uncanny clarity. I am reminded of a particular scene where [very minor spoiler] a character is trapped in a submerged boat by a monster, and the action could have been extremely confusing to follow in the hands of a less savvy author. But Bancroft made it so easy to follow the complexities of the scene, I never had to pause to reorient myself. All of his action sequences are like that – complex but clear. It’s a rare skill.”
As the other reviewers have explained above, Arm of the Sphinx is very different from its predecessor. Where Senlin Ascends focused on Thomas Senlin’s point of view, his dogged, straight-line pursuit in search of his wife, and introducing the setting that is the weird and wonderful Tower, in contrast the sequel presents multiple points of view, drifts a bit and at times lacks clear direction, and instead of focusing on the setting of the Tower, instead begins to reveal some of the secrets behind it, much like the curtain being pulled back in The Wizard of Oz to reveal the true nature of the Wizard. In essence, it almost feels as though Bancroft abandoned his original plot and viewpoint to explore other ideas. At times, Arm of the Sphinx is better for it; at others, it suffers because of it.
The analogous phrasing that I loved so much from the first book is more subdued here, but the prose and descriptions are still absolutely stellar. At the beginning of each chapter, Bancroft presents sayings captured from books or other accounts that related to people or events in the tower. It offers a glimpse into the Tower’s past, which is expanded upon by the musings of the Sphinx, a mythical, god-like creature which is part of the mystery revealed as I highlighted above.
Whether or not the differing viewpoints are a benefit or detraction is a matter of personal taste. I enjoyed learning more about Edith, Adam and Voleta…their perspectives allow for a much wider look at the Tower and its denizens than what the single-minded Senlin provides. On the other hand, Senlin’s undaunted purpose, his influence on others, and his cleverness, which drove the first book to incredible heights, are largely absent here. When added to an unintended bout with a chemical substance, as well as Senlin’s wife Marya (who I loved in the first book) being largely portrayed as a negative element rather than a positive due to a plot twist, these things in my opinion cause Arm of the Sphinx to pale in comparison to Senlin Ascends. For most authors that would be a death sentence, but Bancroft is so talented that the story is still a delight in spite of this.
A lot of things I loved about the first book – the steampunk elements, figuring out how the Tower works (I was right on all counts as confirmed by this book), the unique settings, and wondrous moments – there’s still plenty of that to be found here. While the plot fairly bogs down and stagnates as Senlin becomes something of a joke and a side note, thanks to the other viewpoint characters (and Byron!) step up and the mysteries of the Tower and the Sphinx are revealed, I still did not want to put the book down. Another thing I appreciate is that it’s always easy to find a good stopping point when you only are able to sneak in quick batches of reading. And I loved how Bancroft, a self-admitted poet, paid homage to another poet by naming a character Byron.
The section of the book devoted to exploring The Zoo was perhaps for me the highlight of the book. This part of the story most closely resembles Senlin Ascends, with adventure, danger, intrigue, a touch of cleverness on the part of Senlin’s crew, and fair amounts of well-described action. I’ll not reveal too much here for fear of spoiling the plot…I’ll just say that it appears that The Hod King will return to this setting, and with a renewed focus on finding Senlin’s wife, I find that very intriguing.
Despite a host of problems, Arm of the Sphinx is still an exceptional story, told by a gifted writer. If I have one concern moving forward, it’s that Bancroft may have telegraphed his plot for The Hod King a bit too much. Hopefully the author surprises me with some twists and turns along the way, and I’ll be happy to be proven wrong. So I’m looking forward to The Hod King to see if it wraps up the series or if there will be more books, in order to see how it all turn out in the end…