Format: oversized paperback, first trade paperback edition, 2019
Pages: 567 (not including extras at the end of the book)
Reading Time: about 14 hours
One Sentence Synopsis: Senlin goes on a mission to Pelphia for the Sphinx but is determined to finally find his missing wife Marya; Voleta and Iren attempt to infiltrate Pelphian society to determine if Marya is content or needs rescue; and Edith brings her new warship to Pelphia to find a missing painting that holds the key to the Towers secrets – and it’s destruction, while over all of this hangs the question: who or what is the Hod King?
Josiah Bancroft’s Senlin Ascends is one of my favorite books of all time. The sequel, Arm of the Sphinx, did not quite have the same effect on me, although it was still excellent. Having now completed the third book in the series, The Hod King, would my opinion of the series continue to slightly trend down, or would this entry be the best one yet? Read on to find out, and beware of minor spoilers for this book as well as the two previous ones. First, how about looking at some guest reviews from around the Internet?
Richard Marpole of Fantasy-Faction says: “There’s so much artistry and wry imagination on display here. A menagerie of cannons all shaped like different animals. A species of giant weasel bred to clean out pipes that can’t digest humans but enjoys using them as chew-toys. Parrots that live wild in a city, spreading the wickedest rumours they can find. A pork-beef hybrid called moink…Those familiar with the series will find Senlin as resourceful, good-hearted, and endearingly self-flagellating as ever. He’s a remarkable hero, one who survives by his wits but isn’t witty, knows how to throw a punch but isn’t a great brawler, and leaves devastation in his wake but cannot forgive himself for that fact any more than he can stop doing it…Not everything in this novel is perfectly to my taste. Since most of the viewpoints are from characters experiencing the same events, there is a ton of backtracking as Bancroft rewinds time and retells the story from another point of view. This is a common and accepted narrative technique but not one I’m fond of. I like to follow the plot, not circle it endlessly. Even this is a small gripe, as each character’s arc has new revelations and unique moments for us to enjoy and any amount of time spent with Bancroft’s beguiling characters is time well spent. And you can’t fault an author for trying out a different narrative technique. I don’t think that Bancroft could be content to stick to the same format, novel after novel.”
Writer Dan of Elitist Book Reviews states: “It was so easy to fall into the pages of Bancroft’s writing. Felt like sitting down with an old friend. This was especially the case because of the three sections this book is broken into, the first deals exclusively with Tom. Tom is still Tom, and we are reminded of that over and over here. We see his goodness, his humanity, his intelligence, and more than anything his undying love for his wife Marya. He wants for nothing more than to find her and give her what she wants. No matter how his own future might work into that equation. While there are brief spurts of an omniscient narrator, and minor spats of POVs from external characters, the story in the main is told from Tom’s POV. I absolutely loved that. My one concern for this book was that the spread of POV time and head-jumping might get larger instead of smaller. I hoped for the latter. And indeed that is what I found, for the most part. There is still some head-jumping. Not enough that it really bothered me, because the story was just that good, but there was enough that I think the story lost some of it’s potential emotional impact because of it. Regardless, this story still packed a veritable punch. This was helped by the focus and drive of the story. The second section of the book comes through the eyes of Tom’s team of friends, “mostly” from Voleta and Iren, as they prepare for, and then infiltrate the high society of Pelphia. The end of the first section of the book had me concerned. The end of the second section had me actively worried. I spent the entirety of the third section, which is told “mostly” through the POV of Captain Edith Winters, on the edge of my seat. The climax of the book was seriously awesome and had me both crowing and still fearing for the worst that might yet come from the fallout. There is real impact and power that comes through this story that you just don’t find in other fantasy novels.”
Finally, T.O. Munro of The Fantasy Hive opines: “Bancroft can span the chasm from comedy to tragedy in the space of a couple of lines, taking his readers on an emotional rollercoaster ride to mirror the physical one to which he subjects his characters. For all the eccentric inventiveness and inventive eccentricity in the people and the machines, and the machine-people with which Bancroft populates his work, this is a book of feels – of human emotion. Love, friendship, duty, and devotion are the driving forces that make this utterly fantastic world seem so desperately, poignantly real…He doesn’t drag out some reflex response through a sugar-coated instant of Disney schmaltz. Instead the reader is swept along by the characters, the rising crescendo of events, the sharp switchbacks of fortune and misfortune, the gut punches and sudden breaths of hope until suddenly – in one moment of calm kindness – the pent-up bubble of emotion is pricked and tears flow for character and reader alike…Bancroft’s prose soars through the story, lifting hod and nobles alike with the same elegant vision that filled Senlin Ascends and Arm of the Sphinx. So many pithy lines and phrases catch the eye – images that snag the imagination, references that resonate beyond the covers of the book – far too many to list them all in a single review…Bancroft paints the inhabitants of Pelphia with his customary skill. A realm that evokes the decadent obsession with form and fashion of pre-revolutionary France or the extravagance of the Austrian court depicted in Amadeus…Bancroft paints with the broad brush of revolution as skilfully as he wields the fine touch of personal interest. In all, I find The Books of Babel resemble a Russian doll of stories, each locked within another: the separated wife, the endangered crew, the decadent ringdom, the rising heat of revolution, the potential end not just of the tower but of the entire world. Against this looming catastrophe, the Sphinx sits in her lofty penthouse, surrounded by artefacts, something between the creations of Tony Stark, the machines of Robocop and the clockwork monsters from Dr Who’s ‘The Girl on the Fireplace.’”
At 567 pages, the heftiest book in the series by far (to this point), The Hod King is a study in contrasts. Thomas Senlin, a character I was once completely fascinated by, has faded in importance to me. Though others say he is the same old Senlin, I disagree; in Senlin Ascends, Senlin imposed his will on the Tower, improbably bending it and its inhabitants to support his cause. Now, however, the Tower has irreparably changed Senlin in return. As Richard points out above, Senlin “leaves devastation in his wake but cannot forgive himself for that fact any more than he can stop doing it”. He is more predictable and less clever and shrewd, and he now rarely considers what impact his actions have on others.
The book is divided into 3 sections, each featuring the narrative of one of the characters – Senlin, Voleta/Iren and Edith – and of those sections, Senlin’s is the least interesting and compelling, despite the fact that at long last he has contact with his missing wife. The Voleta/Iren viewpoint was also a struggle. The mannerisms and way of life of Pelphia, although interesting and imaginative, is also at times very slow in pace, and Xenia is an absolutely annoying character for the reader to have to put up with, though thankfully she becomes less prominent as the story progresses. I will say, however, that Voleta’s section does finish with quite a bang.
All that aside, and despite some backtracking as Richard points out above, it is Edith’s narrative that carries the day. Her story bubbles with simmering tension; part of that is due to her narrative being last, so the reader is waiting to see how she will react to events that are already known, and the other part is due to her role as the most powerful and enabled character. This allows her to use violent action as a resource to solve problems, which the other viewpoint characters are unable to do (except perhaps Iren, though to a much smaller degree). Commanding a massive warship and bearing the Arm of the Sphinx gives Edith those resources.
Edith’s narrative also includes the most fascinating supporting characters. Byron, the deer-headed butler, although a good supporting character in the Arm of the Sphinx, has a greatly expanded role here and is absolutely wonderful. Edith’s other crew member aboard the warship, the pilot Reddleman (SPOILER! formerly the Red Hand), is a perfect blend of reborn innocence, creepiness and sadistic violence, with the latter two traits lurking just below the surface of the first. And Ferdinand, the mechanical clockwork bull, also makes an appearance.
And then there’s the Pelphian Wakeman, Georgine Haste. Although one might argue that coming into the story, Duke Wilhelm Pell has the potential to be the greatest villain, depending on whether or not Marya is with him of her own free will, it’s Georgine Haste who is truly frightening due to the violent power that Wakeman possess. It had been intimated in the previous books that some Wakemen had lost their way and were no longer working for the Sphinx. As Edith’s narrative progresses, the question as to whether Georgine is friend or foe sits in the back of the reader’s mind, a constant worry. Edith is also instrumental in exploring the mystery behind the Hod King. And finally, Edith’s narrative contains an explosive conclusion, which is partially described within Volta/Iren narrative but is expanded on in Edith’s, and is absolutely thrilling. I would say that it is Bancroft’s best action sequence he’s written to date.
Bancroft does a good job at dropping some surprises here and there at unexpected times, especially when things look most bleak. Readers will be happy to find some resolution regarding several unanswered questions. What is the mysterious substance that the Sphinx harnesses in order to power artifacts and even the Tower itself? What is happening to the messages that the Sphinx hasn’t been receiving? Why is Marya staying with Duke Pell? Who or what is the Hod King? Will Edith recover the painting that the Sphinx needs for the giant zoetrope? Answers will be revealed! Well, some answers, that is. Voleta’s brother Adam is still conspicuously absent, so I would presume he’ll play a significant role in the the fourth book (spoiler: there is a preview of book four in the “Extras” section that does indeed feature Adam).
Maybe it’s just me, and maybe I’m wrong for feeling this way, but going into the story I was hoping that Senlin’s discovery of his missing wife would end badly. Why? Because of the negative impact it would have on Edith. Senlin and Edith definitely have something between them that feels like more than friendship, and Edith seems to have found a brief moment of happiness with Senlin. There are moments during Senlin’s narrative that he is thinking about Edith and what would happen to her if he successfully reunited with his wife. How sad and lonely this would be for Edith were it to happen. I won’t spoil things here, though; you’ll just have to read the book for yourself to find out if this plot point is resolved or not.
Something I was annoyed to see return in this story are chance encounters. I don’t mean that I’m annoyed that past characters make an appearance; I’m annoyed that despite the size of the tower, Senlin continues to run into past characters at the most improbable times. It is a bit unbelievable given the size of the Tower. Also the literary allusions are less than they were in Senlin Ascends, yet a bit better here than they were in Arm of the Sphinx.
In conclusion, to apply something similar that I stated in my review of Arm of the Sphinx, The Hod King has some problems, yet is still an exceptional story, told by a gifted writer. Though the first two sections have a slow-moving pace sprinkled with compelling moments and frustrations, it is the third and final act that elevates this book to amazing heights. Bancroft proves once again that Senlin Ascends was no fluke; though that initial tale is his greatest work in the series, the following two books have still been a delight to read. Book four is scheduled for release in 2021, and is billed as the conclusion of the series. I’m both intrigued and saddened that the story will end there…