Book Review: Arm of the Sphinx by Josiah Bancroft

arm of sphinxFormat:  oversized paperback, first trade paperback edition, 2018

Pages:  398

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…

Book Review: Senlin Ascends by Josiah Bancroft

SenlinAscendsFormat:  oversized paperback, first trade paperback edition, 2018

Pages: 389

Reading Time: about 8 hours

One Sentence Synopsis: A school teacher takes his new bride on a honeymoon to the tourist destination of The Tower of Babel, but when they become separated he must ascend up the tower into a dark and strange world in an attempt to find her again.

 

Senlin Ascends made it into the reading queue after it was featured on Mark Lawrence’s Self Published Fantasy Blog Off of 2016. Unfortunately for the book and author Josiah Bancroft, it didn’t quite capture enough interest from review site Pornokitsch to be one of their top 4 picks, and so did not make it past the first round of the SPFBO. It might have continued to wallow in relative obscurity, except for the fact that Pornokitsch did give it a good review, and then Mark Lawrence (and subsequently others) raved about it. In fact, Lawrence declared it one of his favorite books of all time. It moved from a self-published digital story, to being picked up by Orbit and published in paperback. As a history buff, I was intrigued by the Babylonian setting and a hint of steampunk elements, and with Lawrence’s hefty recommendation, I decided to take a chance. Was it worth the gamble? Read on to find out, and as always, be alert to the presence of spoilers…

First, a look as some other reviews from basements, baths, and other mysterious places around the Web…

 

Joe Gordon at Forbidden Planet says: “Except Senlin is as far from anyone’s idea of a capable hero as you can imagine. Trusting in his guidebook soon proves to be a mistake – this is no reliable Baedeker, beloved of Victorian adventurers in exotic lands, it seems like an act of total fiction. Senlin is going to have to learn how to adapt if he is to survive. He’s the proverbial fish out of water, in fact he is often so damned wet you almost feel the urge to slap him and tell him to get with the programme, he’s the blundering idiot abroad, totally unprepared, no idea what he is getting into, no idea what the local customs are, how things work here and it doesn’t look like he has what it takes. The unlikely hero is not a new idea in fantasy, but here Bancroft handles that trope extremely skilfully. Senlin meets people, has encounters, and they slowly start to change him through the hardest of lessons. But he doesn’t transform into some great hero, he’s still Tom Senlin, the village school teacher. But he’s learning. And even from the raw beginning, even at his weakest, Senlin does show one spark of backbone – he will not walk away without his new wife, no matter what…It’s a world that feels like a mix of different parts of our own history – nice little details like people visiting from Ur, for example – and myth, and yet it is also so clearly not our world, and again this allows much scope for metaphor…And then there is the style of writing – Bancroft has a remarkable way with words; workers in their faded finery for a night out have “collars the colour of cigar smoke”, while dancers have “mouths lurid as mashed cherries.” It put me in mind of those wonderfully evocative descriptive phrases in the Philip Marlowe novels, making Bancroft the fantasy equivalent of Raymond Chandler; I was not surprised to find out after finishing the book that he is also a poet.

Writer Dan of Elitist Book Reviews states: “It took no more than a single paragraph for me to realize that this author had some chops. I love finding books like that, which instantly immerse me in language where I can forget about everything else around me and just enjoy the proffered story. Rich detail and intelligent prose that is absolutely chock-full of character pulled me into the story and the mentality of Tom Senlin and the world surrounding him…Senlin himself is a mild-mannered, studious man. He’s used to having things go his way, as they often do in the school room. He teaches what he knows and knows what he teaches. Although he can seem standoffish and even prude at times, it is his hesitation and thoughtfulness that helped me to really find his character likable and engaging. And his sense of humor and sarcasm was directly in line with that of my own. There was this scene at the beginning of Chapter 14–a flashback no less!–about flying a kite, that so absolutely and brilliantly captured the character and motivation of Senlin for me that I never once doubted him again. Likely some of the most powerful and affecting two pages of story that I’ve read in as many decades…I also made the statement that THE GREY BASTARDS stood head and shoulders above any of the others in the final SPFBO group, but the fact of the matter is that for me, SENLIN ASCENDS was even one step better than that. I sooooo wish that SENLIN ASCENDS had been passed along to the final group, as it would definitely have been my vote for the best of the contest, but the simple truth is that it wasn’t…Absolutely a book to read, to own, and to love. Couldn’t recommend it more.

Jared at Pornokitsch opines: “It takes a while to warm to the snobbish, provincial Senlin, and it isn’t until he stops being overwhelmed by his surroundings and starts taking responsibility for his actions that the reader goes from following him to empathising with him….Everything happens for a reason; everything exists for a reason, and part of the oddness is simply that Senlin is a flustered and passive character at the start. When Senlin, well, ascends (in every sense) – and graduates from tourist to ‘native’ – that the world goes from being curious to genuinely immersive…Senlin’s spent his life studying the Tower and the first thing it does is betray him. These prominent emotional hooks carry us through the first part of the book, and, given the oddness of his adventures, that empathy is important…It is also worth noting that Senlin is absolutely and terrifically unexceptional. He’s not a Chosen One, nor does he have any secret magic skills that come to the forefront. He is smart, educated (if naive), hard-working and dedicated. He commits to his quest with neither destiny nor prophesy on his side, and faces overwhelming odds without the barest hint of cosmic assistance. As far as the traditions of epic fantasy are concerned, he couldn’t be any more of an underdog, making his adventure all the more exciting…A terrific, free-ranging fantasy that ranges from Kafkaesque horror to heist thriller, all tied together by themes of agency and ascension. What begins as a disconnected series of curious vignettes turns into an exciting and cunningly-constructed epic. Senlin is that rare fantasy protagonist that succeeds solely through intelligence and hard work, making his progress (such as it is) all the more impressive. This book is bonkers, entertaining, clever and – quite possibly – unique.

These are some of the most thoughtful and articulate reviews I have possibly ever read about a fantasy novel. I agree with what has been said above, to a degree. However, my own spin on the book is a little different, so let me do my best to explain. Books have always been important in my life. Going back to my childhood, I think about the Charlie Brown Dictionary that I carried under my little arms everywhere I went. Stories such as Alexander and the Magic Mouse, The Golden Phoenix, Where the Wild Things Are…and as I grew older, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, James and the Giant Peach, A Wrinkle in Time, The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe, Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of Nihm, Treasure Island, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Where the Red Fern Grows, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, and so many more…. When I was young, it seemed like all these books had been written for me. It was as if each author had sat down and said, “I’m going to write this story just for Brian. I know he’ll really like it!” Somehow the author had reached into my mind and pulled out the most amazing, imaginative stories that connected with me on the deepest level possible. When you’re young, your mind is not yet full of science and math, work and stress, relationships and commitments, cynicism and ego, and laden with filters…at that age, your mind is an empty treasure vault, waiting to be filled with new wonders. Each book I read as a child was an amazing new wonder added to that vault. And though I still love reading books to this day and I’ve enjoyed them thoroughly, I don’t think I’ve ever felt, as an adult, a deep connection to any book like the way I did when I was young.

Until now.

As I read through Senlin Ascends, I was completely entranced. Unable to capture what I was feeling until I sat down to write this review, I now realize that this book connected to me on a deep, deep level – that childhood-deep level that I described above. The story unfolded before me in a way that reminds me of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory or Alice in Wonderland, only, it did so on an adult level. The book was described by author Pearce Brown as “a modern book that feels like a timeless classic“, and I think that description is spot on. Much of this feeling I attribute to the world-building. The Tower is a vertical world, with its “ringdoms” each containing its own type of citizens, rules and rulers, economy, and ecosystem. The true intent of The Tower is to trap people at specific levels, which is what makes Thomas Senlin’s ascension through these ringdoms notable. Early on I was able to figure out how the ringdoms interconnect – indeed, how The Tower itself functions – due to my fascination with all things steampunk that provided me with some insight.

Another contributing factory to the story’s charm is Bancroft’s prose. It is elegant and wonderfully descriptive, and I believe this is where the “timeless classic” feeling comes from. Here are a few of my many favorite descriptive passages:

The bundle of women’s underwear that had been resting on his lap fluttered open. Hosiery, bloomers, and camisoles flew into the crowd of the public square, alighting everywhere like doves in a park.

He sat at the bottom of a well. There was a point of light far above him. At the bottom of the well, a piercing note rang in his ears. It reminded him vaguely of a finger playing a wineglass.

“‘Spring is gray and miserable and rainy for three or four weeks while the snow melts. The ditches turn into creeks, and everything you own is clammy as a frog belly. Then one morning, you walk outside and the sun is out and the clover has grown over the ditches and the trees are pointed with leaves, like ten thousand green arrowheads, and the air smells like’ – and here he had to fumble for phrase – ‘like a roomful of stately ladies and one wet dog.‘”

Her short hair appeared to have been cut by a blind man weilding a sickle and was the color of ashes.

My apartment smells like a cave where generations of cheese makers cultured their wheels.

Bancroft, who is a self-admitted poet, is a master of analogous descriptive phrasing. It allows him to completely populate his world with people, places, and interesting things, without the story bogging down in the details. It leads to a perfect pace and an imaginative setting. There is a point where Senlin is hired to perform work, and after a brief switch to a first person narrative, it returns to third person and starts to bog down a bit. The final 30 pages finally break the story out of this lull and are packed profusely with swashbuckling action, where the pace picks up furiously.

One of the criticisms of the book focused on Senlin meeting people again that he met earlier in the story; that in a place as large as The Tower it shouldn’t be possible. I thought Bancroft handled this deftly, as part was by design, and one random reunion happens because of the port he is at, where smugglers “have” to land at because they wouldn’t be able to land at the nicer ports. The only real issue is with a floozy that seems tied lockstep to Senlin for the purpose of the plot, but it really wasn’t impossible to happen that way – unlikely, maybe, but not impossible.

Another criticism states that Senlin doesn’t give the impression that he is clever enough to pull off elaborate heists. I will say that there is a little merit to that criticism, as Senlin is initially portrayed as socially challenged – to a degree. What we discover about his character is that as a teacher, he has managed all sorts of personalities in his classroom, including bullies, and this experience, combined with the realization that he would do anything to get his wife back, makes him desperate. It also allows him to tap into abilities like inner cunning and identifying weaknesses in others, which he is able to bring into play. It’s important to note that Senlin isn’t perfect, and makes several mistakes along the way. However, one other facet of his personality that is admirable and useful (and has largely gone unrecognized in other reviews), is his general decency and willingness to trust others, even though he has been advised not to. This decency and trust pays him back in spades in The Tower, where such things just do not happen. Senlin is a force that not only allows himself to change and grow within, in order to find his wife, but he also changes others around him for the better.

If I have any criticisms of the book, it is that we only get to see Senlin’s wife Marya briefly at the very beginning and then later in flashbacks, although those flashbacks are very powerful as Writer Dan notes above. Those flashbacks only serve to heighten my wish to see more of Marya as a main character, as she is so wonderfully written – she sees in Senlin what others in his small town overlook, which means she is special. My other criticism is my disappointment with where the story ends…it is not exactly a cliffhanger, but it stops in a place of uncertainty and raises many more questions about how the story will turn out. In other words, it left me wanting more, so I guess Bancroft has done his job well!

Senlin Ascends is one of the best books, if not the best book, I’ve read in a long, long time. That’s high praise, and I understand that other readers may not find the same experience, because as I stated above, this book made a personal connection to me, and it won’t make that same impression on most other people. The beautiful lyrical language, the character that persists in spite of his imperfections and against all odds, and the imaginative setting of The Tower of Babel – all contribute to a story that made me feel a child-like wonder, a story I could place in the empty treasure vault of my mind, and for that I am truly grateful to Mr. Bancroft. I will be ordering the sequel, The Arm of the Sphinx soon, and it will be entered into the queue, where I hope to discover more of that child-like wonder…