The Hod King by Josiah Bancroft (Book Review)
Warning: this review may contain spoilers for The Hod King and the Books of Babel series!
When as a boy, Thomas Senlin had been told his grandfather had died in the night,
He believed it was true at once because his mother had told him, and she would never lie about such a thing. But that evening, when he was shown his grandfather’s body, washed, and dressed, and laid out for the wake, it had become true in a different way. Believing was not the same as knowing.
In the same way, when I tell you that The Hod King is a brilliant third instalment in Josiah Bancroft’s inspired Books of Babel quartet, you may believe it. But when you have held it in your hands and read and laughed and wept your way through its 567 elegantly crafted pages, then you will know it.
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. Emotional Jessie that I am, few novels have driven me to shed actual tears (I might mention Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief or Audrey Niffenberger’s The Time Traveller’s Wife.) but Bancroft has now done it twice with successive books. 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.
The central thread within the Books of Babel still captivates and haunts me. The story of Tom and Marya – the separated honeymooners – strikes as poignantly as that Tolkien pairing of Arwen and Aragorn, or indeed of Tolkien and his wife Edith. The Tolkiens endured a forced three-year pre-marital separation at the instigation of Tolkien’s guardian Father Francis. This neatly mirrors Elrond’s interdiction on Arwen and Aragorn’s relationship until the king should return to his own.
But while Arwen waited for longer, and Edith’s devotion was tested by congenial company and other suitors, neither couple had to endure the chaotic nightmare of the Tower of Babel that beset Tom and Marya – a machine that destroys those it cannot change, and changes those it cannot destroy. Senlin knows he has been changed by his year-long quest and both he and the reader wonder how far Marya may have been changed in her turn. In The Hod King, both Senlin and the reader at last get their answer.
In Tolkien and Edith’s case, the separation was made more agonising by Father Francis’s refusal to allow any communication of any kind – a deafening silence in which a tortured soul could conjure a symphony of misinformation. Certainly Senlin’s hearing at times is less than astute, a noble idiocy that would infuriate the reader were it not so utterly in character.
The theme of miscommunication haunts others in Bancroft’s diverse cast. The Sphinx wonders why her spies have turned blind in the environs of Pelphia’s colosseum – a puzzle she sends Senlin to investigate. The final solution to that conundrum is as pleasing and surprising as any Agatha Christie tale, yet the solution comes with more peril than Hercule Poirot ever faced.
Voleta fears that her friendship with the Sphinx has soured, finding herself locked out of places and confidences she once enjoyed. But messages can be buried within other communications for those who are able to see them.
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.
His senses returned one at a time and gradually, like guests arriving to a party. And like a nervous host, Senlin discovered his anxiety did nothing to quicken their arrival.
“I doubt I would’ve let myself develop such warm feelings for her. But the heart is a cat; it does what it pleases.”
“Asking nicely once is polite. Asking nicely twice is just begging.”
Friendship in the tower could only be a luxury, a holiday that everyone wished would not end, but must, and always did.
As with Arm of the Sphinx, we see the story from more perspectives than the single Senlin-centred point of view that sustained the first book. The feisty Voleta, the mechanically augmented Edith Winters, and – to a lesser degree – impassive Iren and haughty Byron all take centre stage at various points, along with occasional digressions into the heads of other friends and even a few enemies of the former-pirates-turned-contractually-bound Sphinx employees.
However, in The Hod King, Bancroft gives each of his three main stars an extended run in the limelight. The reader can immerse themselves wholly in each storyline as it thunders towards a cliff-edge precipitous enough to make you glad of the respite when snatched away to the deceptively temporarily tranquil waters of another part of the tale.
The expertly judged juxtaposition of the storylines enables the reader to wind back the clock and approach the same climax from two different angles – somewhat like the two threads in Tolkien’s final volume The Return of the King.
The Hod King plays out principally in the Ringdom of Pelphia; unsurprisingly, perhaps, since Senlin has explored the tower from top to bottom and the story and its characters can at last spiral in on Marya – Senlin’s misplaced wife – like a penny rolling around one of those whirlpool-shaped charity coin collectors towards the void at its centre.
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.
Pelphians had a knack for buttons, thread and taffeta. It was for this reason the fifth ringdom was sometimes called the Closet.
The Hope and Pride was a modest pub with a boastful view.
However, the action also spills out into the black trail – that convoluted back stairway along which the enslaved hods service the tower’s insatiable demands. Bancroft conjures a nightmarish image of labyrinthine ventilation shafts and stairways populated with predators more dangerous than mere men.
In the meantime, the Sphinx’s flagship – “The State of the Art,” equipped with every convenience of war and high society, part battleship, part cruise liner – sails on a serene tour around the tower while its captain and crew wrestle with their own moral dilemmas and find past enmities as hard to bury as past foes.
Within these environs, Senlin is his usual clumsy but refreshing moral lightning rod. The false identity gifted him in the service of the Sphinx provides some cover to counter the Pelphians’ bafflement at Senlin’s interest in the welfare of others. Although contractually bound to follow the Sphinx’s orders, Senlin cannot help but defy them by pursuing the chance of seeing Marya, of peeking inside the gilded cage she shares with the affable Duke Willem. But then maybe the Sphinx expected nothing less, for “a predictable man was as good as an honest one to the Sphinx.“
Voleta soars above the social mores and indeed the rooftops of Pelphia, drawing the eye of prince and pauper alike. While armoured in the invulnerability of youth, she is not immune to self-doubt, berating herself for an over-confidence that more than once leads her to overplay a slender hand. But she remains effortlessly charming even as she punctures the similes of one over-earnest suitor with a dismissive “I’ve blown stiffer winds out of my arse.”
Edith Winter – at last in her due position as captain of the finest vessel to circumnavigate the Tower – is still riven with a conflict of hopes and fears, struggling to make sense of a single kiss and a multitude of irksome alarms on her state-of-the-art battleship. But she remains determined never to forsake a friend or forego a duty – even when burdened by the weight of a curse that is scarcely lightened one iota by the sharing.
She took exception to her Tricorn being called tatty. It wasn’t shabby; it was experienced.
Along the way we meet a killer of such cold, clinical, amoral effectiveness he would send you running to be Hannibal Lecter’s dinner guest. In his cheerfully comedic destructiveness, he reminds me of Rutger Hauer’s Roy Batty.
Then there are the asides that, to my ears, resonate in our world as much as Senlin’s.
It seemed to her, the more established the majority was, the more fearful the slightest divergence made them. It wasn’t enough that they held all the power. No, they demanded adoration as well.
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.’
The Hod King is coming, and all the major and minor threads converge towards a denouement where anything could happen and everything probably will. I, for one, cannot wait.