Arm of the Sphinx by Josiah Bancroft
Spoiler Warning: This review contains spoilers for Senlin Ascends. Please read with caution if you have yet to finish the first book!
Having steadily accelerated in devouring Senlin Ascends (the first of the Books of Babel), I fell with almost unseemly haste into its sequel, Arm of the Sphinx. I will try to avoid giving any spoilers for Arm of the Sphinx. However, it would be difficult – possibly impossible – to avoid spoilers for Senlin Ascends, so read on with caution.
This is, in many ways, a different kind of book to Senlin Ascends. While the erstwhile schoolmaster Senlin is still driven by the quest to find his missing wife Marya, the naiveté and innocence of both reader and protagonist have been corroded by the experience of Senlin Ascends. We now know the tower of babel acts as a conductor or magnet, not just for chaos, but for outright malevolence. Its different storeys and their ringdoms battle with each other through political and military means and the whole is a world in itself, on a scale that is more macrocosm than microcosm.
To that extent a mantle of more traditional epic fantasy settles upon the characters. They are gradually enveloped in power struggles that may decide not just the fate of nations but of the world itself. It becomes clear there is purpose in Bancroft’s names. Senlin’s tower of Babel had – at its outset – just as much of a purpose, just as much soaring ambition, as its biblical namesake. The eponymous Sphinx, for all the engineering wizardry at his command, is as utterly inscrutable as…as a shaving mirror.
There are other references to be uncovered in the writing. I spotted an echo of a Monty Python sketch in one line. Another scene struck me as an inversion of the X-men franchise’s high moral premise. Seeing them or missing them does not impair any enjoyment of the story, but it does hint at the breadth of influences Bancroft has drawn on, like a skilled cook seasoning his delicious tale.
Arm of the Sphinx is an entertaining and easily devoured read. The absent Marya is still the engine of the story, the motivation that drives Senlin onwards and upwards, whenever gravity can be persuaded to loosen its iron grip. However, as time passes the path towards her becomes ever more convoluted, and Senlin is haunted by ghostly visions which dull his reactions and torment his hopes. It is a relief as much for Senlin as for the reader to take refuge in the emerging epic frame that surrounds the central image of Marya’s loss. An ambition stretched out over millennia gathers itself for a final struggle – not just for control of the tower’s heart, but for the realisation of its ultimate purpose.
However, revealing more of Bancroft’s world requires more perspectives from which to view it. The tale, like the tower itself, is too vast to be envisioned from just one standpoint. So, in Arm of the Sphinx we follow multiple points of view. As I read it, this book felt shorter than its predecessor, possibly because the additional point of view characters led to a handful of parallel tales. The longed for reunion with Marya is the thread that still drew me on into the depths (and indeed the heights) of Bancroft’s imagination. However, new characters along with new insights into old friends (and enemies) seize the reader’s attention and sympathy.
Senlin has graduated from schoolmaster to pirate captain albeit of a small and imperfectly formed airship and indeed manned (or perhaps personned) by an equally small and imperfectly formed crew. Yet each of them has their tale to tell – their own path to follow – separate strands in the tightly wound braid that is Bancroft’s captivating story. The hardened mercenary pursued by the vicissitudes of age, the child-like acrobat, the occasionally one-armed pirate, the serial traitor, are all deftly sketched as they take their moments in the limelight. We learn of their history and realise that Senlin will need their skills – both the physical and the interpersonal – if he is to navigate the claustrophobic politics of the tower pressing in on him, steadily narrowing and constricting his path to recovering Marya.
Bancroft’s prose is beautiful – at times breath-taking – and a fresh multitude of quotes will surely throng the lists at Goodreads as readers discover these books. Even the most mundane of actions is enriched by a pithy simile.
Iren took her seat like a rockslide takes a road.
There are bright flashes of humour too, the dialogue between characters peppered with acerbic wit.
“I’ve never fainted in my life,” he said, stretching his legs over the blankets on the bed.
“Well you’ve taken some abrupt naps.”
Or when Senlin’s wounded ship finally comes to a friendly port and its captain insists:
“… you must consider our humble requests. Our ship is in need of repair.”
The reply comes back
“Let’s not understate the facts. Your ship is in need of a eulogy.”
In his dead-pan humour and sparkling creativity, Bancroft’s writing reminds me of Terry Pratchett – breaking ground and defying tropes with an entirely different kind of world. Yet its people – no matter how much they may be adorned by steampunk-bionics or misplaced heads – are still grounded in a common humanity that we can recognise and empathise with.
I can be a bit of a jessie; the closing credits of Lilo and Stitch moved me to tears, so too did Audrey Niffenberger’s The Time Traveller’s Wife. The last time a book made me cry, it was the closing pages of Zusack’s The Book Thief – the last time, that is, until I finished Arm of the Sphinx. If any author’s aim is to provoke a reaction in the reader, then Bancroft certainly succeeded with me. Reading is an interactive process, an experience and understanding fashioned anew for each combination of reader, book and author. Which is by way of saying it might not move you in the quite the same way as it did me. However, having flicked the last page on my Kindle, I had to go talk about it with my daughter and explain the fears (and tears) that came tumbling out for characters I cared about.
The ending of The Time Traveller’s Wife drove me to contact an author for the first time – resulting in a kind email response from Ms Niffenegger. Arm of the Sphinx drove me to interrogate another author, demanding – if not reassurances – then at least some hope from Mr Bancroft himself via Facebook – (aye direct to the source, no fake news here). He said, “I have a great sense of fondness for these characters. And while I will test and try them, and they will change, I swear I’m no sadist when it comes to these characters.”
I understand there will be four books in the series. I know what key events I hope to see in book three and in book four, and I know I will be buying them both when they come out.
This review appeared first on Fantasy-Faction on November 22, 2016.