THE HOD KING by Josiah Bancroft (BOOK REVIEW)
Please note this review may contain spoilers for the first two books and mild spoilers for The Hod King.
“The Tower did not care if a man was righteous or vile. The Tower ruined the just and the unjust with equal appetite.”
The Hod King by Josiah Bancroft is the third instalment in the Books of Babel quartet and once again I was transported to the surreal, bizarre, whimsical and cruel world within the Tower of Babel. With the looming threat of a Hod uprising Senlin and his friends are all sent on separate assignments at the bidding of the Sphinx, this time the crew find themselves travelling to the lavish ringdom of Pelphia.
Under the disguise of Cyril Pinfield, Senlin is the first to enter the ringdom alone, his task is to discover where the Sphinx’s missing mechanical moths, which all contain hidden messages, have disappeared to. More importantly he’s also to uncover what the Hods and Luc Marat are up to within the ringdom, as the heart of a rebellion is thought to be igniting there. Yet Senlin has other reasons for wanting to be in Pelphia, it is also where Marya is, living a seemingly happy life with Duke Wilhelm Pell. The Sphinx has prohibited Senlin from engaging with Marya, but with his esteemed wife finally so close, can Senlin resist?
Meanwhile the Sphinx makes Edith captain of The State of Art, the Sphinx’s very own airship. Edith is to fly to Pelphia with Byron, Iren, Voleta and the highly disliked pilot Reddleman, where Voleta will infiltrate the nobility to get closer to Marya and help Senlin discover if her life is as happy as it appears to be. Iren, of course, is to protect Voleta at all costs. Edith on the other hand, is to recover a copy of The Bricklayer’s Daughter painting from the King, where she will also finally discover why the Sphinx is obsessed with collecting them all.
The Hod King is entirely set in the ringdom of Pelphia, and I felt that this was a good choice because it allowed us to experience the culture, people and way of life in greater detail, something which I don’t believe we’ve had before. Bancroft once again presents us with exquisite worldbuilding filled with aristocratic luxury, artificial nature and mechanical weirdness. Pelphia is known as the pinnacle of high fashion and for its three magnificent architectural buildings including The Colosseum which Senlin visits on many occasions. It is a place filled with wonderment, from the mysterious Will-o’-the-Wisp to the mechanical sun. But underneath the surface it’s a place full of seediness too, Hods are mercilessly mistreated, the nobles show false pretences, smiles never quite reach the peoples eyes, the very air feels taut, as though something is on the edge of snapping. It is this atmosphere which Bancroft creates that effectively kept me nervous for each character as they entered Pelphia.
“I will find her. I will offer my help if she needs it, my heart if she wants it, my head, even if she would see it on a stake! And you, with your plots and contracts, you with your cowardly mask and tick- tock heart, you will not stop me!”
Bancroft structures his novel into three parts, with each part following the characters on their separate missions. We begin with Senlin as he takes on his new persona. We knew from Senlin Ascends he could adapt, but at that point in the series he had a lot of help from others. In The Hod King Senlin is on his own and he has to adapt even further to navigate his way out of some tricky situations. Senlin has to show his determination to carry on despite the hardship, and trust me, Bancroft puts him through a lot of hardship. It’s almost as if Bancroft enjoys everything going wrong for our dear Senlin! What I loved about Senlin’s development in this instalment was that he now sees his own faults, there is a scene where he wallows in self loathing but he quickly recognises that it’s no use doing that so he pulls himself together and gets on with it. It makes Senlin so unique because rather than brute strength he uses his intelligence and morality and common sense to get himself out of all the bizarre scenarios Bancroft puts him in.
Another significant part I enjoyed during Senlin’s narrative was that we finally learn more about his infamous lost wife, Marya. Throughout the previous two books, Marya’s character has been an enigma, her story shrouded in mystery and uncertainty. This changed in The Hod King as we begin to see glimpses into how life has proceeded since she became lost. At first we only learn her tale of meeting Duke Wilhelm Pell through the printed account in the The Daily Reverie newspaper, she’s portrayed as the sensational singer, The Mermaid, rescued by the heroic duke, whisked away on a whirlwind romance, but as we all know, newspapers lie. Yet when Senlin decides to defy the Sphinx and meet Marya, we finally discover some truth. As the story continues and the other characters meet Marya, we see even more of the real life she’s led.
I have always found The Books of Babel contain a lot of humour, Bancroft’s prose is filled with cynicism and fantastic witty dialogue. This is where Voleta truly shines in this instalment, her carefree, whimsical and erratic antics were the absolute best and most hilarious to follow. From the moment she learns to be a “lady” by Byron, to her entering Pelphia and freeing her pet squirrel from its cage, to her mixing with nobility, there was just never a dull moment. However we also see a different side to Voleta, she is far more capable than most give her credit for, and once you begin to look under the surface you realise she masks a lot of her painful past. In this cruel unfair world, you can see why Irene’s motherly protective kindness, Senlin’s endearing friendship and Byron’s ongoing tutelage are crucial to her mental well-being.
“I am the wind, Voleta, and you are my exotic little scarf. And I shall carry you off as I please.”
She fixed him with an unwavering stare, and said, “Francis, I’ve blown stiffer winds out of my arse.”
She brought her knee up with such force it stole his breath.”
I also thoroughly appreciated Bancroft exploring Byron’s character in greater depth. From his tragic backstory to his growing friendship with Voleta, Edith and Senlin, Byron became one of the most loveable characters. He was made to be the Sphinx’s tool, to obediently follow orders and efficiently get tasks done, yet although Byron is built as part deer and part machine, he is far from robotic. When he begins to deviate from the Sphinx’s commands, we see Byron is capable of emotions, of judging right and wrong, of caring for others, of being human.
At first I found Edith’s chapters somewhat less compelling than Senlin and Voleta’s but that was due to Bancroft leaving two previous cliffhangers, I swear these authors revel in our pain, which I was eager to return to. However my god does Edith’s narrative take an action packed turn. By the end of The Hod King I felt as though something snapped within her character, she has taken a lot of bullshit along the way and she’s done with it.
The Hod King is another psychedelic trip into a world quite like no other. Our beloved characters are put to the test and ultimately how they fare will be seen in the last book, The Fall of Babel. There is no way I can predict how the series will end; what will happen to the Tower? Who will survive and who may perish? Bancroft has one of the strangest unpredictable imaginations, it’s just great that it’s my kind of strange.
“To me and you, the Tower is a home; to the hod, it is prison. To us, it is a life; to them, it is a life sentence.”