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Review: Arm of the Sphinx by Josiah Bancroft

After stealing an airship at the end of Senlin Ascends, Thomas Senlin and his crew still have plenty of hardships to struggle through and places to explore on their journey to find Senlin’s vanished wife Marya. They encounter outcasts, people who live on the edges of society, and people who hide in the shadows, as they continue to work their way up the immense Tower of Babel, ultimately seeking out a mysterious figure known as the Sphinx to get help in their search.

Arm of the Sphinx is the second in the Books of Babel series by Josiah Bancroft.

The fantastic original cover by Ian Leino

Where Senlin Ascends kept to a single point of view, that of protagonist Thomas Senlin, its sequel branches out. Senlin himself remains the primary point of view, but there are also numerous scenes from the perspective of other members of his crew. While this dilutes the focus of the story, it feels like it fits: Senlin is now responsible for other people besides himself, and those people are engaged in parts of the story Senlin never sees.

This widening of the perspective meshes wonderfully with the wider view of the world of the Tower of Babel: where in the first book, Senlin was a newcomer learning about the Tower, now he is an experienced hand with it, a leader to others, still learning but now seeing deeper than the surface level. There is a greater sense of complexity to the world that parallels the wider complexities of a larger cast of point of view characters.

Bancroft has a wonderful talent for building a sense of menace. The more Senlin learns, and the more we learn, the greater the impression that there is a lot going on beneath the surface, a sense of strange occurrences, subversion, manipulation – that nothing is quite as it seems.

There’s also a strong feeling of mystery surrounding the Sphinx in particular, but other characters the crew encounters too. Even as Senlin learns more, there are plenty of questions left unanswered, drawing the reader onward.

Each of the point of view characters is given the space, in their scenes, for the reader to learn about their motivation, their goals and the things that are or have been holding them back. This is balanced beautifully with the action and more tense moments to create a compelling tale that kept me on the edge of my seat, and my finger hovering over the screen ready to turn to the page so not a second would be wasted.

Arm of the Sphinx is a solid second instalment to the quadrilogy*, with all the wonder and exploration of the first in the series and a stronger feeling of sinister undercurrents. It is a natural progression building on the foundations created by its predecessor and full of promise for the rest of the tale.

I rate Arm of the Sphinx 9/10; it is an enthralling, exciting read and I look forward to reading Bancroft’s next book.

See my review of Senlin Ascends here.

*A previous version of this review refered to the Books of Babel series as a trilogy. Mr Bancroft has confirmed here that it is planned to be a series of four, or “foursie” as he prefers to think of it.

Review: Senlin Ascends by Josiah Bancroft

Thomas Senlin is the quiet headmaster of a small town’s modest school, recently married to the spirited Marya. For their honeymoon, they travel to the famed Tower of Babel, the centre of civilisation – but are separated in the crowded marketplace at the Tower’s base. In his attempts to find Marya, Senlin meets a cast of rogues and mysterious figures, survives strange experiences, and rises through the enigmatic, immense Tower.

The gorgeous cover of Senlin Ascends is by artist Ian Leino.

Senlin Ascends is Bancroft’s first novel, published in 2013.

One of the real strengths of Bancroft’s prose, which I noticed early in the book, was how he used it to reveal Senlin’s personality. On the very first page there is a metaphor comparing shale hills to shattered blackboards, imagery that reveals that Senlin is a teacher even before his name is mentioned in the text. The book sparkles with these allusions, bringing its protagonist to life – and subtly revealing the changes he undergoes as a result of his experiences.

And what experiences they are. The Tower of Babel is a marvel, a world as complex as any I have read, stuffed with strange technologies and bizarre entertainments, social nuances and odd rules. It is populated by predatory merchants, smooth talkers, bitter cynics, self-deluding hedonists and sinister figures. Everyone Senlin meets wants something from him, one way or another, and so he has a difficult path to navigate to avoid the numerous pitfalls laid out for such tourists as he is in the beginning.

Throughout the novel there are intriguing hints that there is something a lot bigger going on than a man in search of his wife. The Tower is a complex world populated by chess masters and manipulators such that Senlin was entirely unprepared for – as was I when I began reading. It drew me on, even as the core plot of Senlin’s search for Marya did.

I rate Senlin Ascends 9/10. It is an engaging adventure set in a wonderfully detailed world. I look forward to reading Arm of the Sphinx.