A review of Josiah Bancroft‘s Arm of the Sphinx (The Books of Babel 2)
I know, I know, I‘m one book behind on this series, but this is actually quite a feat, since usually, I only read the first book in a series, ever. Not so with the Books of Babel, the first of which, Senlin Ascends, is one of the most engaging adventure stories I‘ve ever read. The main reason for that was certainly the journey of its protagonist from naive school-teacher to mastermind on a mission; it is actually a kind of „Walter White becomes Heisenberg“ arc, only that Senlin manages to remain a more or less decent human being (something he worries about a lot). Add to this the series of beautifully bizarre places Senlin visits, their even more bizarre social rules and norms and the tentative exploration of matters of exploitation, class struggle and the subtle workings of power, and you get a very pleasant surprise for an occasionally jaded fantasy reader like me.
Arm of the Sphinx starts a few weeks after the end of the last book and quickly fills in the gaps with some flashbacks. Senlin is now an airship captain who desperately tries to keep his ship and his crew of four afloat by comitting piracy without actually hurting anyone or stealing more than he thinks his victims can afford – gee, this sounds like good business, does it? It‘s no surprise that Senlin‘s crew soon has to go hungry, and that‘s before the real trouble starts when they‘re spotted by an old enemy …
The book has the „ragtag crew of endearing misfits“ thing going for it – the interactions between Senlin and his first mate Mister Edith Winters are heartwarming, and the same goes for practically everything about the hulking ex-enforcer Iren, who is puzzled by suddenly having trusted friends and trying everything in her might to adapt to this new state of affairs. It‘s all not terribly deep on a psychological level, but nevertheless a believable depiction of a group of people who, despite all their problems, are trying very hard to be decent, trusting and empowering towards each other, and mostly succeed. And that makes Arm of the Sphinx a very different and much more uplifting book than Senlin Ascends, where Senlin was basically alone and didn‘t have the slightest clue about whom to trust. I‘m all for it, really; there‘s enough grim stuff going on in and around the Tower of Babel, so let‘s have some really good friends aboard!
The focus on the adventures of this crew also makes Arm of the Sphinx more linear and more contained then Senlin Ascends was – which seems paradox, since the second book actually has more viewpoint characters than the first. But the whole narrative now has a quite clear direction. There‘s none of the jumps and hickups we had in the first book, which often felt episodic. That is actually something I‘m not so happy with: I loved how Senlin Ascends occasionally jumped to the next major story beat, and on the other hand took its time developing situations that weren‘t so relevant to the overall arc (I‘m especially fond of the chapters set in the Baths). A lot of reviews mention that the first book has pacing problems and the second one doesn‘t. I would not quite disagree. The pacing of Arm of the Sphinx is much more conventional than the pacing of Senlin Ascends; however, I liked the sometimes roundabout, sometimes jerky, but always surprising way that the first book was narrated in slightly better.
Another jarring note for me was the treatment of the hod rebellion that seems to be brewing: On the one hand, both books depict the social system of the tower as criminally absurd, brutal and exploitative, especially towards the disenfranchised hods. On the other hand, the notion that the hods might collectively stand up against their oppression in an organized way is met by the immediate – and, sadly, correct – suspicion that something more sinister than legitimate class struggle is afoot. Calling the leader of the hod rebellion Marat (probably after Jean-Paul Marat) seems quite on-the-nose. I can‘t put my finger on it, but I have the strong feeling that acknoledgement of insufferable inequity paired with mistrust against organized resistance is a quite common motive in fantasy novels. Well, this is more of a personal beef with the political stance the book seems to take (and to which I‘m, apart from this one detail, pretty sympathetic) – it certainly doesn‘t detract from the novel as such.
My verdict: The second Book of Babel is another great adventure novel. It might be slightly more conventional than its predecessor, but more than makes up for it by making its characters, despite their many flaws, so very endearing. Interestingly, it also drifts the series into a more sfnal direction – I‘ll be interested to see what becomes of this in The Hod King.