To be posted on Fantasy Book Review shortly ~~
I received an advance reader copy of Arm of the Sphinx in exchange for an honest review. I would like to thank Josiah Bancroft and Orbit Books. Bancroft’s second outing in The Books of Babel series was originally self-published in 2015 and has recently been re-released through Orbit. Following on from Senlin Ascends, Thomas Senlin and his handful of colourful acquaintances find themselves living a life of piracy outside the tower onboard their commandeered airship The Stone Cloud. This is all a means to an end however as Senlin’s key objective is to re-enter the Tower at his earliest convenience and continue searching for his missing wife.
It had been a while since I completed Senlin Ascends and excluding the fact that Thomas hasn’t been successful in locating his wife Marya I couldn’t completely recollect exact details regarding certain parts of the story, the other main characters or their motives. Bancroft reintroduces the ensemble expertly and cleverly reminds readers of previous happenings without dumbing down the opening chapters. After this brief stage, my memory and knowledge of previous events and the world were reignited so I could then focus on the important part – the story and what happens next in Senlin’s misadventure. I won’t mention too many details about the narrative itself apart from two of my favourite scenes included a Golden Zoo and a Bottomless Library. Throughout the novel, there are frequently quality and original set pieces, intense thrilling moments, and a few well-placed twists.
There are a larger number of point of view perspectives in the Arm of the Sphinx than in the previous entry. Written in the 3rd person, the characters we follow in addition to Senlin are the one-armed and trustworthy first mate Edith, the inquisitive and adventurous Voleta, her engineer and perhaps untrustworthy brother Adam, and finally, Iren who previously acted as a bouncer/bodyguard within one of the Ringdom’s seedy criminal underworld. The character development is excellent and the above-mentioned members of The Stone Cloud really grow and shine and they are no longer merely side characters in “The Thomas Senlin Show.” We are introduced to their personal thoughts and feelings which adds heightened affinity and I truly cared about each of these very different individuals.
Bancroft writes an exquisite mix of fantasy and steampunk. As further mysteries of the Tower unfold science-fiction elements are introduced and merge seamlessly. The world-building is brilliant and totally unique. The grandiose and labyrinthine Tower is arguably the main character in this series and in this novel new Ringdom’s are introduced for the first time including the Silk Gardens. Each of the Tower’s many Ringdom’s is the size of a city and they all have great differences aesthetically, socially and politically. The only common denominator is that they can all present an extreme degree of danger.
Each chapter opens with a beautiful and poignant segment that often heightens myths, happenings, and understanding of the Tower. The majority of the chapters are approximately 10-pages which helps feed the “just one more chapter”-itch and is the reason that I devoured this book within a couple of days. Arm of the Sphinx is a completely original and beautifully written story that is poetic, descriptive and completely intoxicating. I mentioned in my Senlin Ascends review that Bancroft’s work reads like a classic and that statement is completely true for Arm of the Sphinx too. At the finale, everything is set up brilliantly for the next installment of The Books of Babel. The twist on the very last page is shocking but makes a potential future event completely unpredictable and infinitely intriguing. Start this series if you haven’t already. I don’t think you will regret it. I’m personally counting down the days until I can re-enter the Tower with Book #3: The Hod King.