How does a fantasy book reviewer critique a work that he unabashedly loves? Do I try to make up bad things about Josiah Bancroft’s newest Book of Babel? Do I scour it for the tiniest typo and the smallest grammatical error simply so I don’t come off as an advertisement for Orbit Books?
I mean, I guess it took me five days to read through The Hod King. I finished the final book in the Harry Potter series in a night (a feat I regret to this day because some things deserve to be savoured), so I clearly didn’t love this installment enough to glue it to my eyelids and never look away. Then again, see my statement in the parenthetical and maybe not finishing it so fast means I liked it even more.
What seems clear to this reviewer is that, with every book he writes, Josiah Bancroftproves he is more than just the winner of a self-publishing contest and better than a one-hit wonder. The Arm of the Sphinx was as good, if not better, than Senlin Ascends, and I think that The Hod King is maybe the best yet. How common is this in series fiction? Not very, in my experience. Sequels tend to be worse than their predecessors, even if later books in the same run can reverse the trend. But Bancroft keeps getting better, and if his fourth and final Babel book continues this upward trajectory, he has every right to be carved on to the Mount Rushmore of fantasy authorship.
But enough gushing – what is The Hod King about? Beware of spoilers now because I intended to talk of The Arm of the Sphinx in detail. At the end of the second novel, Senlin and his crew had met the legendary Sphinx, a figure deified in Babel lore and who wields more obvious power than any living thing in the Tower. Through some coercion and bargaining, the Sphinx gathered Senlin, Iren, and Voletta into his net, a web in which Edith had long ago been ensnared. The Hod King sees our heroes undertaking their first overt missions for the Sphinx, and Senlin’s just happens to take him to the very Pelphia where his long-lost wife Marya now resides. It also separates him from his crew, a crew which Edith now captains, and so for the first time since his initial foray into the Tower, Thomas is alone.
I admired the hell out of Bancroft’s bravery in changing viewpoints in The Arm of the Sphinx, and I continue to be impressed with his ability to do so in The Hod King. Senlin Ascends rarely, if ever, took us out of Senlin’s head, a viewpoint that I would wager is quite comfortable for Josiah Bancroft. Both subsequent novels see Bancroft diving into the heads of Edith, Iren, and Voletta, and they are such wildly different characters, and so far removed from Senlin, that watching him stretch his skills like this is like watching a monarch emerge from its chrysalis – you know it will be beautiful but it’s wondrous to watch. Bancroft nails these viewpoints, and lets us into the minds of characters who we could only wonder at in the first novel. We could never have known of Iren’s insecurities or Voletta’s flightiness in Senlin Ascends. We might never have known the depth of Edith’s feelings, nor of her desire to fly had her author not decided to step out of his comfort zone. It works, and it is part of the reason why The Hod King is so successful. This is no longer a story about a man traversing a tower. It’s become almost familial in its intimacy, and I find myself increasingly loving these characters in a way I seldom have for fictional beings. It’s become so bad that I have cajolingly threatened the author on Twitter should he George R.R. Martin any of them.
Aside from character, both the plot and setting of The Hod King continue to captivate and embrace the reader. Bancroft takes a Pulp Fiction approach to his story, with each section using the same basic time-frame to tell a different perspective of the same overall narrative. This is a technique that could end in utter failure, but Bancroftshows mastery over the style. By the last quarter of the book, my urgency to see the whole plot of The Hod King was so focused that I lost sleep about it, and I am continually amazed at the new vistas that this Tower has to offer. That one building can encompass more lore and mystery than many fully-fleshed fantasy worlds is an impressive feat. It helps that it’s likely one of the biggest structures ever imagined in literature.
There is not much more to say about The Hod King that will tempt anyone to read it or not read it. Let’s face it, if you read through the first two novels in this series, you will likely want to read through this one as well. I truly do believe that it is the best of the three, and I said in my review of Senlin Ascends that I thought maybe Bancroft had written one of the best fantasy novels of the last decade. I can’t really praise these books any more than that, even if I will continue to do so. I don’t know the name of the last book in the Babel series yet, but this is the first time in a long while that I will be eagerly scanning new release schedules and wishing I could get my hands on something that does not even exist yet. That’s a good feeling to have.