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The Hod King by Josiah Bancroft – Review + Fan Theories!

The Hod King by Josiah Bancroft – Review + Fan Theories!
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Book Name: The Hod King
Author: Josiah Bancroft
Publisher(s): Orbit
Formatt: Paperback / Audiobook / Ebook
Genre(s): Fantasy / Steampunk
Release Date: January 22, 2019 (US) January 24, 2019 (UK)

Spoiler Warning: If you haven’t read books one and two in The Books of Babel series then go and read them now, and/or check out Fantasy-Faction’s reviews of both books here and here. Not reading this series is a bad life-choice, there’s simply no other way of putting it.

If you’ve somehow skipped both books or you’d like a little refresher on The Books of Babel then let me explain. Mild spoilers for the third book and considerable spoilers for the first two follow from this point onward.

The Books of Babel can best be described as a fantasy series with many of the trappings of the steampunk and sci-fi genres. There are no wizards, elves or dragons so far. But there is a lot of strangeness and wonder, nonetheless.

On a world much like Earth (possibly Earth itself in the distant future or far distant past), lies the sprawling land of Ur, a vast country with many different regions and peoples that seems to have achieved a quasi-Victorian level of technology, complete with trains and airships.

At the centre of Ur is a tower called the Tower of Babel. The Tower took hundreds of years to build and is so tall that its top is hidden by clouds and cannot be seen from the ground. It’s so wide that small nations and large independent cities inhabit its many floors. These are the ringdoms of the Tower, each with its own purpose, quirks and government.

The Tower is presided over (ruled is too strong a term for it) by a secretive and extremely mysterious inventor called the Sphinx, a being who has existed far longer than is humanly possible.

The Tower is a hub of tourism and trade and people are drawn into it like water down a drain, often with even less pleasant results. The Tower is a kind of titanic trap—playing on human psychology and economics to manipulate tens of thousands of people into fulfilling its inscrutable purpose, regardless of the large-scale suffering this inflicts on the population.

Into this vast and venerable system comes a seemingly insignificant man named Senlin. Senlin is a pompous and naïve schoolteacher with a pretty and passionate young wife who he is a little bit in awe of. The inevitable currents of the Tower snatch the two apart, and Senlin’s quest to reunite with his beloved has consequences beyond his wildest dreams.

What follows is a saga of trickery, deceit, cruelty, slavery, airships and air-pirates, wicked nobles and ruthless businessmen, steampunk cyborgs and strange clockwork devices, weird animals and deep dark secrets.

Cards on the table, I’m a huge fan of Josiah Bancroft. I’m not going to say that I’m his biggest fan (Mainly because I’m afraid that Mark Lawrence would somehow appear at my house, whisper ‘No, I am’ and disembowel me with a Stabby Award), but I’ve been reading his books and raving about them since before it was cool. I follow the DnD actual play podcast he does with four other authors (Critfaced) and I’ve even used a modded version of the FATE tabletop RPG to run adventures set in the Tower of Babel. I would buy the t-shirts if they existed.

And all this is because the first book in the series, Senlin Ascends, was one of the most original, intriguing, well written, witty and wondrous fantasy fiction debuts I’ve ever read and the sequel, Arm of the Sphinx was just as good.

I have a lot invested in this series and I’ve been waiting for The Hod King for what feels like a very long time, to see if lightning was going to strike a third time.

It did.

Well, thanks for reading, see you next time.

– – –

Ok, ok. You want details.

The Hod King mostly focuses on one ringdom, as well as delving into parts of the Tower beyond the ringdoms. Places such as the Black Vein—the suffocating, mine-like ventilation system of the Tower, so big that it contains its own (failing) ecosystem and plays host to a desperate civilisation of hods (slaves to the tower). The Black Vein is so thick with humanity that the inhabitants have turned themselves into a sort of living telegraph or social media system—someone shouts a message at you and you pass it along if you think it’s worthwhile.

There are stranger and more terrible places that I won’t spoil here. Suffice to say that in this book Bancroft spills some fascinating new secrets about the nature of the Tower and the Sphinx and about the source of the Sphinx’s weird, near-magical technology.

The truths that Bancroft reveals only serve to make the remaining mysteries of the Tower all the more tantalising. I’m three books in and I still don’t know quite how this four-part series will end or how all of the bizarre plot-threads can be tied off. It’s maddening and delightful at the same time. I’m already eager to get my hands on book four, which is hopefully being written even as I write this review.

As mentioned above, much of the action takes place in the ringdom of Pelphia, party capital of the Tower. A nation of breakfast wines and professional gossips where excess and scandal are the norm and good fashion sense is far more important than good behaviour. This ringdom possesses artificial stars and a clockwork sun to replace the sky-views which are denied to most residents of the Tower. And if the sun should break down and fail to light up the city for a day or two? Well that just means more time to party!

Also known as The Parlour, Pelphia has been made rich by the trade in clothes and its many nobles take full and riotous advantage of their good fortune. This is the Tower of course, so where there is excess there is also suffering and inhumanity.

Senlin is sent ahead to infiltrate Pelphian society and spy for the Sphinx. The rest of the crew of the Sphinx’s flagship following on afterwards to attempt to rescue Marya (Senlin’s wife) and to carry out the Sphinx’s plan to retrieve the paintings of the Brick Layer’s Granddaughter that will in some way help.

And it’s all wonderful. There’s so much artistry and wry imagination on display here. A menagerie of cannons all shaped like different animals. A species of giant weasel bred to clean out pipes that can’t digest humans but enjoys using them as chew-toys. Parrots that live wild in a city, spreading the wickedest rumours they can find. A pork-beef hybrid called moink.

Bancroft is a clever writer as much as an imaginative one and his prose is as luscious and lively as ever. Whether he’s:

– Describing the seemingly indescribable. “Like sipping sunshine from a volcano.”

– Epitomising the salacious gossip of Pelphia. “My pen waters with anticipation.”

– Making your flesh creep. “The earl’s mouth crawled along her neck like a snail upon a garden wall.”

– Eviscerating a character with a single description. “His facial features seem to have been swept into a central pile.”

– Or getting straight to the point. “Grief like fire.”

The Tower is a world every bit as terrible as our own, but Bancroft’s descriptions make it far more beautiful.

And then we have the characters.

Those familiar with the series will find Senlin as resourceful, good-hearted, and endearingly self-flagellating as ever. He’s a remarkable hero, one who survives by his wits but isn’t witty, knows how to throw a punch but isn’t a great brawler, and leaves devastation in his wake but cannot forgive himself for that fact any more than he can stop doing it.

But, Senlin is far from the only viewpoint character in The Hod King.

The person who stood out the most for me was Voleta. On the surface she is worlds more light-hearted than Senlin, or anyone else in the book, and flits about the world with a charming sense of wonder and fun. The best way to describe Voleta is that she is a free spirit. Not in the modern Hollywood sense of someone who has three colours in her hair, is ‘totally bringing patchouli oil back you guys’ and is probably about to be mugged by the plot of an indie rom-com whether she likes it or not. But rather in the way that she cannot be contained by walls or laws, any more than a ghost could be. Less Manic Pixie Dreamgirl and more Manic-Depressive Tomboy/Force of Nature.

Voleta isn’t stupid, far from it, she has a keen mind that cuts through all the illusions and hypocrisies of Pelphia like a sword through silk. But she is childlike in that it is genuinely difficult and distressing for her to sit still, or take orders or care about danger. This personality trait is sometimes played for laughs and fun, but it carries an undercurrent of deep psychological damage which Bancroft isn’t afraid to show us, even if Voleta is.

We also get to explore the stalwart mind of Iren, the so-called Amazon. Iren is the strong and silent type but this book builds on what was revealed in The Arm of the Sphinx. Iren is more than just a stock one-dimensional badass character. Yes, she is a badass but one with a terribly vulnerable heart that is ill-equipped for any problem that doesn’t respond to violence. In this book we get a glimpse of new and undreamt-of directions that her life could take.

It’s refreshing to see into the heart of a quiet yet kickass character and find out that there’s as much emotion and insecurity churning away behind the hardened exterior as there is inside anyone else. Iren can tug on your heart-strings, as well as pulling your lungs out through your throat.

Edith, still a Wakeman and now an airship captain too, is as conflicted and confused as Senlin himself. She’s a bit more practical than him but just as inclined to blame herself for everything that has ever gone wrong. And she has the added stress of being part machine—reliant on technology to overcome a disability that would otherwise leave her shockingly vulnerable in a cruel world. We get to see Edith making friends as well as doing more than her fair share of swashbuckling and derring-do in this book. In fact, she could be considered the hero of the main plot-line of this novel. If a hero were really what this book wanted.

Byron, the part-stag, part-clockwork-robot who serves as the Sphinx’s most loyal servant adds another unique take on proceedings. He’s obsessed with etiquette and appearances, and lives for gossip. It’s a pity that Byron’s stag-head makes a public appearance untenable as he’s the crew-member most likely to be comfortable in Pelphia. His fussiness is played for laughs, but like Voleta his amusing foibles mask deep-rooted terrors and traumas. Something about exploring the old sci-fi questions of, ‘Am I truly alive even though I’m a machine?’ ‘What even is life?’ feels fresh and fun again when placed in a fantasy setting. I don’t think I’ve ever encountered a character quite like Byron in the entire fantasy genre. And he’s a lot more likeable than his infamous real-world namesake.

Even the deeply unpleasant Prince Francis of Pelphia gets to be our viewpoint character for a little while. As does Xenia, a spoilt young noblewoman seeking a rich husband.

Not everyone likes multiple viewpoint novels, I admit. Though I’m fond of them myself, having grown up on a steady diet of Malazan books. And Bancroft does it right, every character’s voice is distinctive and intriguing. For example, a single throwaway character, a doorman who we will never meet again, is still given a unique and wryly amusing backstory, albeit one that only takes a paragraph or so to relate.

Not everything in this novel is perfectly to my taste. Since most of the viewpoints are from characters experiencing the same events, there is a ton of backtracking as Bancroft rewinds time and retells the story from another point of view. This is a common and accepted narrative technique but not one I’m fond of. I like to follow the plot, not circle it endlessly. Even this is a small gripe, as each character’s arc has new revelations and unique moments for us to enjoy and any amount of time spent with Bancroft’s beguiling characters is time well spent. And you can’t fault an author for trying out a different narrative technique. I don’t think that Bancroft could be content to stick to the same format, novel after novel. The sheer pressure of restrained creativity might make his head explode.

And because of that endless creativity there’s always something new to enjoy in The Hod King, whoever we’re following at the moment: A desperate, weaponless fight in a place so dark that losing your lantern is as bad as losing your life. A daring rescue involving one-person hot-air balloons floating over an uncaring city. The existential horror of ‘an ornamental tableau’. Even just the pleasure of losing oneself in another perfectly laid out bit of description.

“The famous music hall was overbuilt and underthought and forever caged by scaffolding.”

Reading Bancroft makes me want to be a better writer. He is one of the authors I hold up as an example as to why fantasy fiction should be taken seriously alongside traditional literature. This book gives the me the same feeling I got when I first read one of Patrick Rothfuss’s books and I don’t say that lightly.

Normally I would say that you should read this book if you like certain things. But I’m not going to qualify my recommendation this time. Read this book and keep reading everything that Bancroft ever writes. If you like fantasy or sci-fi you might get more out of it, but even non-SFF readers should give this series a go.

– – –

Ok, the review is over. (For real this time.)

Time for the second part of the article:

Fan Theories and Fruitless Speculation Based on the Books of Babel So Far!

TOWER SIZED SPOILERS AHEAD! DO NOT READ THIS PART OF THE ARTICLE UNTIL YOU HAVE FINISHED THE FIRST THREE BOOKS!

There are so many mysteries and unanswered questions in The Books of Babel that I couldn’t resist the urge to type out some of my thoughts and guesses about what’s really going on. Hopefully some of my fellow fans will enjoy the results.

There’s only so much time in the day so I’m not going to speculate too much about Luc Marat and the nature of his plans here. All I’ll do is note the parallels between the original biblical story of the Tower of Babel and Marat’s apparent goals.

In the original story, humanity worked together to build a tower tall enough to pierce heaven and reach God. God destroyed the tower to punish mankind’s impudence. He then cursed them to speak a thousand different languages so that they would never again unite and work together to defy him. A rather petty and vicious gesture from a modern perspective. But then myths are meant to explain the world, not excuse it.

Marat has invented a language of his own and makes his followers ceremonially destroy all books they find by scribbling in them. He is erasing the words, language and knowledge of the past. He seems bent on reducing humanity back to a state of perfect ignorance. Perhaps he doesn’t wish anything like the Tower to ever rise again. Perhaps he wants to press the reset button on history, hoping that the second time round things will be better. Perhaps he will succeed and the world of Ur will turn out to be our own distant past, almost perfectly obscured by time and purposeful destruction.

Now, onto the Tower itself and its architects. We know from book two, which remains the most illuminating of the series so far, that the Tower is a space elevator. According to the Sphinx the attempt to reach space was meant to unify mankind, bringing peace through shared purpose. For most of the population of Ur this knowledge has been lost in the mists of time or perhaps even deliberately suppressed by the rulers of the ringdoms.

(However, it may be that this knowledge hasn’t completely vanished as a seemingly mad mystic is heard in the first book, raving that humanity mustn’t spread to the stars.)

Nonetheless, the Sphinx (who I now presume to be the girl pictured in the panels of the Brick Layer’s Granddaughter) is determined to revive this grand purpose. She told Senlin in The Arm of the Sphinx that the reason the Tower is so corrupt and corrupting is because humans have forgotten its purpose as a space-elevator. (Senlin isn’t convinced that the Brick Layer and the Sphinx are so innocent of the crimes of the Tower, mind you.)

Edith’s visit to the chamber of the red sea in book three puts a new and far more urgent spin on things. It appears that the Sphinx’s mission is more than ideological. She tells Edith that The Tower is a power station which has been generating power for far too long. It’s possible that she lied to either Senlin or Edith about the Tower’s primary purpose but I think that she merely trusted each of them with a part of the truth. Particularly considering that the descriptions we get of these secret parts of the Tower seem to bear out the Sphinx’s words. The power being generated must be intended to help the Tower work as a space-elevator. And since the Brick Layer allegedly didn’t expect humanity to down tools for so long, he might well not have anticipated the dangerous build-up of energy over centuries.

The Sphinx is clearly seeking a way to safely discharge all the energy in the lightning-riddled red sea before it destroys the Tower and all of Ur.

Does the Sphinx really care about finishing The Brick Layer’s project of reaching the stars? Preventing the apocalypse seems like motivation enough. But then she does seem to hero-worship the Brick Layer. And she is apparently resigned to her own death, so simple survival is presumably not enough for her. My guess is that she believes that completing the Brick Layer’s Zoetrope and thus unlocking the Brick Layer’s vault will reveal a way to safely harness or disperse the energy that the Tower has built up after so many generations. Reaching the stars, or at least uniting humanity in the attempt, may be a secondary concern.

A key question here is: who created or discovered the red medium which manipulates time and has so many other magical effects such as allowing a battleship to defy gravity? The Sphinx notes that The Brick Layer came to the limit of the technology of his day as well as the limits of his own body, implying that he knew less than she does now. But we also know that the Brick Layer was 109 years old when he sat for a portrait, looking like a healthy and hardy man in his 60s. This implies the use of the red medium (the only confirmed source of ‘magic’ or weird science in the whole setting) to extend his life. Perhaps it was an earlier version or prototype that the Sphinx has since perfected. Though it could be that there are other forms of advanced technology or magic which the Brick Layer somehow had access to.

We know that the various mechanical creations that serve the Tower, from Byron to the repair-spiders, are the Sphinx’s creations. As are the menagerie of bizarre creatures such as chimney cats that were bred to serve the Tower. So, it’s possible that the Brick Layer didn’t actually have access to much in the way of impressive inventions. In theory, a gigantic tower and a zoetrope don’t require particularly high levels of technology, just an insane feat of engineering and a bit of inspiration respectively. It’s possible the red medium truly is the Sphinx’s invention.

But since the Brick Layer conceived the Tower and oversaw its construction it seems likely that he intended it to store power and so already knew or at least guessed at the existence of the medium and intended for the Tower to use it. This would suggest that the red medium or the energy it stores is somehow necessary to reaching the stars. Since it can be harnessed to allow a very large metal ship to defy gravity it wouldn’t be too much of a stretch to imagine that it could power a space-ship in some way. Or a lift that goes from ground to sky, like an actual space-elevator.

All this would mean that the Brick Layer could well have hidden away a potentially dangerous, yet now vital, method of bleeding off the energy held in the red medium, e.g. by powering up some kind of steamship Enterprise that he hid at the top of the Tower. This would also explain why he split the paintings amongst different ringdoms, he wanted humanity to have to unite in order to reach the stars, no shortcuts.

(For all we know, the Brick Layer had himself preserved in some way and is contained in the vault. No one has outright said that he is dead. The Sphinx may hope to find her mentor in the vault, revive him and get his advice on saving Ur from destruction.)

It’s also possible that the Brick Layer had a more esoteric end-goal in mind than a spaceship. He called the Tower ‘The Bridge of Babel’ not ‘The Lift of Babel’ after all. It might be used to open a star-gate or otherwise teleport people across the cosmos, perhaps even opening up holes to other dimensions or times. Time is certainly an important part of what’s going on here. The Red Hand apparently experienced all of time when he died. Maybe in Bancroft’s cosmology this happens to everyone who dies but I think it’s likely to be a symptom of ingesting the red medium. The Sphinx talks about its time-based properties as well.

The mysterious and as yet unseen city which sits at the top of the Tower may hold the key to all this. The blond people in rubber suits who captured Adam Boreas in book two guard the top of the Tower and presumably hail from the city. (Unless they dropped in from somewhere else but that seems unlikely.)

We haven’t seen the blond people (a.k.a. the sparking men) interact with the Sphinx so I presume that they are either unable or unwilling to help her. Perhaps, they don’t know about the build-up of energy in the Tower below. Perhaps they know very well but are trapped at the top of the Tower and can’t assist. Perhaps they have their own, weirder, agenda.

These ‘sparking men’ apparently repel any attempts to investigate their city and/or the top of the Tower, using electrical weapons to burn the intruders to ash. Are they also motivated by fears of a massive explosion? Or something else? Where is the energy for all the electricity the sparking men wield coming from? If the bell jar city is powered by the Tower then why hasn’t it bled off the excess power over the centuries?

Perhaps it has, but not enough. Admittedly the huge lightning strikes which hit the top of the Tower could power all sorts of things, so the bell jar city may be a separate system to the main Tower. Though I wonder if the Tower itself is designed to generate static, creating the clouds and lightning storms at its top. Though this could just be a by-product and the gold veins and ‘silver trees’ could be simply protective measures. The blond people’s insistence on driving off or destroying any ships that approach the top may be entirely practical, ships could attract static and/or lightning—causing an unexpected electric discharge or crash into a turbine—destroying some vital part of the Tower’s infrastructure. Humans could be even more dangerous if they start harvesting gold veins or silver trees.

The final and weirdest mystery of the Books of Babel that I’d like to discuss here is the true nature of ‘sparking men’ themselves. They seem paranoid and murderous but also weirdly casual, as though they aren’t taking life entirely seriously. They are intimately familiar with Adam Boreas and hold him in high regard. Yet, he doesn’t recall them. They also note that his personality is different to the Adam they know.

Our only clue to all of this is an off-handed comment that one of the ‘sparking people’ makes. When Edith asks if they recognise her they say, “No, you must be from later in the story.” How has Adam become a story to them when he has never met any of them before? Has he forgotten everything about a large part of his past? Without his sister noticing? Has someone recorded parts of his life and broadcast them to the bell jar city? To what possible end? It seems more likely that the red medium is involved, causing some sort of time-shenanigans that will transport Adam (or someone who knows him very well) into the past and up into the city. Or even cause the bell jar city to exist in a different time altogether.

My best guess is that this has something to do with Voleta. Voleta has been revived with the red medium, just as the Red Hand was. He experienced all of time. Perhaps she is or will be able to move in time or somehow send her thoughts through it. She knows Adam very well and although she doesn’t hero worship him, she could have considered him an example of a responsible and ultimately good-hearted individual, despite his faults. Voleta has met Edith of course but if, for whatever odd reason, she was telling her life story to the sparking people then she would have told them about Adam long before she got around to talking about Edith.

Doubtless I am wrong on almost every count. Only time, and Bancroft, will tell.

All I can do now is reiterate the main point of my review. I can’t wait for book four!

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4 Comments

  1. Avatar Sam F. says:

    Great review! Has me excited to start this series.

  2. Avatar Richard Marpole says:

    Whoops.
    Forgot to mention in the intro that I received a free ARC of this book.

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