I was so very, very excited, waiting for this book to come out! Unfortunately, I’m ashamed to say I got snowed under with work.
I loved the previous two books in Josiah Bancroft’s Books of Babel series. I don’t think I had ever come across an author who had such a rich, yet witty, literary style. Even better was that he was able to pair it with an unusually intriguingly built world and fantastic character progression.
I’m happy to say that this entry lived up to all of my expectations.
Mild spoilers ahead:
To give a brief recap, Thomas Senlin and his friends Voleta, Iren and Edith are still stuck in the Tower of Babel, where they are desperately trying to reconnect Tom with his lost wife, Marya. At the start of ‘The Hod King,’ the four of them are lucky enough to find themselves on surer footing than they have been previously. The rich amount of resources at their disposal are mostly due to the generosity of the Sphinx, who has taken it upon themselves to locate Marya’s whereabouts and hatch a plan to get her back – at a cost. As the two previous instalments have so far sketched out, politics within The Tower are highly convoluted, and while the Sphinx is a powerful entity, they are not all-knowing. Even as The Tower is under threat, Luc Marat – the rebel leader of the slave-like Hods – is diligently working towards a revolution, and the Sphinx needs more information if they are to keep everything under control.
In the first book, ‘Senlin Ascends,’ the narrative was restricted to just Tom as he made his way through the multiple floors, or ‘ringdoms’, of The Tower. Things broadened out in the second book, ‘The Arm of the Sphinx’, where the view frequently shifted between other characters, such as Edith or Adam. But for The Hod King, things have turned again and contracted somewhat. While everything is still being told through multiple viewpoints, the narrative is mostly restricted to Pelphia, a single ring in the Tower; with all narratives occurring in parallel within the same few days.
Tom, who has by now developed a habit of adopting (and downright inhabiting) different personas, finds himself yet again working under an assumed name while spying for The Sphinx. Unlike previous jaunts, Thomas starts off actually acting the part rather than living it, but when things rapidly go off the deep end, and he finds himself isolated from the others – spurred by his ill-advised premature rendezvous with Marya flying horrendously off script – he rapidly falls back into bad habits; becoming far too absorbed in yet another identity than what would be considered healthy.
The second narrative follows Voleta, who is posing as The Sphinx’s niece to gain favour with the Pelphian upper class. Free-spirited Voleta, with her casual disregard of social niceties, makes for a beautiful contrast with the vapid Pelphians. And it is these chapters where Bancroft’s wit really has a chance to shine. To get a taste of how unflattering Pelphian society comes across when filtered though Voleta’s eyes, think Nouveau Riche tacky in a city contracted by the same architects responsible for Barbie’s Dreamhouse. All paired with an abysmal level of self-awareness. But while the majority of Pelphian society is content to wallow in their shallowness, several very cynical and cunning players are perfectly aware of the privilege they hold and how it can all be played to their advantage. And you’ll be shocked at how quickly the mood turns once these people are crossed.
Our third protagonist is Captain Edith Winters, who has been assigned her own task by The Sphinx. Her job is to investigate the whereabouts of a painting that was once in the Sphinx’s posession. As one in a series, it’s believed to carry part of a code that may prove to be critical in keeping the Tower operational. Like Tom and Voleta, Edith, as a side effect of her investigations, can’t help but uncover the more depraved side of Pelphian society. And it’s though Edith’s narrative that the threads of Tom and Voleta’s stories, along with the ties to the previous two books, are really pulled together in a manner that is both satisfying and soul-crushing at the same time.
The clever thing about each of the narratives its that they all start off with a simple task that appears oh-so-pedestrian, but then the stakes are raised and raised again, and the fact that no one is immune to danger suddenly grips you. It’s all really masterfully done. And while we spend most of our time with Tom, Edith and Voleta, this doesn’t mean the side characters are neglected – and your fears will extend to many of them too. Byron is still as delightful as Reddermann is unnerving, and my heart really went out to Iren. I also greatly appreciate that we get to see more of Marya as a person, although I had hoped it would be in better circumstances. But if you turn around and start using the name Eigengrau as a swearword by the end of the book, I won’t half blame you.
Unless the fourth book takes a drastic turn from how it’s being set up, ‘The Hod King’ really appears to be ‘The Empire Strikes Back’ of Thomas Senlin’s story. It is easily the darkest by far. And it’s not just the personal narratives of the main cast that are balancing on a cliffhanger, but the politics of the Tower as well; the rebellion is taking shape, and they’re more than ready for their very own Marie Antoinette.
Like the previous installments, I really, really loved ‘The Hod King’, and cannot wait for the final part to be released. I only have one request of Josiah Bancroft though: Please do not torment Byron. He does not deserve to have his sensibilities shaken up any further.
*Adds a sneaky bingo square – I Love This*