In my previous review of Josiah Bancroft’s The Hod King, the third instalment in the Books of Babel series, I mentioned that due to its darker tone and shocker of a cliffhanger, the third book appeared to be ‘The Empire Strikes Back’ of Thomas Senlin’s story.
So now that I’ve read that The Fall of Babel, the final instalment in the series, can I say that this is Bancroft’s ‘Return of the Jedi?’ Not, really, no. I have to confess that with this last book, the wheels fell off that particular Star Wars analogy, and I’m not sure the mechanic can save it. Narratively, The Fall of Babel was not at all what I expected.
Fair warning: spoilers for the other three books abound.
First of all, despite the honking great set of cliffhangers left at the end of The Hod King, The Fall of Babel starts with a nearly novella-level opening from Adam’s point of view. The very same Adam who was absent for most of the previous book! Last seen captured while exploring the top of the Tower, Adam is our introduction to Nebos; a city filled to the brim with a rather upper crust sort of folk who share a strong level of distain for the other denizens of the tower. The city also shares ties to the Bricklayer, the Tower’s enigmatic founder. While here, Adam falls in love with one of the locals. However, it’s not his new lady love that tries to distract him most form his search, but rather his odd, newfound celebrity; a rather horny and predatory older woman; and finally, a psychotic steampunk librarian. The Nebos plot may start off seeming like a odd off-branch of the main narrative, but it soon starts showing the same bizzaro signatures that are seen across the rest of The Tower and it becomes quite compelling in its own right.
So where is Thomas Senlin throughout all of Adam’s adventures? Thomas is still entangled with the affair of the Hod King, the huge man powered siege engine that the Hod leader Luc Marat hopes to use to find and kill the Sphinx. Knowing that his life is at stake if Luc suspects him of any disloyalty, Senlin has to keep his wits about him if he is to both sabotage Lucs plan and reunite with Marya.
And where is Marya throughout all of Senlin’s adventures ? Marya is been tracked down by the State of the Art who hope to bring her into the fold! The crew are also frantically searching for all the missing copies of the painting ‘The Bricklayers Daughter’ in hope that they too, will be able to shed some light on on the Tower’s purpose, all while fighting off the challenges of Luc Marat.
One of the things that really drew me in to the very first book, Senlin Ascends, was Bancroft’s magnificent prose, and it is utilised to it’s fullest here in the The Fall of Babel. The pacing—except for the very abrupt and lengthly check-in with Adam at the start—is managed very well. The crossing back and forth between the various characters later in the book is handled very deftly and while this instalment is quite lengthly, it never felt like it dragged. And as I touched on when discussing Nebos, the particular brand of weirdness that has become a hallmark of the series is still at front and centre. In fact, I would go as far as saying that the steampunk elements of the Tower are showcased even more prominently here than they have been previously.
As for the how the various characters progressed, I think Edith—current captain of the State of the Art—comes off as my absolute favourite. It’s her journey, out of all others, that feels the most compelling. Our lengthly stay with Adam also helped flesh him out in a way that I would have liked to have seen happen one or two books ago. Other characters, like Violeta, Iren, Reddleman and Byron were very compelling to read about, but their arcs were not anywhere near as progressive as that of Edith’s. (But I am still all heart-eyes over Byron)
But what about Marya and Thomas? While I can’t really expand on what happens to these two without dropping spoilers all over the place, I am going to say that you shouldn’t expect things to be wrapped up too nicely in ribbons and bows here. Both characters have been through a lot since they embarked in their expedition to the tower, and they are both no longer the same people that they once were. The resolution here fits perfectly on an emotional level, but its perhaps not as clean as some readers would like.
Another thing that hit me as slightly odd is that while the books set out with Senlin as the main character, I am less certain that he has kept that position throughout the series. The expansion of the cast as the story has gone on has pushed the spotlight further away from him. The extended isolation from the rest of the cast didn’t help either. This series may have started off as the pilgrimage of Senlin, but the focus gradually wandered away from him while I were preoccupied with other goings-on and I was slow to notice.
So who would I nominate as the main character of the series in place of Thomas? I am tempted to settle on the Tower itself, especially when we enter the run up to the climax and start to get an inkling about what the Bricklayer was actually trying to achieve with the Bridge to Babel.
My prior Star Wars analogy might have come apart at the seams, but it seems the stars are still a priority.
Overall, I think this was a emotionally satisfying conclusion to a series that I absolutely loved immersing myself in, but I would be lying if I said I wasn’t knocked for six with some of the emotional and narrative turns Bancroft decided to make. I also think that there’s enough left turns in the last part of the book that other readers might come away with a very different opinion. Putting it lightly, the resolution was not exactly predictable.
However, on a slightly lighter note, I am also convinced that there’s enough ambiguity at the ending that Bancroft could make a return to the Tower if the so wished