Arm of the Sphinx by Josiah Bancroft
Arm of the Sphinx (2018) is the sequel to Senlin Ascends (2017), Josiah Bancroft’s extremely popular novel that was originally self-published but later picked up by Orbit Books after it was highlighted by Mark Lawrence in his Self-Published Fantasy Blog Off contest a couple years ago. I loved Senlin Ascends, a story about a man named Thomas Senlin who is accidentally separated from his wife at the base of the Tower of Babel. To find her, he enters the tower alone, which starts him on a series of adventures as he tries to make his way through each level to find his wife. You really must read Senlin Ascends before picking up Arm of the Sphinx and, to avoid spoilers, you may not want to read this review until you’ve done so.
In Arm of the Sphinx, Thomas finally has some information about his wife’s current location in the tower. It’s been about a year since he’s seen her and he can’t be sure that she’s still married to him, or even still alive, but he’s determined to find her. In addition to the worthless guidebook he’d been using to navigate the tower, Thomas has also thrown off his straight and stodgy schoolmaster ways. Now he is the pirate captain of an airship, hoping that this new identity will let him reach the level he thinks his wife is on. He is accompanied by several companions he met in the first book: Edith, who now has a mechanical arm; Iren, the soft-hearted brute who acts as Thomas’ bodyguard; Adam, his right-hand man who may not be completely trustworthy; and Adam’s sister Voleta, the trapeze girl who, in the previous book, was saved from a life in a brothel.
The story continues to be an adventure, though this time it’s more than that as Thomas begins to learn how the tower works, who some of its powerful denizens are, some of its history and politics, and what the painting he carries might signify. Clearly, the tower is more organized, strange, and sinister than it seemed in the previous book.
I definitely enjoyed Arm of the Sphinx, though not quite as much as I enjoyed Senlin Ascends. This is partly because, in Senlin Ascends, I really loved the feeling of being dropped, with a bewildered schoolmaster, into an unfamiliar and really bizarre place. In Arm of the Sphinx, things are still unfamiliar and bizarre, but Thomas is more knowledgeable and confident; I found him most amusing when he was bewildered.
Another related issue for me (and this is the main one, actually) is that Arm of the Sphinx is told from the viewpoint of several of the characters, not just Thomas himself. The other characters’ scenes are mostly action sequences such as chases and fights. These are entertaining enough but, as I mentioned in my review of Senlin Ascends, the charm of this series for me is Bancroft’s use of a stuffy (yet endearing) over-educated know-it-all as his protagonist. Thomas is clever and witty, but totally out of his depth in the tower. Bancroft’s narrative style seems matched to Thomas’ personality and doesn’t work as well when relating the other characters’ scenes. The best moments, in fact, are those in which we’re in Thomas’ head:
I think Edith Winters is an attractive woman. There. I haven’t the formal training to elaborate upon this point, that is the domain of poets. They know how to organize an ode, how to polish a woman’s features separately, then arrange them like pieces of fruit in a bowl. They are adept at making astute observations about the troubled quality of beauty. They do not struggle to produce sensitive metaphors. They have the courage to speak. If there was some form of verse composed only of ellipses, interjections and parentheses, I would be a bard.
I’m looking forward to the third book, The Hod King, which will be released in September. I will again elect to listen to the audio version produced by Hachette Audio. John Banks is an excellent choice for narrator and he gives a perfect performance. The audiobook is just over 14 hours long. I highly recommend it.
Kat, I LOVE the passage you chose to quote! That is perfect.
I can so relate to Thomas. He knows and appreciates beauty when he experiences it, but he’s totally incapable of producing it himself…
(Although he really can, as we see from this passage…)