(Minor Spoilers Ahead)
Senlin Ascends (review here) was an excellent first act in Josiah Bancroft’s fully realized and fleshed out world, with intricate characters and a number of mysteries which set the imagination on fire. Originally self-published in 2015, Arm of the Sphinx came to be re-released by Orbit this March, in preparation for The Hod King which is coming out in September 2018. After reading this book, I’m beyond excited to get my hands on it! That said, I’m getting ahead of myself and so, let’s jump right into the review!
Picking up a few months after the end of Bancroft’s first novel, Arm of the Sphinx sees our main characters scrapping by outside the Tower, living the life of gentlemen(and women!) pirates, only taking a fifth or a tenth of whatever the cargo of their victims’ ships is. Not terribly efficient as far as piracy goes, with our daring airship crew often going to bed with empty stomachs and always on high alert. The enemies made in the last novel are nothing if not tenacious, after all, and although our heroes start off free and outside the Tower, the problem now is: how do they get back in? It’s a problem that gets compounded pretty early on in the story and in a funny way, too, but with some serious life-or-dead consequences.
In the previous book, Senlin ascended(hah!) through several of the ringdoms, starting from the Market at the base of the Tower all the way to New Babel, experiencing a number of the Tower’s hospitalities during the climb. Arm of the Sphinx cuts the number of ringdoms Senlin and his crew visit to The Silk Gardens, which continues the tradition of introducing strange environments into the greater whole that is The Tower of Babel. Other areas also figure into the novel, of course, but I won’t name them for fear of spoiling some of the enjoyment. Suffice to say, no small part of the novel takes place in the air outside the Tower itself and the crew dynamics on the Stone Cloud are a welcome addition!
Themes and Characters:
The Arm of the Sphinx differs from Senlin Ascends in that the focus is no longer on Senlin alone. A number of PoVs now follow the rest of Senlin’s crew as well, offering us readers several different perspectives on how each of the Stone Cloud’s crewmates thinks and engages with the world and their peers. While I’ve immensely enjoyed my time lurking in Senlin’s head, the switch-up makes for a nice change of pace and develops characters I loved seeing on the sidelines in the previous novel.
The novel has a lighter tone than its predecessor, which is something of a plus. The oppressive start to Senlin Ascends and our protagonist’s inability to deal with the reality he found himself in didn’t quite make for light reading, back at the start of Ascends. A big part of this is the Stone Cloud’s crew, with Voleta deserving a special mention; she might, in fact, be my favourite tree-climbing, vent-crawling adrenaline junkie in all of fiction! Something about her, the way she enjoys her freedom as well as just how much she grows during the events of this second novel is absolutely wonderful.
What about Senlin’s character development? I’m as happy with it as can be! Senlin, occasionally going by the name of Captain Tom Mudd, continues to develop due to external factors while nevertheless keeping true to a unique philosophy about life and knowledge that no one else in the whole Tower seems to have. His choices serve to create a contrast between Senlin and everyone else while speaking of a moral core which equips him with the tools necessary to combat the Tower’s influence time and time again.
Something that deserves a mention, theme-wise, is the philosophy within Arm of the Sphinx. Books continue to play a key role and for all the right reasons; each chapter starts off with epigraphs from in-universe novels or diaries. A conflict this novel sets up is the dangers of education versus those of illiteracy — the literate man from outside the Tower can be naive to a fault like Senlin was at his journey’s beginning. At the same time, the lack of knowledge as to the ‘why’ behind the Tower’s existence is a great danger of its own. This is far from the only philosophical undercurrent of the novel, but I would be loathe to give up much more for all of you who haven’t had the pleasure to experience the mysteries the Tower of Babel offers.
Conclusion and Score:
I am unbelievably happy to say that Arm of the Sphinx doesn’t suffer from the expectations Senlin Ascends created. I loved Arm every step of the way: the start, the middle, and the brutal ending which demands I pre-order The Hod King! This novel gave me the feels, as kids nowadays say. All the feels.
It’s a great second act which reveals a dozen mysteries and sets up many, many more. Arm of the Sphinx subverted my expectations, confused and thrilled me in all the right ways, never frustrating in a negative way. The language is once again excellent, the dialogue witty and entertaining to no end.
The score I gave this on Goodreads is five out of five stars! I also grant this novel two out of two Sphinx arms, as well as a whole bag of steampunk-y devices and knick-knacks!
Buy it, read it, enjoy it, gush about it on the Internet. I just did, and I’m much the better for it!