Some writers write so clearly, elegantly and expressively that reading their words is like drinking a glass of the best ever chilled white wine on a stiflingly hot day. It’s refreshing, pleasing and just moreish. Josiah Bancroft writes like this. His novel, Arm of the Sphinx, is of a very high calibre. While it is quite fantastical, the language makes everything appear to be quite plausible and reasonable and as clear as the aforementioned white wine.
If I had to quote you all the well-crafted lines in Arm of the Sphinx, I’d have to quote a great deal of the book. While the many characters peopling the different worlds in the novel are great leaps of the imagination by the author, they speak in “normal” voices – not strange or made-up accented languages, dialects or tongues. (Even the primitive-looking, labouring creatures called “hods” who “babble” are not quoted “babbling” and Bancroft does not represent their “inscrutable speech”.)
Rather, the entire text, except a few extracts from a diary, is in the excellent, fluent English of the omnipresent third person narrator. This gives an overall sense of normalcy and factuality to the novel and makes it an easy-going pleasure to read.
A cloud of stone, a sailing ship that flies
Bancroft tells the story of a ship, the “Stone Cloud”, that looks like and steers like a ship but flies, and the adventures of its oddball crew. The name is fitting – a masted sailing ship that flies is as incongruous as a cloud made of stone. It has a tube-like thing that connects it to a balloon full of gas that keeps it airborne.
“Most tourists were easy to pick out. Their ships were cobbled and converted, pasted and pinned together. They rode in gondolas that had once been hay wagons, brewers’ vats, and bathtubs. Once, Senlin had seen a tourist flying on a living horse that dangled under a balloon in a harness. The horse looked entirely humiliated and a little airsick.” (p.64, 65)
(A humiliated and airsick horse. Ha! I thought that was funny – one of many quietly witty lines in the book.)
The crew consists of the captain, “Tom Senlin”; his first mate, “Edith”, who has a mechanical arm; his “muscle”, the giant warrior woman, “Iren”; “Voleta”, a small acrobatic girl and lookout; and her one-eyed brother, “Adam”, the engineer and pilot. Tom is trying to steal, lie and trick his way (politely, as befits a former teacher) to finding his disappeared wife, “Marya”, whom he now perceives as a chatty spectre who hardly ever leaves his side.
To get the information he needs, Senlin steers his ship to the “Tower of Babel”. At the Tower, he and his crew have to find and beg help from the “Sphinx”, the mysterious person who gave Edith her beautiful, engraved electric arm. The Tower is a massive structure consisting of many layered worlds, to which airships from the various “ringdoms” (not kingdoms) anchor like at a gigantic space station. (Cue reminders of the “Death Star” here.) Luckily, the author provided us with pictures of the tower and the ship that make the concepts easier to grasp.
“The levels of the Tower are called ringdoms because they are like little round kingdoms, by the by. They’re like the thirty-six states of Ur [the country of the Tower of Babel], each unique in their way, but instead of being spread out across the map, the ringdoms are stacked up like a birthday cake, and like the layers of a cake, the stability of each ringdom depends on the support provided by those below.” (From: Review of “Senlin Ascends” on tor.com, Jan. 17, 2018, rtrvd. 2018-06-24)
A mix of genres and sub-genres
The novel partly takes the format of a Sea Story. A Sea Story features the setting of restricted life on board a ship, with themes such as the differences between crew and officers, exotic locales on different planets, battles, shipwrecks, sailing the air or the sky, and explorations of inhospitable areas “where no-one has gone before”. And of course the usual seafaring terminology – ship, sails, hull, ballast, rigging, and so forth. The fact that it is partly a Sea Story fits with the other features of the Steampunk Science Fiction/Science Fantasy sub-genre, such as the anachronistic technologies and retro-futuristic inventions.
But this is where Bancroft is different – perhaps because he is also a poet. The novel crosses the boundaries between Science Fiction sub-genres and mainstream genres and is something entirely of his own making. There are, for instance, strong Fantasy elements in it, like his invention of the “hods” and the different worlds within the tower. Some might say it is entirely in the Fantasy genre, not Science Fiction or Science Fantasy.
Considering he published the first book in the series himself, this is not unexpected. He could spin it any way he chose, in disregard of established limitations and expectations.
The novel is very steampunk – lots of ragged fabrics, grimy tunnels, mechanical flight with fearful drops from rotting platforms into the bottomless void around the tower, rusty engines, clanking mechanics, puffing steam, mouldering paper books, women in 19th century dresses and men in medieval-looking outfits. Everything is somewhat analog and mechanical. Yet, every so often there is an idea that reminds you that you are not reading a Victorian novel about early balloon flights, but SF: – the Sphinx for instance is a tall, skinny person who has a concave metallic face and floats about on a little hovercraft “tray”.
His helper is cybernetic, a human with elegant mechanical brass hands, and the face and antlers of a stag, called, poetically, “Byron”. Byron is a bit of a diva and tends to throw cadenzas and sulk.
And then there is the librarian who is a cat. That is just one of the little nods to existing memes in the book – we all know cats like libraries and that there have been many famous library cats. However, this cat, an intelligent being, knows how to catalogue.
Language and literature as themes
One of the clever features of the novel is that each chapter is headed by a pithy little motto, some from the books that Senlin consults to find his way into the Tower. Each one, if you read them carefully, gives you an indication of what will happen next. This one, below, seemed to me particularly true and insightful. Isn’t that just like people are?
The theme of the novel is, as the title suggests, language and cultures all mixed up in one place, represented by strange peoples, libraries, books, censorship, maps and searching for facts. Senlin, searching for clues to his missing wife, eventually finds himself lost in a bottomless library, and starts writing a diary:
“Ah, this devil of writing in ink! A pencil allows one to speculate and retract, to play a card and then renege. But ink immortalizes gestures and moods and muttered truths. If pencils were all we had, I suspect there would be far fewer books.” (p. 363)
A captain who doesn’t want to captain
Senlin is a fascinating lead character. He is a self-doubter, an utter coward, a romantic, someone who occasionally, out of desperation and fear, has a brilliant idea and does something stupidly brave. He muddles through, and occasionally faints when he gets into dangerous confrontations. By comparison, his first mate, Edith, is a much better aeronaut captain and leader. No doubt there will be lots of fan art of Senlin and his crew, and the creatures in the Tower. But ultimately, Senlin is no hero. He is a man who finds himself a leader of a rag-tag team and is simply not comfortable with it.
“She stopped, recognizing the expression on his [Senlin’s] face. It was the alert gaze of a man who had spent the past ten days locked up with his thoughts and a taciturn cat. She had seen the look before. He had come without a clear purpose in mind , which was an errand in itself.” (p.391)
One of a tetralogy – The Books of Babel
This is novel no. 2 of the tetralogy (4 books), The Books of Babel. The first one is Senlin Ascends, published in paperback on January 16, 2018. This one was published in paperback on March 13, 2018, and the last one, The Hod King, is due out in December 2018. Then there will be another one to round off the series, but the author has not revealed the name of it yet.
I started on no. 2 and not on no. 1 specifically to test whether the author could present the characters, settings, concepts and storyline in such a way that someone unfamiliar with the world of the Tower and Senlin could understand them immediately, and not have to revert to the first novel to check what’s going on. This is often the problem with publishing series of novels, particularly when each is not standalone but part of the same story-line. In that respect Bancroft is definitely successful.
The novel has extracts from the next in the series, The Hod King, at the back. Despite the sleep I had lost reading just a few pages more than I had planned to every night, because I enjoyed it so, I did not read on. I will buy the last book the second it comes out and give it my undivided attention. (And in the meantime, I will go back and read Senlin Ascends).
About Josiah Bancroft (whom you might not have heard of until 2018)
“Josiah Bancroft’s fantasy-adventure series is published by Orbit Books (US/UK). Before settling down to write fantasy novels, Josiah was a poet, college instructor, and aspiring comic book artist. When he is not writing, he enjoys playing post-pop music with his band, Dirt Dirt, drawing chalk pictures on his office wall, and cooking pub curry for his wife, Sharon. He shares a home with her and their two rabbits, Mabel and Chaplin, in Philadelphia.” (from his website, www.thebooksofbabel.com)
He is a poet, and an artist, and he has bunnies. What’s not to love? He was gutsy to have published Senlin Ascends himself. Self-publishing is a risky and expensive undertaking. Below is Bancroft explaining how it feels to have his novels released by a mainstream publisher:
“It’s been a wonderful, humbling, sometimes overwhelming experience. But I’m very grateful for all the attention and support. I owe a lot of gratitude to many people, my agent, my editors at Orbit, and [author] Mark Lawrence, of course, who gave my books a second shot at success [by promoting them via his contest to find outstanding self-published fantasy]. I’ve been given so much encouragement. I love interacting with the bustling community on r/fantasy [a subreddit] and with readers on social media.” (Nicole Hill, Josiah Bancroft on His Towering Year, March 16, 2018, from barnesandnoble.com, rtrvd. 2018-06-24)