Writer Nicholas Tucker said about Richard Adams’ 50-hankie-bunny-weepie, Watership Down, “Adams … has bravely and successfully resurrected the big picaresque adventure story, with moments of such tension that the helplessly involved reader finds himself checking whether things are going to work out all right on the next page before daring to finish the preceding one.” The same thing happened to me while I was reading The Hod King, book 3 in The Books of Babel series by Josiah Bancroft. I had a hard time stopping myself from paging over to see whether things are going to turn out all right.
Before this one, Bancroft wrote Senlin Ascends (Book 1), (2018), and Arm of the Sphinx (Book 2), (2018). The Hod King again takes up the story of teacher turned pirate and adventurer, “Thomas Senlin” and his search in the “Tower of Babel” for his wife, “Marya”. At the end of book 2, the “Sphinx”, the mysterious keeper of the tower, reveals that Marya has taken up with a handsome, wealthy man. It was a terrible cliffhanger that Bancroft had created – the fairly hapless anti-hero, Senlin, does not know what the Sphinx has seen. Cruelty to innocent readers, I say! We had to wait almost a year for an answer!
This is what the Sphinx saw in the image projector, one book ago:
“A woman with rolling auburn hair was humming, almost singing, inside a pretty yellow room.The furniture was uniform but artisanal, and bespoke great wealth.[…]The humming woman parted the crinoline curtain the encircled a bassinet and lifted out an infant swaddled in white. The infant made fussing noises, its pink face still clenched from the horror of being born. A man in dark navy entered the picture and joined the woman holding the babe. He put his arm around her waist. She seemed reluctant to look at him, but when she did, her expression was full of nervous searching.
‘Doctor said you should be in bed,’ the man said, turning enough to show his handsome profile. ‘I just wanted to see her, to make sure she’s all right,’ the woman said, though she was already returning the child to the bassinet, her movement guided by the arms that wrapped around her. ’This is what the nurses are for.’
‘You won’t blame her? Promise you won’t?’ She could not stop herself from looking back at the veiled crib.
‘Yes, yes. I promise,’ he said in the singsong tone of a settled argument. ‘Come, come, Marya. Back to bed.’” (Arm of the Sphinx, p.398)
With this scene, we are not only left in suspense, but in emotionally charged suspense. At the time that I reviewed Arm of the Sphinx, Josiah Bancroft commented in an email to me that, “To my chagrin, I’ve fallen behind in my correspondence. I’m a bit preoccupied at the moment with the arrival of my first child, and some important things have fallen through the cracks as a result.” No doubt that tender, romantic and somewhat mysterious description was written by a man who knows how it feels to become a first-time father.
In The Hod King, you have to read all the way to page 101 to get an answer. And, typically Bancroft, he puts that brief moment of resolution in the last line in the last paragraph of the chapter, on a half way empty page. It sits there like it’s lacking about five exclamation marks and a couple of wow! emoticons.
“You can take that ridiculous thing off now,” Marya said. ‘What are you doing here, Tom?’” (p. 101)
Talk about helpless involvement of the reader. I realized I had hardly taken in a word of the preceding chapter so as to get to this point in the book.
And then what happened?
Saying more would be revealing too much, because, though Bancroft’s tetralogy is an adventure novel, it is also a romance. And I realized this time, that it is also a political thriller. I had had a suspicion all along that the characters of the “hods” – seemingly dim-witted slaves of the people who live in the “ringdoms” of the Tower – are a metaphor for something. They are too obviously repressed, abused, numerous and mysterious. They are a people waiting for a revolution, or plotting it.
Plot spoiler ahead! Read no further if you don’t want to know.
Strange too – perhaps a foreshadowing – is Marya’s reason for being in the position that she is – “But this isn’t about us, Tom. This is about the lives and hearts of others.” (p. 107). Qué? Say what? What others?
Mmmm. And then there is the scene where the hods are being executed to “balance the books” – it reminded me awfully of beheadings during the French Revolution. Even the rhetoric about it seemed to say, there is a plot underneath all this, and it’s not about romance, it’s about power.
Does it get horribly tense in the second part of the book? Do we ever find out who the “Hod King” is? And what he or she is up to? And what’s with that stolen kiss between Senlin and his former shipmate with the electronic arm, “Edith”? I’m not telling. You read it for yourself.
As before, Bancroft has written in a refined, yet interesting style, each sentence carefully crafted to be flowing, clear and pleasant to read. Each scene or fantastical new situation is so well described that it seems more like a dramatic setting for a play, rather than just words moving the plot along.
“The bridge, which was itself larger than the entire main deck of the Stone Cloud, looked to have been designed by a jeweller: everything was gold, silver, or some other precious alloy. The ship’s control panels, which consumed three of the bridge’s four walls, were filled with buttons and knobs, each as ornate as a signet ring. A hundred faceted bulbs flashed amid the controls. Their red, white and green lights were bright enough to make the room sparkle. A bank of crystal-faced dials relayed the wind speed and barometric pressure as well as the ship’s altitude, air speed, envelope density, coil temperature, oil level, and a dozen other essential measurements, only some of which were familiar to the crew.” (p.348)
A fantastical constructed world
(Above: left to right: some of the graphics that have come from the books: illustrations by readers of the air ship and the tower, the mechanical arm that was invented by the Sphinx, and the genius conceptualization of the Tower, made out of cosmetics, by a fan called “S.K. Farrell”, that I’ve used in the header to this post. They are all on Bancroft’s blog.)
The reader must pay attention since every little detail has been integrated into the plot, so that you will realize that the thing that is important now, was first mentioned a couple of chapters back. For instance, Senlin gets a message from the Sphinx, who has financed his mission in the tower, and the message consists of a slap to the face and an outraged note, signed “S. Finks.” Ha! S. Finks – Sphinx. Took me a moment to get that.
Another fine detail is that Senlin adopts a fake identity when he goes back to his search, calling himself “Cyril Pinfield”. This name was proposed for a “dandy” by a fan in one of the many interesting “contests” that Bancroft hosts on his blog. Cyril eventually turned out not to be a dandy, but a peculiar, fusty accountant from a people called “Boskops”, who are notoriously spartan and immune to pleasure. “Boskop” is an Afrikaans name, common in South Africa, for both a human fossil of the Middle Stone Age, a small hinterland town, a shrub-covered hill, someone who is a bit confused, and a person with big, wild hair. So it turned out that Senlin’s new identity is quite the opposite to a dandy. As the chapter header says: “There really is no point to teasing a Boskop. They are insensible to wit. One might as well whistle for a footstool or attempt to romance a mop.” (p.54)
The setting of the novel is what makes each individual book, and the series, a cohesive whole. You could, if you wanted, read each of the three books published thus far out of sequence and as standalone novels. Bancroft inserts enough back-references at the start of book 2 and book 3 to let you understand the characters and the context. But the common element, the marvellous world of the Tower and its “ringdoms” and each “nation’s” reason for being, morals and philosophies, and even laws of nature, are systematic and seamless. I couldn’t pick out any plot holes.
Rules for writing constructed worlds
What are the rules for constructing a fictional universe or world that works? There’s decades of debate about what defines a “world”. But generally, a defined region and people would have its own etymology, history, geography, government, politics, economy, demographics, languages. etc. Apart from those, in literature and gaming, a successful fictional “world” usually meets most of the following criteria:
- Could be a planet, a country, universe, or a place
- It’s usually created for more than one book
- It has a fine level of detail, same as in the real world
- It has its own natural laws, rules and beliefs
- It has established continuity (or a consistent timeline)
- It has continuous internal logic across separate works (what is true in book #1, remains true in all the others)
- History and geography (the settings) of a fictional universe are well defined, and maps and timelines are often included
- New languages are optional
- Established facts are not violated
- The entire scope of facts about the world can be documented in a “story bible” especially when it becomes too complex for the author to remember (these days, easy to do online). The story bible must satisfy the persnickety obsession with detail of the author’s fans. Fans will persist in correcting deviations from the story bible. Once it reaches that stage, you can be sure that copyright and intellectual property rights will have to be dealt with.
- There could be recurring characters across different books
- There may be crossover references between books
- If more than one world or universe is described, the author could create a “multiverse”
- The fan base, or the author, could use “retroactive continuity” (a.k.a. “retcon”), a technique whereby new elements or changes to the story bible are introduced and justified in prequels or sequels
- Successful fictional worlds often spawn derivative works or fandoms
- If established enough, a fictional world can be shared by multiple authors, or result in cross-over worlds (Say, Frank Herbert’s “Arrakis” crossed with J.R.R. Tolkien’s “Middle Earth”. Now there’s a thought.)
So, of all these criteria, which ones does The Hod King meet? Because a novel cannot only be a lovely piece of imagination and a demonstration of technical competence. In fact, the technical competence is a given. It has to have something more – an idea, a “crusade” if you will.
- ✅ Well-constructed fictional world – a place – the “Tower of Babel”
- ✅ Created for more than one book
- ✅ Detailed, well defined
- ✅ Laws, rules, beliefs, etc.
- ✅ Internal, continuous consistency, not violated
- ✅ Recurring characters
- ✅ Crossover references
- ✅ The series already has a Fandom – fan art, followers and story bible fact-checkers
The answer is yes, the big idea is there. Bancroft has enough of a vision to keep the story riveting and to keep the poor reader helplessly involved and constantly cheating by skimming forward. Will this approach be continued in Bancroft’s as yet unnamed Book 4? (There is an extract at the end of The Hod King, but no title yet.) I hope that, you, like me, will be eagerly awaiting the next one and will grab it as soon as it is published. And that Bancroft will keep his head about him while everyone about him are losing theirs with excitement, and keep it together, stick to his guns and craft another finely tuned, well-constructed, entrancing novel.
About the header: The “tower” is a model by S.K. Farrell, from Josiah Bancroft’s blog. The background is a slough on the Harrison River, near Swaggin Point Lookout, BC, Canada. (Photo by M. Bijman, Feb. 2019)