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The Charm/Curse of Cliffhangers – The Hod King, by Josiah Bancroft
The Hod King (The Books of Babel, Book III), by Josiah Bancroft (paperback; publisher: Orbit; Jan. 22 2019; 624 pages)

The Hod King, Bancroft’s third book in his Books of Babel tetralogy, is an exercise in exquisite torture through cliffhangers. The previous books had open endings, the one leading into the next, with foreshadowing to segue nicely into the sequel. This time, it’s more than foreshadowing – it’s the story told from the perspective of four different characters, running parallel, and each of them end more or less simultaneously on absolutely chilling cliffhangers. And unfortunately for the reader, who’s gibbering with excitement and sweaty with tension, there’s a wait of another year to find out how it all works out.

It’s a bit like looking at a Where’s Waldo? puzzle. All four characters from whose perspectives the story is told are in or about “Pelphia”, one of the ringdoms in “The Tower of Babel”. “Senlin”, the former ship’s captain looking for his wife; “ Voleta”, his acrobatic crew-mate; “Iren”, the muscle; and “Edith”, the captain of the flying ship “State of Art”, are all there on roughly the same mission but their locations and routes don’t always intersect. They pop up here and there and just when you think the threads are going to get knotted together, Bancroft stops and moves on to another viewpoint, and another plotline.

It’s enjoyable but also makes you swear to yourself since it really tests your capacity for delayed gratification.

Multiple rising arcs

Typically, a story arc has one rising action storyline, consisting of incidents and accidents that build to create suspense, that leads to one whopper of a climax and then resolution. In The Hod King Bancroft quadruples that line so that the reader is left hanging almost at the end of very chapter. This is no exaggeration, dear readers. It got so bad I was reading it at the bus stop and almost missed my bus, then I got on the train and got so engrossed I almost forgot to get off at my stop. I’m telling you, it’s cruelty to small animals!

One of the best ones is when Voleta gets shot in a hand-to-hand fight.

“Voleta did not hear the second shot, nor did she see it, nor did she feel the bullet when it pierced her head. Then there was no room, and there was no light, and there was no her anymore.” (p.293)

To my mind, that’s pretty definitive. She’s dead. But you’ll have to keep reading to p. 550 to find out the rest. Page 550! That’s a long time to hold your breath!

However, this cliffhanger is doubled up. Iren wants to save Voleta but it all goes disastrously wrong. The line that caused me to almost miss my bus was this one:

“From her knees and with Voleta pressed to her heart, Iren watched the State of Art fall from the sky.” (p.305)

The Tower of Babel – illustration from “Arm of the Sphinx”, by Josiah Bancroft. Illustration by the author himself, Josiah Bancroft.

OK. That’s pretty terrible. A flying ship that falls is doomed. We know that from numerous explanations and mentions of the fact that in the Tower gravity still applies. Ships, and people, regularly fall from it and get splattered on the desert ground at its base. So, what now?

At the end of part 1, The Mermaid, Senlin has been recognized and exposed to his enemies. (Admittedly he had cheesed off many people.) He is imprisoned in an “iron mask” and is sentenced to being a hod. This punishment is quite classical, and can be found in a number of books and films, notably in the book by Alexandre Dumas, The Vicomte de Bragelonne: Ten Years Later (1847-1850).

Illustration of the anonymous prisoner in 17th century France known as “The Man in the Iron Mask”. This illustration is c. 1872.

It’s then that he meets an old enemy.

“‘Pinfield. Mudd. Senlin. You have more names than the village mutt, don’t you?’ Finn Goll said, polishing one small palm upon the other. Senlin’s former employer smiled like a sickle and said, ‘Ah, but you’ll always be good old Tom to me.’” (p.161)

Smiling like a sickle and rubbing his hands together? That bodes no good.

On that note of misery, we read no more about Senlin until p. 309, The Black Trail, which is a mere 35 pages worth of filler, and then there is a huge gap of more than 200 pages, until the very last chapter, where Senlin finally gets his comeuppance at the court of “Luc Marat”, leader of the hods. This ends the novel on the ultimate cliffhanger.

“Marat turned Senlin’s head with the gentle authority of a barber and set the knife to his temple. He began scraping the hair down to the stubble, erasing the evidence of many seasons of Senlin’s life. The desert wind stirred and swept his mane away.” (p.567)

In case you were thinking – Shame, what a plot spoiler this review is! I did consider not quoting these passages. However, what makes them cliffhangers is how the story got to those last lines. What is so bad, after all, about a man getting a shave? In themselves, they are neither good nor bad, just well crafted, but knowing what you do know about all the other cliffhanger endings and this chapter in particular is what makes it a nail-biter.

The only problem is, you’ll have to wait a year to find out what happens next. Oh, Mr. Bancroft – how could you!

Too much tension to bear?

Is it too much? If the entire book were just a discombobulated tangle of events and characters, I would say yes. But it’s not. As before, each character is finely honed, there are no plot-holes and the constructed world he has created is as compelling and plausible as ever. In fact, rather unusually for a Fantasy novel the characters are quite empathetic – even the evil ones and the technically-dead ones. (Yes, there are those.) And there is a deeper theme, which is revealed right at the end.

This book, though, reminded me at times of a Jo Nesbo thriller in the way it is constructed, and that’s a compliment.

The author’s process – How to Write A Complex Novel with Cliffhangers

Bancroft usually responds promptly and candidly to questions about his writing on Goodreads. He recently explained his particular process whilst writing The Hod King:

Question 1

Reader question: How do you plan your story? Do you sketch out the entire plot, then each book, then each chapter, etc. before you begin? Do you use visual aids, or written summaries? Can you give us some insight on your process?

Josiah Bancroft  “I do a bit of everything, honestly. I journal. I scrawl in note books. I fill up whiteboards and blackboards. I create outlines. I color code a stack of index cards. I record musings on my phone. I draw maps and plot trees. My process is always evolving, often inadequate, and generally abandoned. I’ll write a twenty page plot point outline, and then never look at it again. The most essential quality of my process is obsession and persistence. The rest is just (relatively necessary) floundering.”

Question 2

Reader question: Having just finished The Hod King (yet another 5*) obviously my thoughts were ‘More, more, more…’! Have you a rough date for release of Book 4? I recall you saying in an earlier question that you were a serious ‘polisher’ of your prose. An effort well worth expending based on your current books. How far down that route are you for Book 4?

Josiah Bancroft  ”Our hope is to have the fourth book out in 2020. It’s an ambitious goal. It took me three years to write The Hod King, and I’m attempting to write the final book in half that time. I’m not going to release the book before I’m happy with it, but I’ll do my best to have it out in a timely fashion. I’m so glad you’re enjoying the series. Thank you for reading and for being patient with me as I get the last book ready for you.”

There you go. Now you know which tools he uses: journals, outlines, index cards, colour coding, voice recordings, maps, plot trees…and time, time, time.

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