Fans of Josiah Bancroft’s popular series, The Books of Babel, had to wait two long years for The Fall of Babel, the last one in the set of four novels. The wait was not made easier by the face that the previous novel in the series, The Hod King, ends with a life-or-death cliffhanger. People nagged him, fans mobbed him, he had to keep explaining that he would rather do a good job and publish the last book later than rush it and have a less than perfect product.
So ever since The Hod King came out in January 2019, and it became known that, in fact, there would be four, not three books, readers have been hurrying up and waiting. And waiting. The title of book no. 4 sounded like a portent for a plot in which terrible things happen and no happy outcomes can be expected. The Fall of Babel finally hit the shelves on November 9, 2021, and I was pleased to find a fresh-off-the-press copy at my local bookstore.
Was it worth the wait? Yes, it is engrossing, thrilling, clever, and well written, but make no mistake, it is epic. In bringing to a close all the storylines, ideas, character developments, foreshadowing, etc., of this detailed constructed world, in one, final book, and in ways that would pass the scrutiny of his fandom, I feared that Bancroft would lose the plot, pardon the pun, but he did not.
The novel does stand up to critical reading. Moreover, he avoided the mistake that some authors make of not mentioning the wood for the trees: they get all the disparate elements of the story right, but there is nothing more, no deeper meaning, no greater significance, no emotional appeal to the reader.
In this series of three posts, I’ll be having a look at a few specific aspects of the novel, but also at what Bancroft is saying about the woods, rather than the trees.
This. Is. Big.
It is 672 pages long. It took me a while to get through it. I’ve spent the 70+ days since its release consuming The Fall of Babel at a rate of a couple of chapters per day. After a slow start, it turned into an immersive experience from which I had as much difficulty extracting myself as I had with Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall books. There is so much to think about and comment on that I will be analyzing the novel in different posts, starting with this one.
Bancroft’s constructed world or fictional universe, depending on what the 65-level “Tower of Babel”, turns out to be in the final book, is as complicated, detailed, reasoned and distinctive as the best in Fantasy fiction and Science Fiction, for instance “Arrakis” from Frank Herbert’s Dune, “Arkhangelsk”, in the Arkhangelsk Trilogy by Mike Kraus, Terry Pratchett’s “Discworld”, “Gethen”, in Hayao Miyazaki’s Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, Arda, the location of J. R. R. Tolkien’s “Middle-earth” in The Lord of the Rings, and Iain M. Banks’ “The Culture“.
A word to the wise about fictional worlds
Did you know that there are “rules” for fictional worlds, a.k.a. rendered worlds? Whether someone creates a world for a novel, game, comic, manga, illustrated novel, or screenplay, there are principles to stick to: the creators have to think up and deal with, or create parallels of, all the facets of the world that we live in now: the creation and history of the place, its inhabitants and characters, its physics, biology, society, life forms, the elements of magic or speculation that makes it Fantasy or Science Fiction, the languages, cosmology, politics, governance, geography and maps, and of course, the culture of the place. (Here you can read about how parts of the Star Trek universe was created.)
A couple of levels of the Tower of Babel – illustration from Arm of the Sphinx, by Josiah Bancroft. Illustration by Josiah Bancroft.
The “Sea of Decay” from the film of Hayao Miyazaki’s Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, which was released in March 1984. The success of the film led to the founding of Studio Ghibli in 1985. Miyazaki began writing and drawing Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind in his spare time in 1982, as a manga. “He created an entire world that had been poisoned so he could look at the way humans’ toxicity warped the Earth, and the way the Earth healed itself.” (Source: Leah Schnelbach, Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind: A New Kind of Action Hero, on Tor.com, Mar. 29, 2017, retrieved Jan, 24, 2022) https://www.tor.com/2017/03/29/nausicaa-of-the-valley-of-the-wind-a-new-kind-of-action-hero/comment-page-1/
Map of the world of “Arrakis” from the Dune novels by Frank Herbert. (Source: Signed by the original artist Dorothy de Fontain. Added by Alex Dunkel (with email address in graphic) and MoffRebus. Posted in ArrakisArrakis/XD on the Dune Fandom Wiki. Dorothy de Fontain’s map of Arrakis appeared in a 1977 edition of Dune, published by Berkley Medallion, 12th printing. Retrieved Jan. 24, 2022 from the Dune Fandom Wiki page: https://dune.fandom.com/wiki/Arrakis
Paul Kidby’s illustration of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld: a large disc resting on the backs of four elephants, which are in turn standing on the back of an enormous turtle called Great A’Tuin, as it swims through space. Illustration: Paul Kidby/Orion Books (Source: Alison Flood, Interview: Terry Pratchett’s ‘artist of choice’ on illustrating Discworld, in The Guardian UK, Aug. 18, 2016, retrieved Jan. 25, 2022) https://www.theguardian.com/books/2016/aug/18/terry-pratchett-artist-illustrating-discworld-colouring-book
If the works are successful, more so if they are produced in different media and form a series, readers and users will analyze the depiction to hell and back, in the most excruciating detail, since they feel, at that stage, as if it were their world and they know it better than even the creators can. (That’s Fandom for you.) Obviously, the longer a book is, the more scope there is for readers to poke and pry and relentlessly pick apart the fictional world. If the depiction is not convincing, readers will be quick to point that out.
From my first reading, with some back-checking on earlier passages, I can say that I think that Bancroft has addressed every one of the required aspects of fictional world creation with his Tower of Babel. He has excelled in the depiction of the characters and societies of the Tower in all of the 65 “ringdoms”, and in their peculiarities, as well as the mechanics and functioning of these worlds. It’s a bit like reading about steampunk machines operating within an even larger, even crazier, monolithic steampunk engine.
Bancroft himself created the illustrations in the Books of Babel series – he obviously has talent as an illustrator and an ability to concretize his ideas. I would have liked to have seen a few more illustrations in this novel – particularly of the highest levels of the Tower and of the mysterious source of the power which keeps the Tower working and its occupants alive.
Senlin, Edith, Voleta, Reddleman, Luc Marat, and the rest
Readers of the previous novels will know the names in the heading above. “Thomas Senlin” was the main protagonist all along, but in this book, the focus is placed equally on all the primary protagonists: the “Sphinx” himself/herself/itself (?), ruler and creator of the entire Tower, and her counterpart in its creation, the “Bricklayer”; “Adam”, the pick-pocketing brother of the light-footed, machine-augmented acrobat, “Voleta” who was brought back from the dead; “Edith”, captain of the sail-less airship State of the Art, the “Arm of the Sphinx” and next best thing to the “Sphinx”; “Reddleman”, the ship’s navigator who is more of a machine than a man, and a tragic figure; and “Luc Marat”, the insane, megalomaniac zealot, leader of the hods, and enemy of the Sphinx and of just about all the other characters.
There were many moments when I wished that the publishers had included a list of characters at the start of the novel because I have to admit, I sometimes lost track.
Bancroft also winds up the stories of the second-tier characters such as Senlin’s long-suffering and long-lost wife “Marya” and the crazy baron who is after her blood; “Ann”, the timid governess; the powerful warrior “‘Mister’ Iren”, and the delightfully elegant and thoughtful, deer-like creature, “Byron”, one of the creatures made by the Sphinx.
The characters, who each have a story-line that are interwoven in the three preceding books, reach maturity in this book, and their journeys come to an end.
Tying up the story-lines
Like with any plot about an apocalypse, the reader knows beforehand that this is about the end of the Tower of Babel, the multi-storey world placed by itself in a desert. The question just is, how will it take place? Will it fall down structurally, or will it fall in the sense of political or socio-economic collapse?
Bancroft leaves no question unanswered, and no twist in the plot incomplete. All the loose ends are nicely tucked away, every character ends up somewhere, with their future spelled out. Some have an open-ended adventure ahead of them, others die, others settle down permanently. Every idea, philosophy, and sub-text that he raised in the previous books, is reiterated and explained.
Finally, in this novel, you understand why he introduced certain ideas in the earlier novels: why there is the “black trail” of the hods; why the hods burn books; why the top-most world is completely isolated; how and why there is the “hod king” machine; what the “medium” is and what it is used for, etc. etc.
Whatever you wondered about, gets an answer. It takes a serious amount of explaining to put this baby to bed, which justifies the 672-page length (and it’s 672 pages in fairly small print too – I’d say 9 pt. or less.)
This is a magnum opus in the same class as Herbert’s Dune, or Asimov’s Foundation. which Bancroft has written with a high level of creativity and skill.
In the next post: Josiah Bancroft’s “Books of Babel” Tetralogy Goes Out with an Almighty Bang (2)
Bancroft’s liking for particular words, what happens in the story, and more about the author.