Arm of the Sphinx is the 2nd book in Josiah Bancroft’s Books of Babel series, following fairly directly from Senlin Ascends. Our main character, still very much on the hunt for his missing wife (now absent for over a year), is no longer the uptight Niles Crane he once was; his adventures have changed him quite fundamentally, and he’s not entirely certain it’s a good thing. Senlin finds himself the rakish captain of a struggling pirate airship, with a crew easily as oddball as himself. Making a return appearance from the 1st book (and each with far larger parts to play) are Adam Boreas (still fairly bland and struggling to find his character), Voleta Boreas (a charming adrenaline junky with a quick wit and a quicker tongue), Iren the amazon, and Edith Winters (who may well be the master piece of this particular book). Oh, I should also point out that Senlin is addicted to a narcotic and is being haunted by visions of his missing wife. And that’s where the book kicks off.
Just going to say: How much did I love Senlin Ascends? Enough that as soon as Arm of the Sphinx arrived on my doorstep, I put off starting the new Robin Hobb trilogy. That’s right, I bumped the Hobb to continue my journey with Senlin.
The poetry is still very much there. No I doubt mean fancy rhymes or well constructed lyrics. There is a poetry in the way Bancroft writes, his prose is often so damned witty it fair leaps off the page and slaps you in the face. Each chapter starts with a little excerpt from a book and each is poignant and thoughtful. I mean, the book starts off with this:
“Civilization is like sunshine. Spread it about, and the world blooms with culture, innovation, and fraternity. But focus it all upon one spot, and mankind scorches the earth like a ray from a magnifying glass.”
This passage should also tell you a lot about Senlin himself, who has adopted a very healthy (maybe unhealthy) attitude of cynicism. But there is a lot different from Senlin Ascends. The first book was a dizzying tour of fantastical locations that had the reader’s head spinning along with Senlin’s. The action was few and far between, but the pace never suffered, because it was all such a wonderful charming mystery. In Arm of the Sphinx, the mystifying locations are dialed down (there’s still a couple), and the action is ramped up (which is possibly the book’s biggest failing). We ride along inside the heads of all of Senlin’s crew of would be pirates, and the chapters chop and change to leave cliffhangers here, there, and everywhere. In some ways it’s great to get inside the other character’s heads and get to know them properly, but in other ways it really slows down the pace during the action.
As always I’m trying to do this review without spoilers so I can’t give specifics, but the action scenes actually hurt the narrative somewhat in places. I found they were sometimes there simply to generate some tension, whereas the 1st book relied on mystery and suspense to give the same effect. I found I preferred the approach of the 1st book, because it felt more natural. But, as I have said, this is a different book and is obviously trying different things… which is manages to an extent.
One of Bancrofts greatest gifts is his ability to make you care about his characters. With just a few words he can endear a character to the reader to the point where you find yourself wrapped up in their plight. By the end of Arm of the Sphinx I found myself rooting for everyone, even those who were quite bland and unremarkable, and it’s very clear all of the characters have a major part to play in the future.
Which brings me to the finale. No spoilers, but WOW! It is actually one of the freshest takes on a finale I have read in a very long time. In some ways it saves the book from all of the oddly paced action that had come before it. It answers some questions, asks others, and tells us what to expect (I have no doubt it will shirk those expectations) from the book to come. HOWEVER… it is also very much a 2nd book. There is a lot of setup for what is to come, and very little resolution.
All in all I loved Arm of the Sphinx, in some ways more than Senlin Ascends, and in some ways less. I’m giving the book 4 stars because as wonderful as it is, it suffers from some odd choices, and also from 2nd book syndrome. I still whole heartedly recommend the entire series.
Also, a GIGANTIC congratulations to Josiah Bancroft for signing with Orbit (They’re a fairly big publisher!) But the travesty is this means I’ll probably have to wait a very long time before I can read Book III: The Hod King.