Book Review – Arm of the Sphinx, by Josiah Bancroft

Having been delighted with Josiah Bancroft’s Senlin Ascends, I dove straight into its sequel, Arm of the Sphinx. Top-line verdict: it’s wonderful. I liked it nearly as much as the first book, which is to say that if forced to assign stars, I’d give it 4.9 out of 5.

AotS is a more complex book than its predecessor, and I expect my thoughts on it will be more rambling and less coherent, but here ‘goes. First, the sentence-crafting is every bit as good as in Senlin Ascends. Bancroft’s sublime artistry with imagery and metaphors is on full display, making the story a joy to read on its lowest level. I found myself stopping to take notes* on particularly lovely turns of phrase, which is not something I typically do while reading. All the praise I heaped on the author in my review of Senlin Ascends applies equally to Arm of the Sphinx.

The major departure of AotS is its ensemble-cast nature. While the first book’s narrative was almost exclusively limited to Thomas Senlin’s point of view, Arm of the Sphinx treats us to the thoughts and motivations of his entire crew. Bancroft bounces the narrative from character to character with vigor, such that I’d be hard pressed to call Voleta, Adam, Iren and Edith secondary characters at all. This is a book about a group of complex people with fascinating relationships, and in that sense represents a leap in energy level from the first book. (Oh, to be sure, there are secondary characters, fascinating ones bursting with mystery, but talking about them would spoil a bit more than I’m comfortable with.)

Where Senlin Ascends was a single sparkling jewel, Arm of the Sphinx is more like a high-end jewelry store. It feels sprawling, its narrative expanding in unexpected directions but never quite flying out of control. It did feel to me like the author couldn’t quite bring himself to commit either to 3rd-person limited or true 3rd-person omniscient narration, and I did find the head-hopping to be distracting at times. Changes in POV sometimes felt haphazard and unexpected. But the story’s willingness to break its single-lead-character shackles was more a strength than a weakness; it allowed the author to treat us a tale of wider scope and at the same time give us wonderfully detailed characterizations.

Of all the types of virtuosity on display in Arm of the Sphinx, my favorite was the author’s ability to present complex physical action with an almost uncanny clarity. I am reminded of a particular scene where [very minor spoiler] a character is trapped in a submerged boat by a monster, and the action could have been extremely confusing to follow in the hands of a less savvy author. But Bancroft made it so easy to follow the complexities of the scene, I never had to pause to reorient myself. All of his action sequences are like that – complex but clear. It’s a rare skill.

As the second book in a four book series, Arm of the Sphinx wraps itself up nicely while offering a clear segue into the next chapter. Some mysteries are answered while new ones are introduced. (What the $#@! is up with Byron?) And the ending, where [huge spoiler redacted], is a sharp splash of water to the face. I look forward to the third installment of the series (The Hod King) as much as I have looked forward to any sequel I can recall.

*A few of my favorite lines/passages:

“It raised a cry that was as forceful as a cannon and tuneful as a rusty hinge.”

“Dignity is entirely ephemeral; it is like the dust of a butterfly’s wing. Once shed, it is impossible to recover.”

“The air is redolent of parchment, glue, leather, and must. It is a soothing perfume. I wonder why. What is the appeal of this pulp and board technology? Books are seldom more than an author elaborating upon their obsession with the grammar of self-doubt. How superior are books to authors! Nothing believes in itself so much as a book; nothing is less bothered by history or propriety. “Begin in my middle,” the book says. “Rifle straight to my end.” What difference does it make? The book comes out of white, empty flyleaves and goes into the same oblivion. And the book is never afraid.”

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