This is the third book in Josiah Bancroft’s Books of Babel series. If you’d like, you can read my effusive reviews of the first two books, Senlin Ascends and Arm of the Sphinx. With those first two books, the author set a high bar, but with the The Hod King, he leapt over it with yards to spare.
The language is every bit as flowing and perfect as I’ve come to expect, full of vivid yet economic descriptions, well-timed poignancy, and bulls-eye similes. Oh, the similes! I kept expecting to tire of them, as Bancroft uses them in cartloads, but I never did. He can reach into his bag at will and pull out the simplest, most evocative simile every time.
The story, and particularly its genre, continues to defy easy description. It’s listed as fantasy, and it feels like fantasy, but on close scrutiny I’m not sure why. There’s no magic; all of the magic-seeming effects are explained in-fiction as a kind of weird science. There are steam-punky airships and prosthetics, various old-tyme firearms, and most of the monsters are mechanical creations. Based only an objective and sterile look at the book’s elements, one would categorize it as a steam-punk sci-fi mix. But who knows? And, ultimately, who cares? The setting is marvelous and unique, whatever you want to call it.
The narrative structure of The Hod King is unusual, but on reflection I think it’s genius. We follow three different threads: Tom Senlin sleuthing around the ringdom of Pelphia, spying on behalf of the mysterious Sphinx; Voleta and Iren infiltrating Pelphia’s nobility in an attempt to find Tom’s kidnapped wife Marya; and Edith, whose job is to retrieve the Pelphians’ copy of an important painting. Rather than interweave these arcs chronologically, Bancroft presents each one more or less in full, even though that necessitates jumps back in time as each narrative is picked up. That gives each character a full uninterrupted arc, deepening reader connection and engagement. And while the mystery and tension is altered a bit (since you know a bit about what’s coming), it’s every bit as gripping. (The middle story leaves on a devil of a cliffhanger, but be comforted; it’s (mostly) resolved by the end of the book.)
Another thing this book does brilliantly is managing stakes. Senlin Ascends was a very personal story. Tom has lost his wife in a confusing and dangerous place, and his journey to find her became one of personal growth. Arm of the Sphinx widened the narrative to include more characters and action. The Hod King raises the stakes by pushing down the plunger on the dynamite – no spoilers, but holy $#@! – and yet still manages to maintain intimate connections with numerous characters. The story works on every level, from the personal to the epic.
What haven’t I gushed about yet? Oh, the characters! From Voleta’s unquenchable spirit to Iren’s frustrated and cracking stoicism, from Tom’s determination to Edith’s bravery to Byron’s – well, I’ll leave readers to discover more about Byron on their own, but I thought he stole the show. New side characters appear alongside returning ones, and there’s not a weak one in the bunch. (And most of the best characters are women. I love Tom, but aside from Byron, Voleta, Edith and Iren are the best in the book. This book passes the Bechdel Test, slams it on the teacher’s desk, and accurately predicts an A+.)
This is usually the place in my reviews when I find some little nit to pick, some caveat, some niggling weakness to show I’m not entirely an uncritical reader. But nothing is coming to mind. I loved everything about this book. Its action scenes are thrilling and beautifully narrated. Its philosophy and themes are powerful and funny at once, encompassing barbs at empty aristocracy and wealth alongside sober looks at cycles of abuse, class struggles, and the allure of cults. Its plot twists and breathtaking moments are heart-poundingly good. Its setting is so vibrant and lovingly detailed, it’s like another character all on its own. It’s 600 pages long and felt too short. I already owned the first two on e-reader, but after reading The Hod King I went and bought paper copies so I could foist them on my wife and daughters.
It’s only February, but I’ll be surprised if 2019 ends and I’ve read anything I’ve enjoyed as much as The Hod King.
All the stars. This book gets all the stars.