Book Review – The Fall of Babel, by Josiah Bancroft

I feel a bit punctured, as one does when one reaches the end of beloved series of books.

Josiah Bancroft’s The Fall of Babel is the fourth and final of his Books of Babel series, which is certainly one of the best ten series I have ever read, perhaps one of the top five. As I am 52 years old and a slow reader, it is likely never to leave those lists.

For the uninitiated: The Books of Babel is a steampunkish tale featuring an enormous tower populated by thousands of people in sixty-four stacked “ringdoms.” It feels like fantasy, but really it defies genre expectations along with every other convention I can think of. There’s nothing else like it. It’s brilliant, bizarre, and beautiful.  Bancroft is a mad genius, and now I’m sad that there’s no more to read about this story and its characters.

I can’t talk much about the particulars without spoiling the earlier books, but I can talk about the writing, which is so good, it fills me with a rage/joy unique to writers who know they’ll never be as skilled as their finest peers.  Every sentence of The Fall of Babel, as with the books before it, is a little jewel  that would be a delight to read in a vacuum, let alone as part of a driving narrative. I could spend hours trying to craft a single metaphor or simile as perfect as the ones Bancroft leaves sprinkled over his pages in their glorious hundreds. It’s wizardry. There’s no other plausible explanation.

As for the story and its structure, it’s an odd duck, but now that I’m finished, I’m happy with all of Bancroft’s unconventional choices. It opens with a long novella-length section about a character we haven’t seen in a while, but it’s very entertaining in its own right. It meshes well with the rest of the book when the main story final catches up with it,  though given its length, I’d have liked it if mattered more to the over-plot. As it was, when the narrative arrives where the opening left off, it overtakes it like a wave sweeping away a sandcastle. Even so, the opening serves to give us critical but mysterious world-building that does find relevance and increased wonder when we discover the secrets revealed at the end. I don’t regret a word of it.

And the ending… hoo boy. Bizarre and wonderful. Bittersweet and joyful.  Satisfying but tantalizing. It leaves some secrets in its pocket but in a good way.

Everything else—the characters, the descriptions, the convoluted action set-pieces told with magical clarity—is up to the high standards Bancroft set with the first three books of the series.  Every protagonist is given moments of quiet, moments of development, moments of action, and I cheered for all of them. While I liked Book 3 (The Hod King) a tad more, that one’s on my all-time list, so I mean to take nothing away from this outstanding final installment.

I want to give you a taste of Bancroft’s prose, so here’s a paragraph of description wherein one of the main characters, who’s been put through a serious wringer, catches sight of his own reflection. It’s a hoary device that can be done clumsily, but there’s no inelegance here:

Dropping his hands, Senlin regarded his likeness uncomfortably. The mirror’s diagnosis was frank, expected, and brutal: He had aged a decade in a year. Scars crosshatched his wrinkles; moles stippled his sunspots. His once bright eyes were now dull as pencil leads. He looked like a regent’s visage printed on a bank note, softened by a thousand pockets, halved by as many wallets, creased and broken by repeated exchange. He looked as if he should be removed from circulation.

I believe that Bancroft is now working on a new series called The Hexologists. I’m glad I have that to look forward to, now that my incredible journey inside the Tower of Babel has come to an end.

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