Imagine, for a moment, a world in which ancient universities are closed and remade as Colosseums. Halls of learning are transformed into quarters for fighting slaves.
Consider a world in which lords and ladies cosplay as prison inmates for want of something—anything—better to do.
Finally, if you can, picture a world with a population full of people seeking pleasure wherever they can find it, their hedonism inadvertently and absent-mindedly fulfilling a roles in a greater, more terrible plan.
This and more you’ll find in The Hod King, the third entry in Josiah Bancroft’s Books of Babel series, which takes us further into the mysterious Tower of Babel at its center. (Some spoilers for earlier volumes follow.)
The best fantasy novels mirror our own reality. They play out our anxieties on a mythical, mystical, or otherwise fantastical plane. Bancroft’s series has accomplished that from page one of Senlin Ascends, when when erstwhile headmaster Thomas Senlin set out on a search for his wife, gone missing on their honeymoon, through the Tower’s various Ringdoms (themselves fully conceived worlds characterized by the author’s greatest fears).
Those anxieties have never been on fuller display than they are in The Hod King, the longest and most focused of Senlin’s adventures to date. By all accounts, this third book should feel claustrophobic and incomplete: in both Senlin Ascends and Arm of the Sphinx, we traversed up and down the Tower, discovering new Ringdoms and new secrets at a quickening pace. The Hod King largely stays put, settling the action taking within the opulent and bloated confines of the Ringdom known as Pelphia.
The gang’s all here, and briefly together, dispatched by the enigmatic Sphinx (the Tower’s clockwork master behind the curtain) on a mission to explore a “blind spot” in Pelphia, but soon enough, the crew of the Stone Cloud is split up.
Tom, who has accumulated aliases and enemies as if it is a contest, is destined to infiltrate the Ringdom undercover, posing as a dullard tourist (not unlike the one we met in the opening pages of the first book). Edith, captains the Sphinx’s flagship, the State of the Art, with Iren, Voleta, Byron, and the newly revived (and possibly rehabilitated) Red Hand in tow; they are to be the Sphinx’s envoys to Pelphia and beyond.
But let us not forget the reason this ragtag band has come together: Tom’s search for his wife Marya, misplaced two books ago at the foot of the Tower. Pelphia may be a strategic concern for the Sphinx, but for Tom, it’s the end of a quest. Marya lives in Pelphia, the new wife of a powerful duke and the object of fascination to the local gossip mongers.
Tom is under strict instructions to lie low: to cause no scenes, to avoid run-ins with his wife and her high-powered circle, to bide his time, and to wait for the right moment. So, of course, he does the opposite of all of that. As do Edith and the rest.
The resulting calamities do much to reveal not only the dirty little secrets of Pelphia, but greater conspiracies lurking within the Tower. A revolutionary phrase, “Come the Hod King,” reverberates throughout the Ringdoms and along the dreaded Black Trail, where they enslaved hods march unseen. Whispers of war reverberate, though no one is sure with whom war will be waged, and why. The Sphinx warns of an impending catastrophe for the Tower’s delicate ecosystem.
There are the rulers, a resistance, and a greater power behind the proverbial throne, and the only ones who see the whole picture are Tom and his friends. Accordingly, we follow the action from each of their perspectives in turn. In Arm of the Sphinx, Tom’s ensemble cast stretched their legs as the story shifted from his emotional journey to the group’s collective internal and external struggles. Here, that transition continues, with a story told in alternating chunks from the perspectives of Tom, Edith, and the dynamic duo of Iren and Voleta.
The narration zigzags through time, bringing us forward and backward, and allowing each of the main characters space to reveal their innermost selves—their shifting hopes and fears—and to find different pieces of the same puzzle. The result is a taut, tense, and suspenseful continuation of the story, a somehow still impossibly charming penultimate installment that marches toward a climax with increasing intensity, as if the narrative is trying to solve a Rubik’s cube against an egg timer.
The Hod King devotes as much space to propelling the plot toward the as-yet-untitled concluding volume (due out in 2020) as it does addressing the lingering questions the Tower invites. Sure, the mysteries abound: the Sphinx, the identity of the titular Hod King, the lingering influence of the Tower’s builder, the true nature and purpose of its various Ringdoms. But the questions of chief concern center stage are more personal. Tom is plagued by matters of identity; he is a master of disguise who has done things his textbooks never described. Edith is a fierce captain, but worries about her reliance on and melding with the mechanical arm crafted for her by the Sphinx, who obligates certain things in return. Voleta, the willful acrobat, chafes at being forced to don the ill-fitting gowns of a high-society debutante. Meanwhile, through a new friendship, Iren confronts the missed opportunities and self-denial that marked her pre-Senlin life.
The Tower has changed each of those people, as it changes all those who enter it. Warped personalities abound in Pelphia, and clash when it comes to addressing the bigger questions: how radical must a revolution be? Who is more wretched: those trapped in slavery or those kept complacent in their gilded cages? Who gets to define the greater good? How do you attack the source of rot without bringing the whole house down?
There are no easy answers, a reality the Books of Babel have thus far done a fine job illustrating. The Hod King is another smart and dizzying medley of storytelling and worldbuilding, building momentum for an explosive (perhaps literally) finale.