Wednesday, February 01, 2017

Review: "Arm of the Sphinx" by Josiah Bancroft

It’s a rough life, but former school teacher Thomas Senlin is finding that piracy suits him somewhat in Josiah Bancroft’s “Arm of the Sphinx” ($14.99, self-published), the follow-up to “Senlin Ascends.”

Senlin, under the name of Capt. Tom Mudd, and his small crew navigate the skies around the Tower of Babel, finding ever more creative ways to rob his quarry and escape what passes for the long arm of the law in the Tower. Still, he searches for a way to find his lost wife, even as her ghost haunts his steps.

He’s learned that she’s in the Ringdom of Pelphia, a tightly-guarded aristocratic port where his ship, the Stone Cloud, was almost shot down the last time he tried to dock. To make matters worse, his crew is running out of places where they’re welcome, and Tom is running out of ideas.

Desperation leads them to the top of the Tower, to a being that many think is a myth – the Sphinx. Edith, now known as Mister Winters aboard the Stone Cloud, knows well that he exists. He created the fantastic mechanical arm that replaced her lost one. She also knows well what making a deal with the creature costs, but Senlin and his crew may have no other choice.

“Arm of the Sphinx” begins as much more of an adventure tale than its predecessor. It drops some of the whimsy of the first book in favor of swashbuckling action, at least for a moment. There’s no lack of wonder, though, as we continue to get peeks behind the curtain of the tower.

We explore a pirate’s port that’s at least as wretched a hive of scum and villainy as Mos Eisley, where Senlin is put in one of the more precarious situations we’ve seen him in. We get to explore a glowing spider-filled garden level where the spiders are the least of the threat. Of course, we also get a look at the Sphinx’s fantastic workshop, full of magnificent clockwork and mechanical creations. The Tower itself continues to be just as fascinating a character as any of Bancroft’s leads, and it continues to reveal just as many secrets.

That’s not to say this book is all about the sights and wonders. Quite the opposite, in fact. As he explores the Tower in search of his lost Marya, Senlin continues the internal journey that’s taken him far beyond the naïve school teacher who arrived in Babel. With the help of his crew, and his wife’s ghost, he’s forced to face some revealing and often painful truths about himself.

We also get more glimpses and insights into some of Senlin’s supporting cast: Edith, who remains broken despite the mechanical arm that’s repaired her body; Iren, the Amazonian enforcer who is having to come to grips with life on her own terms; Adam, the stubborn brother who wants to do the right thing but tends to make the wrong decisions; and of course, Voleta, his free-spirited sister who can’t be contained by the dreariness of everyday life. By the end of this volume, they’ve moved beyond Senlin’s “crew” to fully-developed characters that we’ve come to know and love.

Bancroft continues to impress with the second volume of his Books of Babel. His writing style and incredible characters suck you completely into the strange world that he’s created, and you can’t wait to find out what’s around the next corner or on the next level of the Tower. Like its predecessor, “Arm of the Sphinx” left me stunned, thoughtful and definitely eager to continue the journey. Bring on “The Hod King.”


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