Review: Arm of the Sphinx

“Hope. What is its dimension? How long is it? Where does it lead? When does it become habitual, automatic, the answer not only to doubt, but also to action, and redemption, and living?” ~ Josiah Bancroft, Senlin Ascends

Arm of the Sphinx (Books of Babel #2) by Josiah Bancroft
398 pages
Published by Orbit, 2018
Genre: fantasy
Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars
Re-readability: Great writing and unforgettable characters make this whole series worth rereading.

Review by Pete
Spoiler-free review

Josiah Bancroft created something magical in the first Books of Babel installment, and he pulled it off again in the second book. However, the scale felt smaller, and some of the wonder was missing. But the real crime of The Arm of the Sphinx is its lack of respect for its own characters.

In case you’re unfamiliar with Books of Babel, they follow the newlywed schoolteacher Thomas Senlin on his honeymoon with his wife Marya to the wondrous Tower of Babel. The massive Tower is home to millions, and Thomas and Marya quickly lose each other in the crowd. The series follows Thomas Senlin’s struggle to find his wife in a strange place filled with characters across the spectrum of morality and a lot of chaos.

Arm of the Sphinx begins with Senlin at the helm of the Stone Cloud, an airship that he and his band of misfit allies commandeered. In essence, they became pirates. Though the airship can easily reach most levels of the Tower, it’s not always easy to get back in.

Senlin and his friends visit two equally dangerous and mysterious “ringdoms” of the Tower, drawing ever nearer to Marya’s whereabouts. The pacing is steady, though the plot lacks any real highs or lows for much of the book.

I found the sense of wonder a bit faded in this second visit to the Tower. Bancroft created a deep and fascinating world and wonderful characters (Senlin in particular), but the plot can sometimes meander.

My main gripe is with some major character reversals toward the end of the story. I understand that Senlin will not emerge from the tower the same person he was when he entered. It wouldn’t be a good story if this were the case. But throughout this book, we watch him let go of his values until he is no longer the character I adored in the first book. Senlin was already perfectly flawed and admirable. But by the end of this story, my respect for him was mostly lost, and he seemed to think and act in ways contradictory to his core beliefs.

I’ll probably stick with the next two Babel books, but I miss the old Senlin and his naive heroism.

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