Arm of the Sphinx: Senlin is still ascending

Arm of the Sphinx by Josiah BancroftArm of the Sphinx by Josiah BancroftArm of the Sphinx by Josiah Bancroft

Arm of the Sphinx (2018) is the sequel to Senlin Ascends (2017), Josiah Bancroft’s extremely popular novel that was originally self-published but later picked up by Orbit Books after it was highlighted by Mark Lawrence in his Self-Published Fantasy Blog Off contest a couple years ago. I loved Senlin Ascends, a story about a man named Thomas Senlin who is accidentally separated from his wife at the base of the Tower of Babel. To find her, he enters the tower alone, which starts him on a series of adventures as he tries to make his way through each level to find his wife. You really must read Senlin Ascends before picking up Arm of the Sphinx and, to avoid spoilers, you may not want to read this review until you’ve done so.

In Arm of the Sphinx, Thomas finally has some information about his wife’s current location in the tower. It’s been about a year since he’s seen her and he can’t be sure that she’s still married to him, or even still alive, but he’s determined to find her. In addition to the worthless guidebook he’d been using to navigate the tower, Thomas has also thrown off his straight and stodgy schoolmaster ways. Now he is the pirate captain of an airship, hoping that this new identity will let him reach the level he thinks his wife is on. He is accompanied by several companions he met in the first book: Edith, who now has a mechanical arm; Iren, the soft-hearted brute who acts as Thomas’ bodyguard; Adam, his right-hand man who may not be completely trustworthy; and Adam’s sister Voleta, the trapeze girl who, in the previous book, was saved from a life in a brothel.

The story continues to be an adventure, though this time it’s more than that as Thomas begins to learn how the tower works, who some of its powerful denizens are, some of its history and politics, and what the painting he carries might signify. Clearly, the tower is more organized, strange, and sinister than it seemed in the previous book.

I definitely enjoyed Arm of the Sphinx, though not quite as much as I enjoyed Senlin Ascends. This is partly because, in Senlin Ascends, I really loved the feeling of being dropped, with a bewildered schoolmaster, into an unfamiliar and really bizarre place. In Arm of the Sphinx, things are still unfamiliar and bizarre, but Thomas is more knowledgeable and confident; I found him most amusing when he was bewildered.The Books of Babel (Book Series) by Josiah Bancroft

Another related issue for me (and this is the main one, actually) is that Arm of the Sphinx is told from the viewpoint of several of the characters, not just Thomas himself. The other characters’ scenes are mostly action sequences such as chases and fights. These are entertaining enough but, as I mentioned in my review of Senlin Ascends, the charm of this series for me is Bancroft’s use of a stuffy (yet endearing) over-educated know-it-all as his protagonist. Thomas is clever and witty, but totally out of his depth in the tower. Bancroft’s narrative style seems matched to Thomas’ personality and doesn’t work as well when relating the other characters’ scenes. The best moments, in fact, are those in which we’re in Thomas’ head:

I think Edith Winters is an attractive woman. There. I haven’t the formal training to elaborate upon this point, that is the domain of poets. They know how to organize an ode, how to polish a woman’s features separately, then arrange them like pieces of fruit in a bowl. They are adept at making astute observations about the troubled quality of beauty. They do not struggle to produce sensitive metaphors. They have the courage to speak. If there was some form of verse composed only of ellipses, interjections and parentheses, I would be a bard.

I’m looking forward to the third book, The Hod King, which will be released in September. I will again elect to listen to the audio version produced by Hachette Audio. John Banks is an excellent choice for narrator and he gives a perfect performance. The audiobook is just over 14 hours long. I highly recommend it.

Published March 13, 2018. Senlin continues his ascent up the tower in the word-of-mouth phenomenon fantasy series about one man’s dangerous journey through a labyrinthine world. The Tower of Babel is proving to be as difficult to reenter as it was to break out of. Forced into a life of piracy, Senlin and his eclectic crew are struggling to survive aboard their stolen airship as the hunt to rescue Senlin’s lost wife continues. Hopeless and desolate, they turn to a legend of the Tower, the mysterious Sphinx. But help from the Sphinx never comes cheaply, and as Senlin knows, debts aren’t always what they seem in the Tower of Babel. Time is running out, and now Senlin must choose between his friends, his freedom, and his wife. Does anyone truly escape the Tower?

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KAT HOOPER, who started this site in June 2007, earned a Ph.D. in neuroscience and psychology at Indiana University (Bloomington) and now teaches and conducts brain research at the University of North Florida. When she reads fiction, she wants to encounter new ideas and lots of imagination. She wants to view the world in a different way. She wants to have her mind blown. She loves beautiful language and has no patience for dull prose, vapid romance, or cheesy dialogue. She prefers complex characterization, intriguing plots, and plenty of action. Favorite authors are Jack Vance, Robin Hobb, Kage Baker, William Gibson, Gene Wolfe, Richard Matheson, and C.S. Lewis.

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2 comments

  1. Kat, I LOVE the passage you chose to quote! That is perfect.

    • I can so relate to Thomas. He knows and appreciates beauty when he experiences it, but he’s totally incapable of producing it himself…
      (Although he really can, as we see from this passage…)

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