Tuesday, February 12, 2019

Review of Arm of the Sphinx by Josiah Bancroft

Josiah Bancroft’s Senlin Ascends was a delightful debut novel. Full of warmth and adventure, it borrowed a few tropes from steampunk but made its own world: a massive, bizarre tower featuring ringdoms of differing cultures and peoples. Bancroft generating the warmth through one man’s quest to find his lost wife amid the tower’s ringdoms, as well as the simple yet charming sense of the surreal imbuing the search, getting swallowed in Thomas Senlin’s quest was easy enough. Ending with his wife Marya still out of reach, Arm of the Sphinx (2015) picks up where the first left off, continuing Senlin’s search.

Now Thomas Mudd, captain of the stolen ship the Stone Cloud, and surrounded by a small but multi-talented crew, Arm of the Sphinx starts in the skies. Tensions among the crew spilling over from the climax of Senlin Ascends, Thomas must put to use all the skills from his days as a schoolmaster to attempt to bring harmony among them. Chased by tower officials, he and his crew are pirates as needs may require, fight when the odds are good, and flee when there is nothing to be had. But one encounter with the government’s mothership puts Thomas on his heels. It might also have put him on the right path to his beloved Marya…

The opening section of Arm of the Sphinx is a bit concerning. Seeming to descend into run-of-the-mill steampunk aerial combat, there was potential the novel would abandon the fresh air of Senlin Ascends and descend into something all too familiar and derivative. It takes Bancroft the length of the novel to recapture the mysterious, almost magic-realist feel of Senlin, but he does eventually, steering the ship (har har) back into the blue skies of imagination that made the first novel unique. Capt. Mudd and his motley crew end up aground, traversing a bizarre garden of animals that don’t quite seem real, and meet with a band of hods who, despite their courtesies, clearly have some ulterior motive. Mudd’s mind torn between the desire to protect the crew who has been with him through hell and high air and find his wife, it’s a tough choice, but a choice that puts the novel’s plot back on firm ground. It’s worth noting that Bancroft’s buoyant, delicate prose likewise returns to highly positive influence and effect on these events.

Retro fiction with a gentle, modern touch and unique vision, Arm of the Sphinx does a lot of things well. For readers craving continued adventures in Bancroft’s Tower of Babel, the novel delivers in ways readers hope a follow-up novel will, though it takes some time getting moving and retains as much flavor as piece-shifting as in chess as it does Jules Verne adventure. New sights, new imaginings, new peoples, new ringdoms, and new escapades and mysteries await Thomas Senlin. The mode may be more straight-forward adventure than the semi-surreal approach of Senlin Ascends, but overall it remains satisfying reading that begs for more in the upcoming The Hod King.

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