It is an observance of the glut of contemporary publishing that sales tail off in series. Rare is the fantasy series whose most recent release sells as well as its first volume. While undoubtedly there are some human traits at work behind this observation (good intentions not always panning out, short attention spans, jumping trains for the next great thing, etc., etc.), there is likewise the idea that few authors are able to perpetually mine fresh excitement and interest from their initial premise to push momentum beyond the first volume. Such is for certain not the case with Josiah Bancroft’s The Hod King (2019).
A cattle prod jolting the ongoing Tower of Babel series, this, the third volume, delivers in all the surprising, unexpected ways a prospective reader could hope without abandoning any of the fundamental blocks the story’s main interest is built upon. Regardless whether Bancroft had the story mapped out all along or is just playing things by ear and going with the flow, this latest installment in Thomas Senlin’s adventures is superb, threatening, in fact, to push the series far above the madding crowd to become one of the greatest of said contemporary glut. Yes, The Hod King is that good.
Senlin, now in disguise, has been charged by the Sphinx to infiltrate the ringdom of Pelphia and investigate the disappearance of the spy moths. Should his mission be successful, the Sphinx will assist with Senlin’s damaged ship to continue the search for his lost wife, Marya. Posing as an academic, Senlin indeed penetrates Pelphiran society. Clumsily portraying his charge, he is nevertheless unable to abide by his word and resist trying to find Marya—at least in the early going. Coming face to face with the Duke who supposedly married her, Senlin eventually faces the choice of pushing further or adhering to his promise to the Sphinx. His choice turns the story, and series, on its head.
The character viewpoints split, The Hod King extends naturally from Arm of the Sphinx by incorporating two additional strands of viewpoint: Iren and Violeta. The two women’s stories playing a role in Pelphiran affairs, not to mention alongside the mysterious Sphinx as she plays her own games in the Tower, the adventure of Thomas Senlin becomes the adventure of the crew of the Stone Cloud, each interwoven appropriately to enhance the narrative in a manner that only heightens the sense of adventure.
There is some discussion in fantasy and science fiction on the idea of ‘bridge book’, of which The Hod King is technically one. Gary K. Wolfe states that it’s not necessary to read a bridge book, and while there are many series for which this is true, I would argue that Bancroft has done all of his stage setting and transitional work in the previous entry, Arm of the Sphinx. In other words, The Hod King is not truly a bridge book. Instead, it feels like the build up to the climax, like the first half of a third and final Act. Much the same as R. Scott Bakker chose to split the third book in his Aspect-Emperor trilogy into two halves, The Hod King feels like Bancroft chose to do the same. It hits the ground running and introduces climactic elements that one typically associates with a final book, leaving us wondering how can the stakes be any higher for the fourth and concluding volume?
What more can I say? The Hod King is a fantastic edition to the series that only ups the ante on suspense and tension, introduces new and interesting ideas congruent with the first books, expands the stage in exciting ways, and keeps Senlin’s adventures rolling in fine fashion. If you enjoyed the first two books, the third is likewise delightful and wonderful, and shaping the series as a whole to be one of the greatest of the current glut of publishing—truly, no hyperbole. And for the record, the book’s title is not a spoiler...