Arm of the Sphinx (The Books of Babel 2) by Josiah Bancroft

Publisher - Orbit

Published - Out Now

Price - £8.99 paperback

Forced by necessity into a life of piracy, Senlin and his eclectic crew struggle to survive aboard their stolen airship as the hunt for his lost wife continues. But the Tower of Babel is proving to be as difficult to re-enter as it was to escape.

Hopeless and desolate, they turn to a legend of the Tower, the mysterious Sphinx. But help from the Sphinx doesn’t come cheaply and, as Senlin knows, debts aren’t always what they seem in the Tower of Babel.

I thank the publisher for an advance copy of this book in exchange for a fair and honest review.

Warning – some spoilers for Senlin Ascends (Tower of Babel Book 1)

Back in January I was really impressed with Josiah Bancroft’s debut novel Senlin Ascends where an uptight schoolmaster (Senlin) took his wife to the mysterious Tower of Babel that dominates the lands as it climbs into the clouds. Very quickly they are separated and Senlin discovers the Tower has a much darker side.  I was impressed with both the inventive inner world of the Tower and its theme of the elite preying on the wider population. In this adventure focused sequel, we now see Senlin start to take the initiative.

We now have Senlin in command of a pilot flying ship with a small crew he has picked up during his earlier adventures. His first mate is Edith a woman who the tower punished so severely that she ended up needing a mysterious mechanical arm; Iren the enforcer of a local gangster that switched loyalties due to Senlin’s kindness and the sister/brother duo of Violeta and Adam (the latter of whom has betrayed Senlin twice in efforts to free his sister). There has been a slight time-jump and in his new guise of Captain Mudd he is fighting for survival by attacking ships for supplies while also evading his would-be captors. Senlin in possession of a portrait that is incredibly important to the future of his tower.  Slowly he decides that the Sphinx who is known to have created the machines that power the tower as well as Edith’s new arm may be the only force able to help Senlin overcome the powerful families he now believes that have his wife within the Tower’s upper rings.

While Senlin Ascends gave me a feel of a quest for one man through many levels of would could be a gilded prison this book is a very different beast this is an adventure tale that allows the focus to move away from Senlin and across the rest of his crew.  The action is focused on two of the Rings (floors) within the tower. The mysterious abandoned Silk Gardens and the hidden world of the Sphinx. The former is beautifully creepy.  Now largely left to its own devices its filled with spiders (for silk) and large bad-tempered beasts that hunt them while t the same time there are abandoned robotic amusements in a zoo. Senlin finds a new force to challenge the existing orders is lurking there but it may not be making plans to help everybody. It’s a darker world and there are some great sequences of the crew having to fend off natural and unnatural threats.  They slowly realise that their Captain however is battling his inner demons (and unknown to them a mysterious apparition of his wife). Add in flying gunships keen to bring Senlin to account for his transgressions its very much a fast-moving sequence.

The second world we see is that of the Sphinx.  The most unusual encountered yet! Filled with talking and thinking automaton; designs for myriad Rings and in it all the mysteriously tall, masked and mocking Sphinx. He has decided to test the crew and the second half of the novel explores how they all interact when they lose Senlin.  It’s a voyage of temptation and will the crew give in to their desires? The focus of the novel is allowing the reader to know and understand the crew better. In the first novel the action was focused more on Senlin and all characters were seen through his eyes.  This time we get to understand the motivations and fears of the crew. Edith who has become Senlin’s first mate is the most interesting – she is recovering from having to have been working on a much nastier pirate vessel and a murkier deal with the Sphinx.  Obviously fond of Senlin through their previous encounter she is not afraid to challenge him and offer him a counterpoint.  Easily my favourite character she puts her crew first and when she encounters the Sphinx again there is a tacit recognition that Edith is probably the strongest character there.  Iren is shown to have developed unusual feelings for her crew that after years of being feared is finding the transition to being valued and loved a strain.  The pair we find the most about is the brother and sister duo.  Adam finds himself pained that he is no longer trusted and now he has rescued his sister at last finds she may not actually need his protection.  Violetta on the other hand after being locked up is revelling in freedom to do whatever she wants so being part of a crew relying on her starts to create new tensions and dangers.  The Sphinx is a tempter for all but as to their own agenda in the Tower’s power games it’s not clear. The interplay between the cast is a highpoint and the character dynamics feel well thought out.  The Sphinx allows them to see themselves in the mirror and decide as to who they really are (helped by his helpful mirrored mask!).

The one niggle I have is the focus on the crew removes means we don’t see as much of the Tower as in the first book and consequently I think it loses some of the depth of social commentary that was in the first book.  Ewe do find a lot more about the Tower and this tale really does set up a new direction for the crew where the Tower may be seen as much more than a tourist attraction but there was a sense of this book setting up many new ideas but we will have to wait until the next volume (happily not long) before we see more.  Overall this is continuing to be a fascinating series and with an increased and diverse crew I’m very keen to see where the Tower leads to.