|Art by Ian Leino, design by Lauren Panepinto|
Orbit, 24 January 2019
I'm grateful to Orbit for an advance copy of The Hod King (thanks, Nazia!)
The first - and very welcome surprise! - about The Hod King was that it's clearly not the final volume in The Books of Babel, Bancroft's sequence set in the immense, titular Tower which contains countless independent states or "Kingdoms" and lures travellers from afar to their doom and a life of slavery. I had it in my head that this was a trilogy, I don't know if it was originally advertised as such or I just assumed because, you know, fantasy trilogies. Either way, it ends with things cruelly unresolved and I think that we can expect more.
The second surprise was that there's a little less of Thomas Senlin here than I had expected. That doesn't mean he's absent - far from it - but in a story that switches back and forward to tell different aspects of the same story, the key sections (at least to me) were those featuring Edith, Iren and Voleta. They've set out in the Sphinx's (the cryptic guardian of the Tower) flagship, The State of Art (captained by Edith) and while their mission is bound up with Senlin's, they are operating independently. Both are tasked to infiltrate the Kingdom of Pelphia, the source of many of Senlin's troubles in Senlin Ascends and Arm of the Sphinx, Senlin incognito, and the flagship through diplomacy and a show of force.
There's an agreeable blurring of objectives here. Senlin, as ever, is seeking his lost wife, Marya and The State of Art is supporting that with the Sphinx's approval. But Marya must also seek a lost painting which contains information the Sphinx needs to prevent catastrophe, and the Sphinx also seeks intelligence about the stirrings of the Hods, the bonded slaves who port goods up and down the Tower.
The Hods are taking centre stage in this book, as they begin to stir and resist their dreadful fate, and a lot of the focus is on different approaches to them. There is the bigoted Ancien Regime cruelty of Pelphia (a starkly realised if repellent creation, a polity where the university has been extinguished and replaced by a gambling club where fops bet on hods fighting in the arena. There are those who sympathise with the Hods' revolutionary stirrings. There is Senlin, who seems both to sympathise with the Hods and to have - still! - a sense of respect for law and order which leads him to denounce them. There are others, besides, and above all, the Sphinx: what is her game?
This book presents the same teeming, detailed cross section of a bizarre and self-absorbed world as its predecessors, the narrative staying fresh despite this being Book 3 and despite the reader being, of course, much more familiar with this world than on opening Book 1. There was a certain bottom-drops-out-of-the-world in Senlin Ascends that simply can't be recaptured, but even so, many new mysteries crop up, relating to the origin of the Tower, the identity of the Sphinx and the intentions of the Hods. And through all of this, the relationships between Edith, Iren, Voleta and the others grow and develop, remaining comic at times but also often tender and even touching.
At the same time, it has to be said that by telling the story from one point of view then leaving at a cliffhanger moment and going right back almost to the start to follow a different strand, Bancroft does test the reader somewhat (at least, this reader). I'd have preferred a more frequent cutting between the strands, although I can see why, in terms of managing information and creating he did this. Part of my frustration has to do I think with the rather small print in this book (I must begetting old!) which meant it took me longer to read than I had expected, so closing the loop on those plot strands wasn't quick. If you have older eyes I'd strongly recommend reading this as an e-book so you can adjust the type size.
So - a series that, three books gone, is in rude health and still great fun to read. I'm eager to see what happens in Book 4...