Fiction Reviews

Arm of the Sphinx

(2015 / 2018) Josiah Bancroft, Orbit, £8.99, pbk, 398pp, ISBN 978-0-356-51083-5


And my wish is granted. (See my review of Senlin Ascends.) Here is the second volume of the 'Books of Babel' series, and it’s as good as the first. I described the first volume as a good, old-fashioned romp, and the romp continues.

This book begins aboard a pirate ‘vessel’ (the vessel in this setting is an airship) crewed by a motley crew: Thomas Senlin, on a quest for his bride from whom he was separated from very early in the previous volume; Edith, who we met early in the story, and who has reappeared with a mechanical arm (installed by the Sphinx, and which is running out of power); and Adam, Voleta and Iren, who Senlin has acquires along the way. And then there is Marya, Thomas’ wife, who appears to him at various points, the probable cause of the hallucination being a drug (called Crumb) which he has accidently been imbibing.

As I said, Tom is on a quest, ascending and descending through various levels of the Tower of Babel (of which, more later), and each of the levels are ‘ruled’ by different entities or organisations. The first book took us through four levels, and Senlin believes that if he can access the next level, Pelphia, he will find, if not his wife, then more clues to her whereabouts. But to get into Pelphia, his quest takes him to level above it (I know, it gets confusing – but rejoice, there is a map/diagram), where he can find the riches to pay his way in – hence the airship. He fails.

And then our tale takes us to the very ‘top’ of the Tower, the domain of the Sphinx – alleged to be the ‘manager’ (bad word, but I can’t think of a better one), if not its creator. They head there in the hope that the Sphinx can repair Edith’s arm, and provide a way for the journey to continue. The Sphinx is as enigmatic as you might expect, but forms a bond with Voleta, a free-spirit who piques his interest and enables Tom to take the next step. Edith is ‘repaired’ and they have a new crew member, Byron, the Sphinx’s right hand man, but a man with a stag’s head and antlers.

As I say, a romp from first to last, and I have only touched on the bare details – I really recommend this series if you want such a romp.

And then to the Tower itself – obvious a concept which comes from the book of Genesis in the Bible. You get very few details there, apart from the reasoning behind it – ‘… let us build us a city and a tower, whose top may reach unto heaven…’ (Genesis 11:4) When I started reading the first book, I just thought the author was using the Tower as a well-known symbol, and then in the section about the Sphinx in this volume, Tom finds plans which described it as a bridge rather than a tower – but a bridge to where? It will be interesting to see if this bridge leads somewhere.

Thoroughly recommended.

Peter Young

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