(2019) Josiah Bancroft, Orbit, £9.99, pbk, 569pp, ISBN 978-0-356-51084-2
It is strange how books remind you of other things as you read them. Some give you impressions: a warm hug, a frightening experience, the feeling of ‘When will this be over, so I can get onto something I know I’ll enjoy.’ Others remind you of another work of fiction: isn’t this just like that episode of Dr Who / Seinfeld / The West Wing – which could be good, bad, or ‘When will this be over…..’ My abiding feeling this book was of watching that classic musical Gigi.
This is book 3 (of 4) in the ‘Books of Babel’ series, and there is no provision for those who might be picking up this book without having read the first two: it plunges straight into the action, and, as with the previous volume (see my review of The Arm of the Sphinx) it is a good old romp. Set on the Tower of Babel – don’t ask, it hasn’t been fully explained so far – and in particular the level called ‘Pelphia’, it outlines the adventures of three/four of the main characters, each attempting to trace and ‘rescue’ the wife of character one, Thomas Senlin, headmaster and naïve traveller who loses his new bride within the first few pages of volume one (Senlin Ascends).
And this is where Gigi comes in – Pelphia seems to be wholly based on fin-de-siècle Paris – everything is done for show or effect, the army and ‘navy’ (they use airships) is very similar to the late nineteenth century, there are balls, costumes and music hall. You can almost hear someone singing ‘Are yes, I remember it well.’ It is very well done, and nothing I’ve said should be taken as a criticism. I don’t know whether to call it Steampunk or very good pastiche.
As I have indicated, there are three strands to the tale; one involving said Thomas Senlin, who is seeking to inveigle himself into the court of the Duke who has ‘married’ his wife Marya and persuade her to leave her new luxurious life, and who ends up as a slave (hod) with a bucket welded to his head traipsing between the levels of the Tower; Voleta (and her ‘maid’ Iren - characters two and three), who attempts to enter society as a flirty flighty young thing, distracting while getting close to Marya and persuade her of Tom’s love, and who ends up as-good-as dead; and Edith, who loves Tom and is the captain of the good (air)ship State of Ar, who attempts the diplomatic and military approach to the problem – and fails, spectacularly.
That is only the main storylines. There are tales of rebellion, of combat, of discovering lost libraries, of lesbian unrequited love. And who, or indeed what, is the Hod King, of whom the rebels cry ‘Come the Hod King’?
As with the other two volumes, I thoroughly recommend this book, but you definitely need the read the other two first (and possibly watch Gigi).
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