Book Review: Arm of the Sphinx by Josiah Bancroft

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(Minor Spoilers Ahead)

Senlin Ascends (review herewas an excellent first act in Josiah Bancroft’s fully realized and fleshed out world, with intricate characters and a number of mysteries which set the imagination on fire. Originally self-published in 2015, Arm of the Sphinx came to be re-released by Orbit this March, in preparation for The Hod King which is coming out in September 2018. After reading this book, I’m beyond excited to get my hands on it! That said, I’m getting ahead of myself and so, let’s jump right into the review!

Plot:

Picking up a few months after the end of Bancroft’s first novel, Arm of the Sphinx sees our main characters scrapping by outside the Tower, living the life of gentlemen(and women!) pirates, only taking a fifth or a tenth of whatever the cargo of their victims’ ships is. Not terribly efficient as far as piracy goes, with our daring airship crew often going to bed with empty stomachs and always on high alert. The enemies made in the last novel are nothing if not tenacious, after all, and although our heroes start off free and outside the Tower, the problem now is: how do they get back in? It’s a problem that gets compounded pretty early on in the story and in a funny way, too, but with some serious life-or-dead consequences.

In the previous book, Senlin ascended(hah!) through several of the ringdoms, starting from the Market at the base of the Tower all the way to New Babel, experiencing a number of the Tower’s hospitalities during the climb. Arm of the Sphinx cuts the number of ringdoms Senlin and his crew visit to The Silk Gardens, which continues the tradition of introducing strange environments into the greater whole that is The Tower of Babel. Other areas also figure into the novel, of course, but I won’t name them for fear of spoiling some of the enjoyment. Suffice to say, no small part of the novel takes place in the air outside the Tower itself and the crew dynamics on the Stone Cloud are a welcome addition!

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Themes and Characters:

The Arm of the Sphinx differs from Senlin Ascends in that the focus is no longer on Senlin alone. A number of PoVs now follow the rest of Senlin’s crew as well, offering us readers several different perspectives on how each of the Stone Cloud’s crewmates thinks and engages with the world and their peers. While I’ve immensely enjoyed my time lurking in Senlin’s head, the switch-up makes for a nice change of pace and develops characters I loved seeing on the sidelines in the previous novel.

The novel has a lighter tone than its predecessor, which is something of a plus. The oppressive start to Senlin Ascends and our protagonist’s inability to deal with the reality he found himself in didn’t quite make for light reading, back at the start of Ascends. A big part of this is the Stone Cloud’s crew, with Voleta deserving a special mention; she might, in fact, be my favourite tree-climbing, vent-crawling adrenaline junkie in all of fiction! Something about her, the way she enjoys her freedom as well as just how much she grows during the events of this second novel is absolutely wonderful.

What about Senlin’s character development? I’m as happy with it as can be! Senlin, occasionally going by the name of Captain Tom Mudd, continues to develop due to external factors while nevertheless keeping true to a unique philosophy about life and knowledge that no one else in the whole Tower seems to have. His choices serve to create a contrast between Senlin and everyone else while speaking of a moral core which equips him with the tools necessary to combat the Tower’s influence time and time again.

Something that deserves a mention, theme-wise, is the philosophy within Arm of the Sphinx. Books continue to play a key role and for all the right reasons; each chapter starts off with epigraphs from in-universe novels or diaries. A conflict this novel sets up is the dangers of education versus those of illiteracy — the literate man from outside the Tower can be naive to a fault like Senlin was at his journey’s beginning. At the same time, the lack of knowledge as to the ‘why’ behind the Tower’s existence is a great danger of its own. This is far from the only philosophical undercurrent of the novel, but I would be loathe to give up much more for all of you who haven’t had the pleasure to experience the mysteries the Tower of Babel offers.

Conclusion and Score:

I am unbelievably happy to say that Arm of the Sphinx doesn’t suffer from the expectations  Senlin Ascends created. I loved Arm every step of the way: the start, the middle, and the brutal ending which demands I pre-order The Hod King! This novel gave me the feels, as kids nowadays say. All the feels.

It’s a great second act which reveals a dozen mysteries and sets up many, many more. Arm of the Sphinx subverted my expectations, confused and thrilled me in all the right ways, never frustrating in a negative way. The language is once again excellent, the dialogue witty and entertaining to no end.

The score I gave this on Goodreads is five out of five stars!  I also grant this novel two out of two Sphinx arms, as well as a whole bag of steampunk-y devices and knick-knacks!

Buy it, read it, enjoy it, gush about it on the Internet. I just did, and I’m much the better for it!

 

Exciting Fantasy Books, March 2018

Note: This isn’t a complete list of all the fantasy novels coming out this month. Below you’ll discover only those titles I’m personally excited about!

Here’s how this post works — you get to see the cover and release date first, then I’ve copied the official synopsis and marked it in Italic so you’ll know when you can stop reading, and in the end, you’ll get my two pence, i.e. why my handsome wee brain reckons the book in question is worth a bit of ogling.

Off we go, then!

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Release Date: March 13th; Weird original publication date which confuses me.
Series: Yes, this is the second entry in The Books of Babel.
Synopsis:
Forced by necessity into a life of piracy, Senlin and his crew struggle to survive aboard their stolen airship. Senlin’s search for his lost wife continues, even as her ghost hounds his every step. But the Tower of Babel proves to be as difficult to reenter as it was to escape.

While searching for an unguarded port, Senlin encounters the camp of Luc Marat, who seems equal parts bandit and humanitarian. One thing is for certain: his asylum for the downtrodden hods is not as peaceful as it appears.

In desperation, Senlin turns to the mysterious and dangerous Sphinx, with whom Edith shares a terrible bond. They discover the Sphinx’s help does not come cheaply. Senlin must choose between his friends, his freedom, and his wife.”

First off: No, I haven’t read the first book in the series. Now that I read this, I have to! If I had to guess what the first book would be about, I’d say…stealing an airship? This Senlin fellow beginning to search for his wife, possibly after losing her in a clockwork restaurant? I have a great many expectations, and I’m not sure that first book will quite manage them!

What got this series on my radar? That’d definitely have to be the part-fantasy, part-steampunk description I read while looking at this month’s upcoming publications. Excellent, excellent, give me more!

Next!

P.S. Damnation, this one is being republished, for whatever reason! What is it doing on my list?!

Well, I’m not very well going to remove it NOW, will I?

NEEEEXT!

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Release Date: March 6, 2018.
Series: Doesn’t say something like ‘Book one of the Ichor of the Blokes,’ so I’ll go with an excited ‘No!’
Synopsis:
In the great kingdom of Quandis, everyone is a slave. Some are slaves to the gods. Most are slaves to everyone else.

Blessed by the gods with lives of comfort and splendor, the royal elite routinely perform their duties, yet some chafe at their role. A young woman of stunning ambition, Princess Phela refuses to allow a few obstacles—including her mother the queen and her brother, the heir apparent—stand in the way of claiming ultimate power and glory for herself.

Far below the royals are the Bajuman. Poor and oppressed, members of this wretched caste have but two paths out of servitude: the priesthood . . . or death.

Because magic has been kept at bay in Quandis, royals and Bajuman have lived together in an uneasy peace for centuries. But Princess Phela’s desire for power will disrupt the realm’s order, setting into motion a series of events that will end with her becoming a goddess in her own right . . . or ultimately destroying Quandis and all its inhabitants. “

I’m not familiar with either of these authors. What they, or the publishers, promise is, if I’m a fan of Brandon Sanderson or N.K. Jemisin, this here novel will appeal to me! Tell you what I like, authors and/or publisher! Your book isn’t going to make me wait for years or possibly decades to finish the entire story! This, I like.

I also enjoy the power trip–and a literal one it will be–this Princess, Phela, will be going on! And there’re castes, too! A system, we will all agree, far preferable to such lofty notions as freedom and equality.  (Wasn’t it those two ideas that brought on the October Revolution? Boo!)

What I’m trying to say is, I finished listening to October by China Mielville (with an accent on the first e on his family name). What a wonder–hey, I’m getting off-track again, aren’t I?

Move it along!

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Publication Date: March 6th
Series: Phew, yes! For a moment there, I thought we were in trouble, guys’n’gals!  This one is the first entry in The Fire Sacraments.
Summary:
“Kandri Hinjuman was never meant to be a soldier. His brother Mektu was never meant for this world. Rivals since childhood, they are drafted into a horrific war led by a madwoman-Prophet, and survive each day only by hiding their disbelief. Kandri is good at blending in, but Mektu is hopeless: impulsive, erratic—and certain that a demon is stalking him. Is this madness or a second sense? Either way, Kandri knows that Mektu’s antics will land them both in early graves.

But all bets are off when the brothers’ simmering feud explodes into violence, and holy blood is spilled. Kandri and Mektu are taken for contract killers and must flee for their lives—to the one place where they can hope to disappear: the sprawling desert known as the Land that Eats Men. In this eerie wilderness, the terrain is as deadly as the monsters, ghouls, and traffickers in human flesh. Here the brothers find strange allies: an aging warlord, a desert nomad searching for her family, a lethal child-soldier still in her teens. They also find themselves in possession of a secret that could bring peace to the continent of Urrath. Or unthinkable carnage.

On their heels are the Prophet’s death squads. Ahead lie warring armies, sandstorms, evil spirits and the deeper evil of human greed. But hope beckons as well—if the “Master Assassins” can expose the lie that has made them the world’s most wanted men.”

Mark Lawrence described this one as “Literary fantasy full of excitement, mystery, and even guys with flaming gauntlets riding huge saber-toothed cats. By literary fantasy I mean that it is deep, very intelligent, and exquisitely written.”

YES PLEASE GIVE IT TO MEEEEEE–cough, I mean, it sounds exciting enough.
I’m not familiar with Robert V.S. Redick’s previous series, but I will familiarize myself with this one! Something about assassins always gets me going, even when they don’t have much personality — and I’m convinced that’s not the case here. Roll along the sixth!

81lSnJJki9LRelease Date: March 20th
Series: This is a novella catching us up with Karen Memory, whoever she is. Unfamiliar with the original novel, Karen Memory.
Synopsis:
“Readers met the irrepressible Karen Memory in Elizabeth Bear’s 2015 novel Karen Memory, and fell in love with her steampunk Victorian Pacific Northwest city, and her down-to-earth story-telling voice.

Now Karen is back with Stone Mad, a new story about spiritualists, magicians, con-men, and an angry lost tommy-knocker—a magical creature who generally lives in the deep gold mines of Alaska, but has been kidnapped and brought to Rapid City.

Karen and Priya are out for a night on the town, celebrating the purchase of their own little ranch and Karen’s retirement from the Hotel Ma Cherie, when they meet the Arcadia Sisters, spiritualists who unexpectedly stir up the tommy-knocker in the basement. The ensuing show could bring down the house, if Karen didn’t rush in to rescue everyone she can.”

This is one of the books I get interested in because of how much I like the cover. It’s also steampunk, and I’ve never read much steampunk but I want to, very, very much. I’d have to read the novel, though.

Probably won’t happen this month.

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Release Date: Another book with two release dates but I reckon it should be released on March 20th with this cover.
Series: The Song of the Shattered Sands #3
Synopsis: I feel like the synopsis is interesting enough to warrant going back to read book 1’s and decide from there, but it’s also spoiler-ific for some of book 1 and 2.

This is another one of those books with eye-catching covers. It’s fifty shades of gold up there, and it’s gorgeous. I have to wonder who the artist responsible is.
Will I look at the series? Yes. Will I buy and read it? …We’ll see.

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Release Date: March 6th
Series: Legacy of Orïsha#1
Synapsis:
“Zélie Adebola remembers when the soil of Orïsha hummed with magic. Burners ignited flames, Tiders beckoned waves, and Zelie’s Reaper mother summoned forth souls. 

But everything changed the night magic disappeared. Under the orders of a ruthless king, maji were targeted and killed, leaving Zélie without a mother and her people without hope.

Now, Zélie has one chance to bring back magic and strike against the monarchy. With the help of a rogue princess, Zélie must outwit and outrun the crown prince, who is hell-bent on eradicating magic for good. 

Danger lurks in Orïsha, where snow leoponaires prowl and vengeful spirits wait in the waters. Yet the greatest danger may be Zélie herself as she struggles to control her powers—and her growing feelings for the enemy.”

Cool! Few different, very similar versions of this cover are up on the web, which is curious. I dig the promise in the synopsis. This might be interesting to read since the novel I’m writing has certain plot points in common with what this book is going to offer, if we judge by the summary alone.

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Release Date: March 6th
Series: Blood and Gold #1
Synopsis:

“FIVE ROYAL SISTERS. ONE CROWN.

They are the daughters of a king. Though they share the same royal blood, they could not be more different. Bluebell is a proud warrior, stronger than any man and with an ironclad heart to match. Rose’s heart is all too passionate: She is the queen of a neighboring kingdom, who is risking everything for a forbidden love. The twins: vain Ivy, who lives for admiration, and zealous Willow, who lives for the gods. And Ash, who is discovering a dangerous talent for magic that might be a gift–or a curse.

But when their father is stricken by a mysterious ailment, they must come together on a desperate journey to save him and prevent their treacherous stepbrother from seizing the throne. Their mission: find the powerful witch who can cure the king. But to succeed on their quest, they must overcome their differences, and hope that the secrets they hide from one another and the world are never brought to light. Because if this royal family breaks, it could destroy the kingdom.”

Cool! Cool, cool, cool. This series will be in the tradition of Naomi Novik, Peter V. Brett, and Robin Hobb, Goodreads tells me. If that’s indeed the case — fantastic, I love Hobb and Novik! If it ain’t…There will be blood!

It’s also going to be Norse-flavoured. I like that flavour.  It tastes like…a noose around my neck and a spear in my chest, a snake’s venom dripping in my eyes, and worse besides!

Bonus Mention: 

Good Guys by Steven Brust It’s a sci-fi book about a cop that dies or almost dies and then is saved by The Foundation which is probably not Asimov’s Foundation, since I see all sorts of continuity issues with that, which is excellent, and Brust is excellent, too! It’s rare that I don’t enjoy the man’s words, and his Twitter feed is a blast.

That’s it for what excites me in March, ladies and gents! Which of these books sound interesting to you? Will you pick any of them up? Will you do it on release date, or further down the line? Let me know in the comments!