Thomas Senlin, a headmaster at a school in a small village, has been planning a trip to the infamous tower of Babel for years. A honeymoon seems the ideal opportunity to finally realize this dream with his new wife, Marya. Shortly after arriving at the base of the tower, Tom loses sight of Marya amid the hustle of a busy market. Finding her again takes him on a voyage of discovery and danger through the mysterious tower’s many levels. And that voyage is turning out to be one of the most compelling fantasy series of recent times, Josiah Bancroft’s “Books of Babel,” which follows Tom as he searches for his wife within the sprawling and complicated tower. Since Josiah Bancroft’s debut novel was published there has been a growing wave of outspoken support for the “Books of Babel” series, with critics and public alike paying adoration to the author. The eagerly awaited “Hod King” is the third in the series, of which noted fantasy author Mark Lawrence has said: “It is not merely a 5 [star] book, it’s a masterpiece.”
Don’t worry if you haven’t yet heard of the “Books of Babel” before; “The Hod King” can be read without having encountered the first two novels — although up-to-date readers will enjoy the reading experience even more.
The book has parallels to our own world that will resonate with today’s audience. At a time when the divide between social groups is more evident than it has ever been — with tax breaks for the rich and seemingly different rules for those in power — “The Hod King” examines these topical issues. It also highlights the current discussions of gender inequality: Why should readers assume that a woman would need rescuing at all?
Some time has passed since Tom and Marya first set off for the tower, and “the Hod King” begins with Tom finally finding the slim opportunity to be reunited with Marya, only to discover that she is now remarried, to one of the most powerful men in the city of Pelphia. Considered a major celebrity, Marya isn’t in peril like the damsels in distress of other fantasy novels. If anything, on the surface, it would appear that Marya has survived and thrived better in the hostile environment of the tower than Tom could ever have. She has the adoration of the people, money, wealth and status. Tom has a criminal record and the ire of some powerful people.
Tom has been tasked by “The Sphinx” — the caretaker of the tower — to investigate a plot that has taken hold in Pelphia while his friends Voleta and Iren attempt to make contact with Marya. As they become embroiled in the conspiracies of the Tower, everything falls to one question: Who is The Hod King?
The “world-building” here is imaginative and grand in scale. The world of the “Books of Babel” are a little different from our own. The technological level is akin to the end of the 19th century; flint lock guns, canons and steam trains accompany Victorian era clothing and a similar level of social development. The “Hod” are slaves who do all the dirty and unwanted tasks within the tower. Anyone who commits a crime, becomes financially insolvent — or otherwise upsets someone important — becomes a “Hod” to work off the “debt” owed. The fantasy elements are for the most part underplayed, though there are “airships,” which are held aloft by balloons, and clockwork automata, along with, of course, the tower itself. The tower is huge, big enough to host entire kingdoms (known in the books as “ringdoms”) on a single level. No one knows how many levels there actually are; the upper reaches lost in clouds.
In the first two books, the tower acted as the principal antagonist as the unprepared school headmaster Tom struggled to survive in some fairly hostile environments. “The Hod King” is mostly set on one level — the ringdom of Pelphia — and the antagonists are much more personal. The story moves from the high society of the wealthy Pelphia citizens, for whom social standing, fashion and gossip are the life-blood of the city, to the dark, dirty world of the Hod. Chained and helmed, the Hod travel between the tower’s levels through a system of tunnels known as “the black trail.” The character known as the Hod King seems intent on freedom for his people.
The characters are wonderful, imperfect creations. Hardly the hero you might expect, Tom is a straight-laced (some would say boring) school headmaster who’s biggest risk before encountering the tower was to ask Marya to marry him. Marya is a strong, intelligent woman who loves to seek out new experiences and she sings with wild abandon. Voleta is a headstrong acrobat with limited social skills. The villains are suitably dastardly, yet also convincingly human, and, at times, entirely relatable. Bancroft makes it feel like no character is safe: Put in a challenging situation, anyone can become an angel or a monster.
One of the highlights of the author’s wit is when the austere servant Byron tries to teach the “uncultured” Voleta social graces of high society:
“ ‘Sit up straight,’ Byron commanded. His precise pronunciation seemed at odds with his strange, reedy voice. ‘No, not like that. Like this. Straight, but naturally so. No, like a tulip, not a yardstick. Better. Now, once more,’ Byron took a deep breath. ‘Pick up the fish knife and fish fork.’ ”
Voleta surveyed her options miserably. “I think humanity peaked at the spoon, don’t you? A spoon can serve as a fork, a knife, a ladle… A good spoon is all you need, really.’ ”
More than 600 pages, it isn’t the lightest of books, but it doesn’t feel that long with the author’s sharp wit and sparkling humor evident throughout. It’s such an easy, joyful read; the author’s vibrant prose, simply incredible. At times, it will make you laugh out loud and yet a few lines further on can see you on tenterhooks as a character descends into peril.
“The Hod King” is a compelling and original novel; the “Books of Babel” are something you hope to see perhaps once a decade — future classics, which may be remembered long after the series concludes. Only a few days into 2019, I think we’ve already found a contender for “fantasy book of the year.”
Orbit Books; 624 pp., $15.99
Jones is a writer and editor of the website sfbook.com