Review: Arm of the Sphinx by Josiah Bancroft (The Books of Babel #2)


I grabbed a paperback of this book as soon as I heard that the series got picked up by a publisher, just for the sake of having a matching pair. Suffice to say, it’s been sitting on my shelf unread for a while, for no real reason. Well, two days ago I finally picked it up. And read it. Partially in a tree.

“Books are traps.“ But how are they so, and whom do they trap: the author or the reader? Perhaps they are just the boasts of vainglorious minds, and what we hold up as literature is in fact a cult of unlikable characters. I hate to think they are like a fishing weir to the swimming mind, a trap easily swum into but rarely escaped: a neurosis, a dogma, a dream.

No, no, I must no be so cynical!  If books are traps, then let them be like terrariums: sealed up and still living miniatures of the world.

And wow, I liked this even more than the first book. While Senlin’s naive fumbling made it hard for me to enjoy Senlin Ascends, here the issue is gone completely. As the captain of a pirate airship, he’s more confident, more savvy, and while he still fucks up, it’s less of the glaringly obvious oh-for-fuck’s-sake mistakes. I sympathised with him so much it was genuinely painful to read. The side characters from the previous book get more fleshed out as well, getting their own POV sections (and later chapters).

It’s an astonishingly fast read, too. The plot meanders somewhat, but the chapters are short and the prose is wonderful, full of creative similes and clever twists. A joy to read.

Senlin woke feeling like a teabag at the bottom of an empty pot: wet, heavy, and used up.

And the best part: the worldbuilding. It remains a wildly imaginative fever dream. Each section of the tower contains something unique and wondrous (yet subtly off) and since they continue their ascent, we’re up for more weird stuff. Pirate ports, strange gardens, magic libraries…it’s far, far more than just the search for a lost wife.

I can’t wait for The Hod King. Especially since this ends on a cliffhanger (dammit Josiah, why do you torture us so?).

Enjoyment: 4.5/5
Execution: 5/5

Recommended to: prose fans, those searching for truly unique worldbuilding, anyone who enjoyed the first book or, like me, had an issue with naive floundering
Not recommended to: uhh…those who haven’t read Senlin Ascends?

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