“History is a love letter to tyrants written in the blood of the overrun, the forgotten, the expunged!”
So what’s the book about?
Senlin sees ghosts, or more precisely a ghost, namely his wife. Marya pesters him day and night with her apparition and malicious talk about his shipmates. He ignores her, or at least tries to, but his wife keeps haunting him.
It has been many months since Senlin, – or Captain Tom Mudd as he now tellingly calls himself – Edith, Voleta, Iren and Adam took over the Stone Cloud in a spectacular prank and fled with it. By necessity they have mutated into pirates, “nice” pirates. But Senlin does not forget his real goal and is still searching for his wife and following the clues. Laboriously, he and his newfound friends follow every lead in a roundabout way to save his wife. Hopeless and desperate, they turn to a legend of the Tower, the mysterious Sphinx. But the Sphinx’s help does not come cheap and, as Senlin knows, debts in the Tower of Babel are not always what they seem.
These aspects attracted me the most while reading.
- The world-building is still unique, fantastic and at times frightening or disturbing. Bancroft has created a world in which the pinnacle, centre and source of human civilisation is the Tower of Babel. The levels of the tower, known as the Ringdoms, each pose different threats and challenges. In the first book of the series we saw several sections of the Tower, and in Sphinx we see several more. We also get clearer insights into how the Tower really works and what goes on behind the scenes. What Bancroft has given us here is unique. A world that is one part fairy tale, one part steampunk, all shrouded in mystery and with a protagonist who would not be out of place in a Fantasy of Manners. And yet he manages to shape each of these elements in such a way that the whole doesn’t feel like a patchwork, but as if it were the only way the world could be.
- One of Bancroft’s greatest gifts is his ability to empathise with his characters. With just a few words, he can put a character so close to the reader’s heart that you feel like you are in their shoes. One could especially empathise with Senlin, who you could tell was at the end of his tether. He always tries to choose the right path, not only for himself and his missing wife, but also for his team members, who also do their best to help Senlin and the rest of the crew. The presence of Senlin’s wife as a ghost shows how hard his journey has taken him, even if that is not the sole reason he sees her. And also through this fantasy, it shows again how human the initially stiff Senlin is. By the end of “The Arm of the Sphinx” I was rooting for all of them, even those who were rather unimpressive and inconspicuous, and it is clear that all the characters will play an important role in the future.
- And this book was also able to challenge me intellectually – yes, the poetry and the thoughtful sentences are once again the highlight of this book, in which an incredibly beautiful athmosphere is created that is truly unique! Each chapter begins with a poignant and thought-provoking excerpt in which we realise that Senlin has now adopted a cynical attitude that we did not know from him at the beginning of the first book. The witty dialogues the author creates here have left me thinking about the writing for many hours. Because even though this volume is more action-packed than the first, we are still pulled out of the story again and again by the thoughts the book triggers in you.
The first book was a dizzying journey through fantastical settings, with the reader’s head spinning along with Senlin’s. Action was infrequent, but the pace never suffered because the whole thing was a wonderfully charming mystery. In The Arm of the Sphinx, the mysterious settings have become fewer (there are still a few), and the action has increased (which is perhaps the book’s biggest shortcoming). We ride along in the minds of Senlin’s crew of would-be pirates, and the chapters keep changing to leave cliffhangers here, there and everywhere. In some ways it’s great to get into the heads of the other characters and really get to know them, but in other ways it really slows down the pace during the action.
So what are my final thoughts about it?
If I have one complaint, it is that the first half of the novel seemed perhaps a little too slow to me. I don’t want to overstate that, because a lot of the build-up pays off in the second half. The finale was just fantastic, it’s actually one of the most refreshing takes on a finale I’ve read in a long time. In a way, it saves the book from all the weird action that preceded it. It answers some questions, asks others, and tells us what to expect from the book to come (I have no doubt it will subvert those expectations). There is a lot of set-up for what is to come, and very little resolution. And I can already say that I am looking forward to seeing what happens next in this bizarre world, and that I will continue to be unable to escape the Tower of Babel.
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What a curious but cool setting 🙂