The Hod King by Josiah Bancroft

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Rating 9.6/10
A vibrant, wholly original, and expertly crafted novel that transcends genre fantasy

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Have you heard of the podcast Crit Faced? It’s the one where five fantasy authors record themselves playing Dungeons and Dragons each week. Josiah Bancroft is one of them. His character, Jean Mallerme, is a bard – one of the more challenging occupations to role play, but one of great versatility. Through Bancroft’s full commitment to the role, Mallarme morphs into an actor, a troubadour, a thief, a comic relief, a cad, and a master of disguise. He speaks in Mallarme’s voice and embodies Mallarme’s spirit, bringing this character more to life with each passing week. It is plain to see that these characteristics are not only descriptive of Jean Mallerme, but extensions of Bancroft’s natural talents. Josiah himself is an accomplished musician, visual artist, poet, and writer, and all these qualifications help define his unique storytelling voice. In The Hod King, Bancroft’s third and best entry in the Books of Babel series, Bancroft pools all these talents with remarkable results. The Hod King is a vibrant, wholly original, and expertly crafted novel that transcends genre fantasy. It is an instant literary classic.

This entry in the series is more grounded, both in a literal and personal sense. While the previous books had our heroes explore the full length of the Tower, most of The Hod King takes place in one ringdom: the city of Pelphia, home of a fake, mechanical sun, and fake, mechanical nobility. These Pelphians throw extravagant parties and fool themselves into self-importance while their insecurities bubble just beneath the surface. They bicker and connive to ascend a meaningless social ladder and turn a blind eye to the community’s failures. Their traits are further exacerbated when the narrative shifts perspectives from the high society of noble Pelphia to the low society of the Black Trail, home to thousands of indebted hods, swept under society’s rug. As hod rebel Luc Marat’s influence on the Trail continues to rise, it becomes inevitable that a reckoning of the ruling class is ahead. (Note: The interludes that are set within The Black Trail are without chapter annotation, akin to how the Trail is relegated to the back passages and forgotten tunnels of the Tower.)

Identity is one of the major themes that is explored throughout the story. Our heroes are forced to act outside of their comfort zones amidst foreign environments, and in doing so, further explore their own boundaries and capabilities. All our main characters take on new identities and responsibilities: the Sphinx sends Senlin into Pelphia to suss out any news of a hod rebellion, but the temptation to reunite with his wife threatens to destroy everything they’re working towards; Voleta and Iren, posing as a lady and her governess, attempt to infiltrate Pelphia’s noble society with the hopes of gaining access to the elusive Marya; and Edith, fully a Wakeman, learns the shocking truth behind the Tower, and must collect the missing paintings from each ringdom before all is lost. The cast widens considerably as we’re introduced to several new characters - - some are allies, but most are villains. Yet every character – even the brief acquaintances – are given ample depth and personality. It’s plain to see how much Bancroft respects and carefully considers each of his creations while giving them all an important role to play in the story. Much like the intricate machinery that populates the Tower, this book is lovingly crafted, with attentive detail given to all its parts.

As mentioned above, there is no shortage of villains in this book, which brings up another major difference between The Hod King and its predecessors: in the first two novels, the central antagonist was the Tower itself. This time around, the mantle of villainy is passed on to humans. This narrative decision allows the struggles to feel more personal, yielding new and thrilling conflicts of interest. The foils are numerous and not always obvious as Senlin, Edith, Voleta and Iren elbow their way through political conspiracies, social injustice, and acts of domestic terrorism. Even a parrot acts the villain, repeating the most offensive phrases to a crowd at the most inopportune times. It’s as if the closer we scrutinize a ringdom’s society, the more we are privy to its dark underbelly.

And although this book has a lion’s share of tragic moments, it is also rife with hope and redemption. “We aren’t what we hope for; we are only what we do” is a repeated phrase throughout the story and becomes a point of contention during Senlin’s search for his wife. Is it possible that his hope for a reunion and future with Marya is secondary to the consequences of his deeds along the way? He has earned the dedication and love of a small group of friends that have thrown themselves in with his cause, and there’s something truly beautiful about seeing the bonds of their companionship strengthen while society crumbles around them. But what final fates befalls Thomas Senlin and his crew will have to wait until the final book of this series. All the pieces are in place for a truly epic and unpredictable finale, and I cannot wait to get my hands on it.

9.5/10 - Adam Weller

I received an advanced review copy of The Hod King in exchange for an honest review. I would like to thank Josiah Bancroft and Orbit Books for the opportunity.

When I concluded my review of Arm of the Sphinx I stated that I would be counting down the days until I could rejoin Senlin and his companions adventures in The Hod King. As soon as I received this novel all other books failed to exist to me until this was completed. 

The narrative is mainly set within the Ringdom of Pelphia where our colourful cast split up in to smaller groups to complete objectives for the Sphinx. Senlin has to find out information regarding wagers and gambling in the Hod fighting pits, and Voletta needing to infiltrate high society under the guise of a highborn lady are two examples of these assigned missions. It also transpires that Senlin's missing wife Marya lives in this Ringdom and is married to Duke Wilhelm Horace Pell. Marya has also become a major celebrity who is adored by Pelphia's citizens. With Marya finally within touching distance will Senlin focus on completing the Sphinx's strict objectives or go his own way and try to converse with his lost wife again? Bearing in mind that the Sphinx has eyes everywhere.

Stating that The Hod King is beautifully written does not actually give the quality showcased here enough justice. I can see The Books of Babel being literary classics that are taught at schools in a hundred years time in similar fashion to the adventure stories in Jules Verne's Extraordinary Voyages collection. The narrative starts off at a steady pace, almost massaging the beautiful descriptions, events and exceptional dialogue into our mind with intoxicating fashion. It is presented in such as exceptional way that when confrontations, heart-pounding action sequences, or 'are you kidding me?' twists occur the emotional punches are heightened to a breathless degree. There are three main parts to this narrative. Each following a different one of Bancroft's players and each concludes phenomenally. I had to take a break to register what had just occurred and sometimes re-read the sections because they were that unbelievable but still always expertly constructed. Bancroft is a genius at work and every single entry in the series is getting better. Bearing in mind that The Hod King is probably the length of Senlin Ascends and Arm of the Sphinx combined. 

Senlin, like many readers, is my favourite character in this series. Senlin Ascends was essentially the 'Thomas Senlin show' whereas Arm of the Sphinx fleshed out the players that were until that point merely side characters. The main point of view perspectives this time are Senlin, Voletta, and Edith. I must admit when Senlin's parts ended I uttered a sigh of annoyance, but within ten pages of the next new point of view I forgot about my issues and braced myself for the Tower's ride following these other players thoughts, agendas, missions, and planned end-game. Even incorporating the side members of the ensemble, there are no weak or two dimensional creations and this includes new characters that are presented for the first time here. 

There are so many emotional scenes, amazing set-pieces, and charming intricacies that fill The Hod King to the brim. I enjoyed reading about the flying squirrel Squit, finding out more about Bryon, understanding the motives of the intriguing machine/ human hybrid pilot Reddleman, and getting an insight further into what the Hods are up to. Past enemies have to work together, betrayal could be around every corner and new alliances may be created when least expected. I would not try to predict for a second what will happen next as you'll just disappoint yourself. Just brace yourself for a hell of a rollercoaster journey through the beautiful and intricately crafted tower. I'm questioning myself as a reviewer as my words can't do this book justice. It's my equal top rated read ever on Fantasy Book Review. I will stop gushing now but press the pre-order button. Bancroft is a world-class literary author and I can't think of another writer who is better or more consistent right now. I can't wait to see how this all concludes in the series finale.

9.8/10 - James Tivendale

I remember the initial hype surrounding the self-published version of Josiah Bancroft’s Senlin Ascends. A fantasy novel set in the Tower of Babel with comparisons to Lewis Carroll and Douglas Adams instantly sparked my interest, and as I expected, I not only loved the novel, but as a husband that constantly worries about his wife’s safety I found it triggering and often horrific. The situation Tom Senlin experiences in this gargantuan world of pre-cell phone Babel, felt more terrifying than any monster, dark wizard or Orc I’ve ever read about in this genre. 

The amazing thing about the Books of Babel leading up to The Hod King, is that what began as a story about plain, ordinary headmaster Tom Senlin, a rather non charismatic person, facing a circumstance that feels quite grounded in reality, becomes a massive epic with strange creatures, highly stylistic steampunk sensibility, and a massive progression in character for our hero. 

The Hod King, much like it’s predecessor Arm Of The Sphinx is split into multiple points of view. This time, Bancroft plays with parallel time periods for each of his three focuses: Senlin, Edith and Voletta, so that for the majority of the novel each character’s section is taking place congruently with the others. While this does create a bit of overlap, it’s executed in such a well crafted cinematic manner that it adds even more intensity to what unfolds. 

As each character embarks on a separate mission for the Sphinx in the Ringdom Of Pelphia, where the bulk of the novel takes place, we are able to get a great deal of alone time with these characters and live inside their internal conflicts. For Senlin, whose mission involves yet another new identity, his plan to investigate the potential Hod rebellion is thwarted by his obsession with his wife Marya, as he learns she is not only married to Duke Willhelm, but that perhaps she has happily moved on, having achieved royal status in Pelphia not only as a duchess, but as a famous pianist. Disobeying The Sphinx’s orders to refrain from any contact with Marya leads him down yet another dark and even more redemptive path where we meet old friends and adversaries from his beginnings in Babel that will have Senlin Ascends fans cheering in the aisles. 

Free-spirited Voletta poses as the niece of The Sphinx to gain favour with the Pelphian upper crust in order to “rescue” Marya from her presumed farcical life and return her to Senlin. Despite a conflict of values with the elite, and blatantly insulting a Marquis, her nature finds her much favour with the Pelphians including a young Prince with questionable intentions. Edith, now a Wakeman and the Captain of the massive State of Art, is on a mission to retrieve paintings belonging to The Sphinx from each Ringdom, yet ends up discovering a great deal about herself when she makes a truly unselfish decision and risks her life to save a Hod boy. 

Bancroft’s writing as always is highly literary, often quite hilarious, and he does a wonderful job of upping the ante of emotional resonance. With only one more book left in the series, we feel that the time we spend with these amazing characters is reaching its peak. Through each individual mission the three heroes endure, Bancroft twists and turns us and makes us hope for peace and solace for them like we would for old friends. 

It’s been a wonder and a pleasure to experience Thomas Senlin’s progression from underconfident headmaster to competent, resourceful leader who not only demands respect but proves worthy of it through his loyalty and determination. The Hod King is an absolute classic, and while I did find myself eager to read the Senlin POV, and found myself heavily invested in the outcome for Tom and Marya, Bancroft’s impassioned writing and obvious enthusiasm for his creations made me care about the secondary characters almost equally. While Senlin Ascends remains my favorite Book of Babel thus far, I’d place The Hod King, by far the darkest of the three at a very close second. Bring on the finale! 

9.5/10 - Michael Gruneir

This The Hod King book review was written by and James Tivendale and Michael Gruneir

All reviews for: The Books of Babel

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