The Hod King by Josiah Bancroft

January 12, 2019

Please note – The Hod King is the third book in the ongoing going series The Books of Babel. If you haven’t read books one and two then what follows is likely to contain some minor spoilery type elements. Consider yourself suitably warned!

Fearing an uprising, the Sphinx sends Senlin to investigate a plot that has taken hold in the ringdom of Pelphia. Alone in the city, Senlin infiltrates a bloody arena where hods battle for the public’s entertainment. But his investigation is quickly derailed by a gruesome crime and an unexpected reunion.

Posing as a noble lady and her handmaid, Voleta and Iren attempt to reach Marya, who is isolated by her fame. While navigating the court, Voleta attracts the unwanted attention of a powerful prince whose pursuit of her threatens their plan.

Edith, now captain of the Sphinx’s fierce flagship, joins forces with a fellow wakeman to investigate the disappearance of a beloved friend. She must decide who to trust as her desperate search brings her nearer to the Black Trail where the hods climb in darkness and whisper of the Hod King.

As Senlin and his crew become further dragged in to the conspiracies of the Tower, everything falls to one question: Who is The Hod King?

Let’s be honest with one another. If you’ve read this far then chances are pretty good that you’ve already enjoyed Senlin Ascends and Arm of the Sphinx. You’re familiar with Thomas Senlin and his delicate predicament. You’ll remember that since arriving at the awe-inspiring Tower of Babel, he and his wife Marya have been separated from one another. Against his better judgement (Senlin is an imminently sensible sort), he has decided to brave the chaos that lies within the vast building and uncover his wife’s fate. The tower has such a reputation about it that a weaker man would have simply walked away.

Senlin has changed quite dramatically since his arrival. He’s been a tourist, a captive, a pirate and now a spy. I think it is fair to say it has been quite the transformative experience. The latest stage of his journey involves an investigation on behalf of the enigmatic character called the Sphinx. The mysterious being wants Senlin to unravel the mystery that surrounds The Hod King. The hods are those people born as slaves or forced into servitude by the Tower’s authorities as a form of punishment. As their goals are currently in alignment, Senlin reluctantly agrees. The last thing our protagonist wants is to become a pawn between two opposing forces, but he has little choice in the matter.

Senlin is an intriguing soul, but as this series has progressed, I’ve found it is the other characters I’ve become more interested in. Voleta, Iren and, most surprisingly, Byron have really evolved over the course of the last few books.  The crew of the State of the Art have morphed into a weird, dysfunctional family. There is little denying that each one of them is odd and broken in their own unique way, but as a group they somehow work. There are a handful of revelatory moments featuring each character that are perfectly pitched. Byron discovers there is more to life than just service. Voleta finally realises that her actions have consequence and watching Iren’s cold-hearted exterior finally melt away is utterly captivating.

There is a wonderfully unique quality to this novel, and its predecessors, that I think I struggle to adequately convey in my reviews. Bancroft is a skilled wordsmith; the writing manages to be wryly funny in one moment and then heartbreakingly sad in the next. There is also action, thrills and adventure aplenty. I love fiction that steadfastly refuses to conform. There is a political element to the narrative that is deftly executed. As he continues to climb the tower, Senlin’s quest feels almost like a vertical homage to Les Miserables (perhaps with a bit less singing). There is a flavour of revolution in the air, a single spark is going to ignite a fundamental change in the status quo. The hods are at the very bottom of the heap, the reason the tower’s various ringdoms* persist is solely down to their slave labour. The other denizens of the tower view the hods in a dismissive fashion. These poor indentured souls are just tiny cogs in a vast machine. The air is ripe for rebellion, and it’s not a matter of if but when.

The Books of Babel are a rare treat and The Hod King is a wonderful addition. Somehow, I managed to convince myself this this series was going to be a trilogy. Based on how this novel ends I would appear to be mistaken, I certainly hope so. Where will Thomas Senlin’s journey take him next? I can’t wait to discover what Josiah Bancroft has in store for us.

My musical recommendation to accompany The Hod King is a soundtrack called The Innkeepers by Jeff Grace. The album has a mysterious air that feels like a perfect fit with the book.

The Hod King is published by Orbit and is available from 24th January.

*Each floor of the tower is a kingdom (ringdom) in its own right. You know you really should already know this if you have read the last two books. Not to worry, I won’t tell anyone you forgot.

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