The Hod King, Josiah Bancroft (Orbit 978-0316517980, $15.99, 624pp, tp) January 2019.
To the familiar litany of author names that illustrate self-publishing successes – Hugh Howey, Andy Weir, E.L. James – you can add that of Josiah Bancroft. Convinced of the quality of his first novel, Senlin Ascends, he issued it himself in 2013, with the goal of “selling five hundred copies.” Five years later, new editions of Senlin and its sequel, Arm of the Sphinx, have found a home at Orbit Books and garnered much praise and many fans. Now comes the third volume of the quartet-to-be, The Hod King. Anyone looking for a more well-deserved triumph of faith, perseverance, and talent need look no further.
Bancroft is working firmly in New Weird territory (with a significant nod to the older traditions of the picaresque and the Dantean infernal journey), and his mastery of the mode is apparent from the start of the series. Also apparent is how firmly established and understood this relatively young subgenre is, by both readers and writers. No tentative, hand-holding groundwork is deemed necessary by the creator to lure the reader in – it’s full-bore weirdness right from the git-go. If Mervyn Peake represented first-generation New Weird, and China Miéville second generation, then Bancroft is third generation or later, with consequent assumptions and refinements. (I’d toss in Alan Campbell’s Deepgate Codex and James Stoddard’s The Evenmere Chronicles as allied works.)
As Senlin Ascends begins, we are on a train with Thomas Senlin and his young bride, Marya. They are taking their honeymoon at the biggest attraction in all the land of Ur: the Tower of Babel. Rising for perhaps some 30 to 40, so far as anyone really knows, the massive tower features a different kingdom – or “ringdom” – on each level, specialized and dedicated to different pursuits and lifestyles. Around the base of the tower is the seething turbulent outdoors Market.
We quickly suss out Senlin’s personality: he’s a fusty creature of habit and timidity, lover of comfort and peace above all, a pedantic schoolmaster who has managed to quell any innate thirst for adventure and fun. Bancroft has deployed Ichabod Crane as his unlikely hero, with a smattering of Ebenezer Cooke from The Sot-Weed Factor. Marya is pretty much his opposite, bold and passionate and a little wild. Yet somehow, believably, the couple are deeply in love.
They disembark from the train. They are almost immediately separated in the moil. Senlin worries, but does not yet despair. A day passes in searching, then more. Senlin has to at last admit the sad reality. He’s lost his wife. Could she have entered the Tower, heading toward level three, where they planned to stay, and hoping to meet Senlin? His only and perhaps best recourse is to venture into the Tower.
Here commences Senlin’s mad odyssey, replete with a circus’s worth of unforgettable characters and places and situations, during which Senlin will be cheated, gulled, abused, shanghaied, co-opted, and, once in a while, befriended and helped. Bancroft’s powers of invention are rich and strong, but never abused. He does not pile on absurdities and novelties beyond satiation, but rather constructs organic scenarios that involve just enough weirdness to enchant and puzzle and amuse without frustrating or confusing the reader. And all actions flow organically from personalities mixed with circumstances and environment.
The first level is the Basement, a rather drab and utilitarian precinct, and Senlin is soon out of there for level two, the Parlor, where a kind of perpetual Carrollian LARP is in progress. From there he ventures into the Baths, an artistic and hedonistic playground. When the book ends, Senlin is about to depart his residence on level four, New Babel, a trading entrepot where he has been functioning as a manager. Throughout he never loses sight of his quest for Marya, although the detours and distractions are infinite. Along the way his personality warps, exfoliates, and transmutes around this core purpose, until he has taken on the guise of a makeshift pirate named Captain Tom Mudd. The other folks in his life come and go in unpredictable ways, with some of his oldest acquaintances popping up later in his story.
All of this has occupied just about a year or less of Senlin’s life.
When Arm of the Sphinx opens, Senlin is captaining his tattered airship, the Stone Cloud, with a crew of Edith (she of the mechanical arm, whom he met in the Parlor); brother and sister Adam and Voleta, from the Basement; and Iren, amazonian bodyguard whom he stole away from their mutual boss in New Babel. Their goal is to attempt to enter level five, Pelphia, since tips have led Senlin to believe Marya is imprisoned there. But they are repelled and must come up with another plan.
They attempt entrance via the level above Pelphia, the ruined and decayed Silk Gardens. There they meet Luc Marat, a rebel who is planning to use the hods as his troops to topple the whole Tower. The hods are abused and pitiful slaves or indentured servants who build and maintain the Tower, accessing all levels via the hidden “black trails.” Getting no help from Marat, Senlin is forced to consider applying for aid to the dangerous Sphinx. This figure is a master artificer, responsible for all advanced gadgetry in the Tower, including Edith’s mechanical arm. Eventually Senlin & Co. find the Sphinx resident in an interstitial level just under the Collar of Heaven, the ring of clouds most of the way up the Tower.
In the Sphinx’s domain, all the crew members will face trials and emerge with significant changes to their natures. (Adam will actually part ways from the others, attaining the enigmatic summit of the Tower.) We will learn the purpose of the Tower, the identity of the Sphinx, and the fact that there are 64 levels to the land. At the conclusion, as Senlin, Edith, Voleta, and Iren set out in a new ship, the reader – but not the crew – gets a tantalizing glimpse of Marya in her new setting, thanks to the Sphinx’s omnipresent spy cameras.
Before diving into the latest book, I should attempt to qualify what makes Bancroft’s subcreation so attractive. Not only are the characters rich and empathizable (cue Guardians of the Galaxy for the resonant vibe), the setting fascinating (an example of SF’s Big Dumb Object trope at its best), but Bancroft’s superlative prose is a colorful and seductive mix of Edwardian lulling certainty with postmodern freshness. In this regard I link him to author Van Reid, whose neglected Moosepath League books could be cousins to Bancroft’s saga, as could the mixed naivete and sophistication of a Walter Moers novel. Additionally, his plotting is fluid and complex, and his mix of humor and tragedy is exemplary. Moreover, although the books seem to be primarily focused on individual quests, Bancroft manages to slip in discussions of major topics: friendship, love, duty, civic responsibility, war, art, revenge, justice, and other themes.
It’s hard to discuss The Hod King in detail without spoiling its many delightful twists and turns, but I’ll try to give a fair but hazy outline of the tale. The first section, which extends for 150 pages or so, finds Senlin ensconced alone in Pelphia, the ringdom of high fashion and parties, as a spy for the Sphinx, under the guise of a boring accountant. He meets Marya in a wrenching and tender moment, but before he can rescue her, he is uncovered as a spy. Bancroft next cuts away for an equal number of pages to Voleta’s doings. She has been inserted into Pelphia also as a spy – with Iren as her minder – but does not cross paths with Senlin, becoming instead the improbable darling of the elite social set. Her wild-child mind and actions receive their deepest play here.
The next segue brings us to Senlin and some comrades walking the deadly and morbid black trails. They have the misfortune to encounter a “chimney cat,” a vicious predator, and the resulting action scene would do any thriller writer proud. We next move back in time to find out what Edith has been up to while helming the Voleta mission. This was the only moment in three books when I felt Bancroft’s narrative strategy was a little weak. Having ended the Voleta section on a cliffhanger, then forestalled us with news of Senlin’s doings, it seemed one delay too many to retrace Edith’s actions right up until they converge with the realtime Voleta. Nonetheless, once the threads tie together, Bancroft provides a slambang finish, including a breakaway to the shocking reunion of Senlin and Luc Marat, the Hod King.
It’s interesting to lay down a certain template on these three volumes. The first represented the innocence and naivete of childhood; the second showed us the roistering adventures of young adulthood; and the third presents immersion in a fully adult society. Will the fourth and last find our cast delivered into a kind of middle-aged self-knowledge, stability and rueful or happy complacence? That would seem to be the natural extension of what’s come before. But Bancroft has a lot of loose ends to tie up, and I expect we will not get to experience many more ringdoms up close. In The Hod King, he starts tossing out names of other layers in an offhand way, as if this might be their only mention. However, Adam does still await us on the roof.
This massive adventure, about 1,500 pages so far, has the uncommon virtue of seeming both light and consequential at the same time. Bancroft’s unceasing attention to the imagined details of his world and the picture he paints of a decaying civilization and those desperate to save it make the saga seem weighty. But then his sprightly dialogue, sense of irony and farce, and the human foibles of his hero and his companions usher the tale into the airy realm of golden comedy.
Fans of accomplished New Weird should flock to this series like chimney cats falling upon tasty hods.
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