Paul Di Filippo Reviews The Fall of Babel by Josiah Bancroft
The Fall of Babel, Josiah Bancroft (Orbit 978-0316518192, trade paperback, 672pp, $17.99) November 2021.
As everyone from gymnasts to songwriters knows, “sticking the landing” is essential for creating an artistic triumph. You might be doing great for nine-tenths of your balance-beam ballet or your three-minute pop tune, but unless you go out elegantly, with a bang, and in fulfillment of all that you have set up earlier, after prepping the audience to expect certain things, then your work as a whole stands a good chance of being labeled a failure.
Well, friends, I am here to report with glee that Josiah Bancroft brilliantly sticks the landing of his Books of Babel series. This fourth and conclusive volume (although it does deliver a totally tied-up ending, it still does not preclude a spinoff) not only deploys an extravagant wealth of new characters, new events and new revelations, but it also picks up each of the old threads, knots them off like a master sailor, and braids the whole into a beautiful tapestry. Taken as a quartet, this series is one of the most satisfying and accomplished productions of fantastika in many a moon. For sheer fecundity of invention and daringness of beautiful prose, I liken it to Tom Toner’s The Amaranthine Spectrum series and Robert Redick’s Chathrand Voyage sequence. It marks the blooming of a super-talented newcomer in our genre, someone to reckon with for future decades, we hope, giving a sign of youthful reinvigoration of old tropes and concepts.
I cannot possibly recap 1500 pages of previous action here. I send you to my earlier review of the first three books. Even there, you will get but the barest highlights. In a few words at this juncture, I can say that this saga is essentially a primo New Weird scenario involving a giant Tower whose various levels (“ringdoms”) host a plethora of exotic cultures and artifacts and peoples and creatures. Into this Tower steps our hero, a naïve and innocent tourist. He is schoolmaster Tom Senlin, who immediately loses his wife Marya in the Tower’s evil chaos, and the rest of this book is his quest to recover her. Along the way—Bancroft reveals the duration of the action to be about one year’s time for the characters—Senlin undergoes a host of transformations that will leave him totally battered and smelted into richer ore, more canny, more bold, and more pained than he could ever have imagined.
So how does the ultimate book proceed? I’ll try not to give too much away.
We open by returning to a fellow named Adam, one of Senlin’s comrades. Last seen being captured atop the Tower by strange soldiers, he is now conveyed into the ringdom of Nebos, a kind of elitist and privileged community that disdains the lesser citizens of the Tower. There, half a prisoner, half a guest, Adam falls in love with the ruler’s daughter, Runa. They learn hidden details about the Brick Layer, the legendary fellow who built the Tower, and they begin to winkle out the Brick Layer’s ultimate goals. But the pair run astray of the authorities, and seem doomed.
Next we return to our hero himself, in a most undignified and precarious position. No longer is he the elegant pirate captain of the flying ship State of Art. Instead, he is a galley slave in a monstrous siege engine, the Hod King, a multilegged, drill-equipped warship under the command of the half-mad Luc Marat. Marat’s plan is to tunnel up through the Tower and attack the Sphinx, the most potent figure in the place, and usurp his role. During Senlin’s tenure aboard the Hod King he will move up the ranks, unwillingly but resignedly, until he is almost second-in-command, all while looking for a way to sabotage Marat and reignite his search for his wife.
Meanwhile, Captain Edith, Senlin’s ex-lover, now helms the State of Art with a madcap crew of nonpareils, all of them elegant and deadly in their own manner, including Voleta, Adam’s sister. Eventually they take onboard Marya herself, and Oliveta, the daughter she birthed after being separated from Senlin. Voleta’s addiction to a powerful drug from the Sphinx allows her to travel mentally through time and have conversations with the Brick Layer, adding more info to our picture of the Tower’s secret purpose. But mainly the crew rages from one mad battle to another, as they seek to stymie Marat.
And so the book roars through these three arcs, providing ceaseless adventures as well as deep character building, all couched in highly enjoyable, carefully constructed, lucid and lovely prose, until finally everything converges in a massive battle between the forces of Marat and those of State of Art.
And what a battle! Bancroft devotes forty pages to non-stop fighting, with the balance of the struggle shifting and swaying back and forth with great suspense. His talents for describing actions visually and vividly, previously well displayed, come to the fore incredibly here. It’s like watching the battle scenes from about three Marvel superhero films stitched together.
Finally—this hardly seems a spoiler, given Bancroft’s optimistic humanism—the Good Guys win, but at severe cost, and when the Brick Layer’s ultimate boobytrap is sprung, all bets for the future are off.
Bancroft’s microcosm of the Tower ends up being a beautiful, touching allegory of our larger world.
Since the Sphinx had given her the State of Art to command, there been occasions when Edith wondered if the Tower was even worth saving. It was only a structure, after all, an environment that seemed to permit, if not court, corruption and exploitation. It was a place where natives preyed upon the displaced and ringdoms made their fortunes by bilking the vulnerable. The administrators were inept, the guardians treacherous. and the regents unmoored from reality….
So, it always went. Since she’d taken up the mantle of Wakeman, Edith had felt only the burden of her duty to the Tower; but glancing up at the great and bursting crop overhead, she realized why she was so irate. She was mad because she cared, and she resented those who did not. The Tower was more than a structure… Though she had hoped to find affection elsewhere, it came as something of a relief to find there was still love in her heart and a purpose worthy of that passion.
As Edith, Senlin and the others come to realize, investing all your heart and soul and powers in redeeming anything you value from entropy is the key to a worthwhile life. Sometimes it just takes a trip to the Tower to teach us what should be obvious every day back home.
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