Senlin's quest to recover his wife from the Tower of Babel has led him from a quiet life as a schoolteacher to an unlikely new career as an air buccaneer, scouring the skies around the Tower for a way of finding his way back inside. A series of unlikely mishaps leads him and his crew to the domain of the mysterious and enigmatic Sphinx, the master-inventor who oversees everything in the Tower for their own inscrutable - and unscrupulous - purpose. There they must face their greatest and most formidable challenge yet: recovering a book from a library.
Arm of the Sphinx is the second volume of The Books of Babel and the sequel to Senlin Ascends, already the best book I've read this year. Like its forebear, Arm of the Sphinx is a clever, witty, beautifully-written, offbeat and joyously engaging slice of speculative fiction that grabs hold from the first page and doesn't let go until the end.
Arm of the Sphinx is a different novel, however, with the author changing things up. Senlin Ascends was primarily told from Senlin's POV and he was the primary character. In Arm of the Sphinx the viewpoint now expands and we get POV sections from all of the other characters. This fleshes them out in much greater detail, giving each character their own internal and external struggle to deal with, and allows the reader to re-assess Senlin. It was easy to feel sorry for Senlin and motivated to root for him when we saw his viewpoint on everything. When we get to see what others think of him, something of a re-appraisal is in order.
Bancroft also wrong-foots the reader. If you thought this was going to be another whistlestop tour of the ringdoms of Babel with lots of stand-alone-ish adventures in each new locale before we get a fresh clue to Marya's whereabouts and set off again...then you're kind of correct. But things aren't as predictable as that. The new ringdom of the Silk Gardens is bizarre and strange, forming a slightly surreal mini-adventure that doesn't immediately connect to the rest of the book around it. But it's clearly laying groundwork for later events, and I suspct this will turn out to be a very key episode in the series. The rest of the book is set in the Sphinx's domain and sees our heroes split up into smaller groups. We learn a lot about them even as the Sphinx does, but we also learn more about the Sphinx and the ultimate purpose of the Tower, which starts moving things in a more SF direction. However, we also learn some more about the world, and can start forming more of an idea if this is supposed to be the Biblical Tower or not.
There's also a harrowing solo adventure for Senlin and the introduction of the best librarian in fantasy fiction since that one that goes "Ook". Arm of the Sphinx packs an awful lof of story, character and incident into its pleasingly restrained page count (370 pages in paperback).
Arm of the Sphinx (*****) is available now in the UK and USA. The third book in the series, The Hod King, is due out next year. The author's website is here and you can follow him on Twitter here.