After the excellent and emotionally gripping third book, The Hod King (2019), Josiah Bancroft is now ready to present his conclusion to the entire Books of Babel series. The Hod King felt like a middle book done right, with plenty of powerful, emotionally transformative moments. It was truly one of the best fantasy novels in a decade. Unfortunately, The Fall of Babel showcases every particular weakness in his writing and presents a disappointing conclusion.
Let’s begin by acknowledging that many of the qualities of Bancroft’s earlier books are also present here. His graceful, fluid writing style, his perfect little metaphors and his wit and invention make every page a joy to read. The combination of the quirky steampunkish world and Bancroft’s charming style really invites readers to exert their imagination and perhaps even make their own illustrations. There are plenty of striking and odd moments that would be perfect for a little artistic impression. Hopefully one day editions will appear with beautiful pencil drawings of the characters and places. That would be right.
But Bancroft likes his world-building perhaps a bit too much. In the first quarter of this novel we follow one of the characters who was missing in the third book and he ended up in a new kingdom. Many pages are filled with elaborate tours of this place and indulgent history lessons, and it isn’t at all clear why all this needs to be told. Maybe there is a mismatch between what I like to see and what Bancroft deems important, because I can see that Bancroft is engaging in what makes these books a joy: the strange tower, and a unique mood that straddles the quirkiness of this world and the perversion and cruelty of its inhabitants, and all this comes to the fore in Bancroft’s exposition-heavy storytelling. But the structure of the novels suffers for it, as does the momentum of the plot. In The Hod King, this wasn’t a problem because the most important plot line of all, the finding and freeing of Marya, pushed every chapter forward. In the beginning of The Fall of Babel, I don’t know what is going on. Bancroft is elaborately detailing a story with lots of that expository world-building, but the story feels long and unnecessary.
To be fair, the raison d’être for this first quarter becomes apparent later on. But it’s a rough start for a novel.
While this series started out as the tale of Thomas Senlin and the search for his lost wife, much of this core thread of the series is now pushed to the side. Senlin’s journey accrued so many side characters that they have taken over the plot, and they all need their arcs completed. It takes up a lot of space that I wasn’t really invested in. On top of that, a more standard action plot has taken center stage about the future of the tower. These two changes taken together, the entire series has undergone a change of identity over the final two books. Unfortunately, that means that the storyline that I was most interested and invested in, received the shortest amount of attention. And for the brief moments that Thomas makes an appearance, I was annoyed with him, because he hasn’t changed nearly as much as I hoped he would. He is constantly berating himself and blaming and shaming himself like an insecure schoolboy. He’s so sorry, so sorry. So selfish. So arrogant. Everything is his fault. No. Grow a backbone!
It took me a lot of energy to trudge through this novel – it felt interminable – and I think it is because the emotional story climaxed in the previous novel and in some way it should have ended there. Instead, the power-struggle over the tower is stretched out over a series of battles and the love triangle (sigh) with Thomas, Marya and Edith is put on hold with it, while a quicker conclusion would have ended that journey on a high note. Instead, there is an endless delay of conclusions and endless plot complications while I am simultaneously falling out of love with Bancroft’s writing. Patterns begin to appear in his writing; his exposition of new kingdoms and the frequent memory flashbacks for character exploration, which happen every other page. I started to get annoyed with all of it. I think the series just got too long and too big for its own good, and Bancroft’s writing style lends itself better for smaller, sillier stories with precious characters. He also isn’t good at writing action. He constantly interrupts the scenes with superfluous flashbacks or elaborate descriptions of fountains and statues and so drags everything out with needless details.
Then we come to the disappointing conclusion. First there are dozens of pages of emotionless fighting where people hack and stab and run and escape and gain and lose advantages and prove themselves idiots and it never seems to end. And then, I have to reiterate again because this book seems to have forgotten it, this entire series was about Thomas Senlin losing and trying to recover his wife, and that storyline builds to a terrible disappointment and brings down the entire series for me.
What I think would have made this series much better, is the following: Thomas and his relationship with Marya were both flawed from the start. Thomas was an insecure, clueless, emotionally underdeveloped guy who looked at his own wife as some manic pixie dream girl, while Marya was much more stable and adult and a bit emotionally distant. Thomas then goes through four books of adventure, grows as a person, and when Thomas and Marya eventually meet again, they can look at each other through new eyes and meet “on the same page” as it were, emotionally. And who knows what the healthiest decision would be at that moment. But none of that happens. Thomas has no character growth; is still the spineless, self-blaming and idealizing individual that he was in the beginning. He does nothing but grovel and take responsibility for everything. This series could have been about a much more emotionally profound personal journey, and an investigation of relationship dynamics, but it isn’t. The ending sucks and there isn’t even anything we can learn from it. It is less insightful than I thought it was.
It is perplexing to have a series end like this and I can only guess at Bancroft’s reasons for this. It can’t have been the goal to have us dislike Thomas and Marya both? It almost feels like a therapeutic exercise by the writer to deal with some divorce trauma.