The Books of Babel by Josiah Bancroft
The Books of Babel by Josiah Bancroft is a series of four steampunk-sci-fi-fantasy novels that center around Thomas Senlin and the mysterious Tower of Babel. Thomas is a middle-aged schoolteacher from a rather nondescript fishing village. He is visiting the infamous “Tower” as a newlywed to his wife Marya.
The Tower of Babel has a lot of mystique surrounding it. It is a must-see destination with various “ringdoms” that progress higher up the tower. In the first book we only see a few of the bottom levels. Later volumes we learn more about the higher floors, that there are 64 in all, and a lot of them are run by unscrupulous villains.
It doesn’t take long for Tom and Marya to become separated and the rest of the story is Mr. Senlin’s quest to reunite with his wife. What first intrigued me about this series was the tower itself. The idea of all these different ringdoms with various ecosystems, politics and puzzles to figure out is really fascinating. However, somewhere around 70% of the tower’s levels don’t really get much coverage at all.
Despite this, the story and the assortment of characters make this a joyful read. Tom meets a former farmer, Edith early on and they become close friends. Edith remains a vitally important character, surpassing all others save Tom.
Other notable characters become the core group that want to help Tom find Marya. These include Violeta, a young acrobat with a proclivity for danger, Iren, a hulking woman that should not be messed with, and Adam, Violeta’s brother who is extremely smart but also untrustworthy. There are other characters that appear and reappear throughout the journey. My favorite is Byron.
Byron is an invention of the Sphinx. He’s a stag with human characteristics (is he totally an automaton?). At first he is merely a butler but later in the story he becomes an incredibly important character. He is endearing, kind and lovable as well as a trustworthy bridge between some of the less than reliable characters.
Beyond the well-crafted characters, what really makes this a great series are the creative elements of how the Tower operates. There are so many interesting facets from the “Black Trail” to the sea of lightning and the bizarre liquid that powers the steampunk machines throughout, including parts of several characters.
One major element of the story that I struggled with was the Hods. Hods are a group of people that have debts they are working off but can never fully repay. These people are treated terribly and create a culture of their own within the walls of the tower. They carry goods up the Black Trail to other ringdoms and are treated like absolute trash. These people are the basis of Book 3, and set up the final struggle of Book 4. Thus, they are vitally important to the story. But it seemed hard to fathom how so many ringdoms could so easily dismiss this incredibly large group of people.
The Books of Babel Series Order
Book 1 – Senlin Ascends
Book 2 – Arm of the Sphinx
Book 3 – The Hod King
Book 4 – The Fall of Babel
Arm of the Sphinx is probably the best of the series. It really expands on the excitement of who the Sphinx is, what and how the tower operates, and much more. The final volume seemed to drag on a bit. There are great moments of excitement quickly followed by long sections full of detailed information that doesn’t really move the story along.
Bancroft is an exceptionally good writer, so the prose is enjoyable. But I did feel like some of the pacing delayed the gratification of discovering how the story would end. And the ending is pretty exciting and strange. I’m definitely “team Edith” because I never liked Marya.
Overall, the series gets 4 stars out of 5 and I’d recommend it to those that like steampunk fantasy. At over 2,100 pages it’s a commitment but worth it.