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Friday, November 25, 2022

Book Review - Fall of Babel by Josiah Bancroft (reviewed by David C. Stewart)

Book links: Amazon
Order The Fall Of Babel over HERE
Read Fantasy Book Critic's review of Senlin Ascends
Read Fantasy Book Critic’s review of Arm Of The Sphinx
Read Fantasy Book Critic’s review of The Hod King 

AUTHOR INFO: Josiah Bancroft started writing novels when he was twelve, and by the time he finished his first, he was an addict. Eventually, the writing of Senlin Ascends began, a fantasy adventure, not so unlike the stories that got him addicted to words in the first place. He wanted to do for others what his favorite writers had done for him: namely, to pick them up and to carry them to a wonderful and perilous world that is spinning very fast. If he’s done that with this book, then he’s happy. Josiah lives in Philadelphia with his wife, their daughter, and their two rabbits, Mabel and Chaplin.

Publisher: Orbit (November 9, 2021) Length: 668 pages Formats: audiobook, ebook, paperback, hardback

There is a common feeling that many readers relate when they've finished The Lord of the Rings for the first time. It boils down to a feeling of loss, like they've read something that will never be replicated in their lifetime, or that they've left something behind by leaving Middle-Earth with no way to get it back. I can remember that feeling acutely, and while closing The Fall of Babel did not recapture that sense of loss in quite the same way (let's face it, nothing ever will), it is the closest I have felt to the experience since my teenaged reading of The Return of the King. Josiah Bancroft's Babel series deserves to be placed in the ranks of fantasy's highest echelons, and The Fall of Babel is a spectacular send off.

When we left the Tower at the end of The Hod King, our characters had been dispersed to multiple layers within its multitude by the mysterious Sphynx. We saw Adam venturing to the pinnacle of the Tower itself, Tom winding his way through its warrens as he travelled the black road, and Edith and the rest of the crew launching their new skyship to seek out and capture the lost paintings of the Builder in order to keep them out of the hands of the menacing Luc Marat.

The Fall of Babel opens with Adam, and this is where we see the first major deviation in Bancroft's structure. The first section is entirely Adam - we see no other familiar character. The book is divided up this way, in parts, but also in disparate sections in a method that might confuse readers (I found it delightfully unorthodox). There are interstitial sections where we visit Tom aboard the Hod King, and then a section completely devoted to Edith's hunting of the paintings. The final portion brings the characters together as every path collides in an extraordinary finale. The structure works, however jarring it may seem to readers with limited expectations on how novels should be laid out, and each section is so strong that it never feels like one will be forgotten. To bring up The Lord of the Rings again, it compares to Tolkien's division post Fellowship when entire books would be devoted to one set of characters.

In these sections, we are introduced to more of the layers that make up this insane structure. We get everything from an area solely devoted to making wine, one that serves as the water source for the entire tower, and course, the increasingly complicated top level. One of the greatest joys in reading these novels is seeing the structure that makes up the Tower, and The Fall of Babel does not disappoint. Bancroft even rewards us with an informal list of every ringdom in the Tower in his appendices, which is both tantalizing and a bit of an agony.

Circling around to the method of division again, this affects the plot greatly at it sees the characters divided and then eventually reunited in the way of the most intricately plotted stories. It reaches a point where it almost feels contrived, that other forces might be pushing these people towards one another, but this is all tempered by the realization that it is not necessarily some over-arching deity pulling these characters' strings but rather their own magnetic attraction to one another. Edith finds Tom because she needs to. Everyone is pulled up to the top, where Adam is having an almost entirely different adventure, because that is the goal. It all makes sense that these characters, so integral to the life of the tower itself, would find themselves pivotal in the events that transpire.

While Bancroft's setting is one of the most unique and enjoyable places to immerse oneself in, it is his characters that make these books so special. The Fall of Babel, as has been the trajectory for some time now, takes the focus off of Thomas Senlin, the progenitor protagonist for the series, and spreads the narrative importance to nearly every other player on the board. Tom is no doubt still a pivot point, but if you were to ask me who the main character of The Fall of Babel was, I'm not sure I could answer you. As mentioned, the entire first quarter of the book is devoted to Adam's exploration of Nebos, the top of the tower, and he returns near the end. Edith, as pilot of the airship, is as important as she has been for several books, and even Marya, whom we only really met in relatively recent terms, is given a stage on which to shine.

One aspect of this particular novel that sticks out to me is just how much Bancroft beats up his characters. No one comes out of this book unscathed, either emotionally or physically (with the possible exception of Olivet). People lose limbs and get shot and fall from incredible heights, and at times it feels like its veering towards grimdark. But, it also feels necessary. Every character has something to fight for, a drive that keeps them going even when they're having their faces scraped along the pavement. It's hard to read at times, given the connection that we fans of the series have developed over the last decade or so, but there is also a satisfaction in seeing these characters give their all. They've been working towards this for a long time, and it shouldn't be easy.

How does a reviewer critique the last book in a series that they have unabashedly loved for so many years? The short of it is - they don't. At some point while reading this series, I transitioned from a reader/critic into a fan, and it's difficult for a fan to ever see the wrongs in a work that they love. From my viewpoint, each book in the Babel series has gotten progressively better. I have grown more attached to the characters in every iteration, and I have looked forward to reading each new book more than anything else in contemporary fantasy. The power of this book is such that it broke me out of a five month reading slump where I hadn't read much of anything outside of a slew of inane Reddit posts and a bunch of news headlines that kept me at the edge of nausea for the better part of a year. I don't claim that The Fall of Babel will change your life and fix all of your mental health issues, but it changed my life and resolved one of my mental health issues, and that's more than I can say for most books. What I can definitely say is that The Fall of Babel is as satisfying a conclusion to a series of books as anyone can hope for in this day and age. At the same time, unlike The Return of the King, this book isn't so conclusive that it shuts the door on Babel forever, and that both leaves me satisfied and hopeful that we may yet one day mount those steps and possibly explore some of those unopened doors.

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