The Hod King by Josiah Bancroft

I feel that reviews become less useful further into a series. Of course, they’re important for the first and probably the second to see if quality is consistent but no one’s stumbling onto book three by accident; they already know they like the author and just want to read more. With that in mind, I’m going to be a little more critical of The Hod King than I might be for a series debut.

I noticed that the POV changes are more regimented compared to Arm of the Sphinx’s headhopping. I don’t know if this was an intentional decision, but I wasn’t a huge fan of how often and casually the POVs would switch in book 2; fortunately, The Hod King finds a comfortable compromise between it and Senlin Ascends’ solo-POV by having three clear sections following Senlin then Voleta then Edith (while occasionally dipping into other characters when it feels natural).

The book was interestingly structured – the novel (almost) entirely takes place in the ringdom of Pelphia over roughly a week. Each of the three sections covered the same week from the three perspectives. It was a little jarring to jump back in time just as things get exciting with both Senlin’s and Voleta’s story endings being cliffhangered until the future POV(s) can catch up. But that’s the nature of storytelling and the story was told quite cleverly with everything coming together in the final 100 pages or so with subtle enough foreshadowing to not be overbearing. It felt a little redundant however, to have this clear three act story structure but also have four named, distinguished parts. Splitting the story into four parts is a Books of Babel standard for sure but it might have been better to have three of the four parts line up with the three POVs and then have the fourth be an epilogue rather than having the two framing devices be separate.

Surprising no one, the prose continues to be excellent. Every sentence is given so much care, not a word is wasted – it’s just a joy to read. The book touches on some serious issues – domestic abuse, oppressed societies, torture and slavery to name a few – but does so with tact. It’s all described through a lens of whimsy yet never feels flippant or twee for its own sake. Outside of raw imagination, the characters’ voices may be Bancroft’s greatest talent and have now surely been perfected. It felt like Tarrou wasn’t gone a second, let alone a book and a half, and the new characters Eigengrau, the King, among others, were all so different and distinctly described, they were absolutely a delight.

I only read the previous books early last year and I didn’t realise how much I missed the bizarre world of the Tower but with some characteristically weird and wonderful additions (shout out to the ‘slapper-gram’ which definitely needs to be a thing), I was glad to be back. Without being too expository we learn more about the Tower with some side mentions of more ringdoms above the Silk Gardens and a future plot point in the secret electrical sea.

The biggest complaint I had was in regards to the epigraphs which were a bit pointless to be honest. They made sense in Senlin Ascends, a fun juxtaposition of the Guidebook detailing the tower and the constantly inversely stark reality. And in Arm of the Sphinx I could see the need for them, the diary entries of Captain Mudd were a clever way to fill in some history and character development without killing the pacing. But here it’s mostly just a collection of intentionally vapid sayings from a tabloid columnist. I think the intentions was to compare his faux-profound quotes with the poetry of the less popular Junet, but it came off as filling required space in order to continue the series’ style of chapter epigraphs. Like any part of a novel, they don’t have to be useful to the reader or world, but they should have some purpose even if it is to intentionally create misleading expectations like in book one.

So, I think the weakness of The Hod King was its attempt to stay in line with the first two books both in terms of the four-part structure and the epigraphs. While neither made the book significantly worse to the extent that I was disappointed by their inclusion, neither were ultimately required. It seems they were there simply because that’s what the skeleton of a Books of Babel member is expected to have. Looking at the book in their absence makes it no worse which one could argue would thus make it better.

Despite these complaints, the book really was marvellous. It was tightly plotted with Bancroft’s distinguishingly delightful prose and raised quite so many questions to answer that I’m more than looking forward to a hopefully packed concluding novel.

The Outcast Hours by Mahvesh Murad and Jared Shurin

The Outcast Hours is the latest anthology by Mahvesh Murad and Jared Shurin, following The Djinn Falls in Love and Other Stories from last year. I love stories set at night; a lack of action forces the characters to face their inner troubles, in turn making the story more introspective. That combined with me thoroughly enjoying Djinn a few months ago made this an instant request.

Anthologies, by design, have some similar theme or genre and The Outcast Hours is no different. As can be deduced from the title, it focuses on the night, on those who live and work and thrive in the midnight hours. It’s quite an open-ended theme (especially compared with Djinn’s relative rigidity of requiring a specific supernatural creature) and as a result features a vast array of genres – fantasy, horror, contemporary, slice of life, light science fiction – ranging from the darker aspects of humanity (portrayed both realistically and fantastically) to the hopeful. There are 26 stories, so I will just quickly highlight some that I particularly enjoyed.

This Book Will Find You – Sam Beckbessinger, Lauren Beukes & Dale Halvorsen
This story makes for an excellent start to the collection. It’s an intense, depressing reflection of woman’s recently ended relationship with a spooky framework pushing the story along. The reader follows a heavily self-loathing character trying to atone for the mistakes she made in said relationship and goes about it in a way that only gets more disturbing. Very creepy and entirely engrossing.

Blind Eye – Frances Hardinge
This one has a pretty original concept – it’s about a babysitter who watches children of some unsavoury types. She must take care of a little girl overnight and spooky things ensue. It’s hard to discuss it any further without delving into spoilers so just know that it’s a fast paced, exciting supernatural tale that covers more than expected with an emotional depth that’s often not seen in shorter stories.

Patron Saint of Night Puppers – Indrapramit Das
Despite the title, this was a great little tale – an anecdote almost. It sits firmly in the slice of life category following a night shift caretaker at a dog pound. In sharp contrast to almost every other story in the anthology it’s just another night taking care of dogs. Das sets up easy horror slam dunk tropes then happily subverts them repeatedly.

Tilt – Karen Onojaife
Follows a woman spending her nights at a casino trying to deal with an awful loss and given the option to fix it at a terrible price. I’m a sucker for impossible choices and Tilt delivers in spades with a simple but wonderfully executed premise. Short stories sometimes have a problem with endings, they can feel rushed or just stop arbitrarily. Mostly they end just fine but rarely are they particularly great. Onojaife leaves it on a great hook, revealing nothing but just enough all at once.

Welcome to the Haunted House – Yukimi Ogawa
What a weird story. In a good way of course, but just so odd. I’m not sure if it’s based on some folklore that I’m unaware of but wow it’s just so uniquely interesting. There’s this group of animated household objects à la Beauty and the Beast but they work in a haunted house scaring humans and can’t quite remember why or how they got there. That doesn’t really do it justice, look, read it and you’ll get me.

Lock In – William Boyle
Okay so I love The Catcher in the Rye so Lock In was an easy pick as a favourite. It’s another slice of life style book and is mildly reminiscent of Catcher in its latter half. Betsy is a young teenager who sneaks out of catholic school at night to wander the streets and find a cinema after being disillusioned with her authority figures. The story finishes fittingly but I would like an extension just to see what she gets up to for the rest of the night.

A Partial Beginner’s Guide to the Lucy Temerlin Home for Broken Shapeshifters – Kuzhail Manickavel
First of all, what a fantastic title; I love long, detailed titles like this. Secondly, if only one of these stories should be expanded, it must be this one. It’s a sort of epistolary novel that acts as a welcome guide for an orphanage that brings up a hundred questions despite being one of the shortest stories in the anthology. There’s so much potential here, I need more!

After reading The Djinn Falls in Love, I had an interesting chat with Shurin on /r/fantasy about how he and Murad grapple with their anthologies’ structures for ‘probably too long’ (his words not mine!) so I would be remiss to not quickly give some thoughts on it in this instance. Generally speaking, the stories were well organised. Each tale was very different to its predecessor with shifts in either genre, setting or tone almost every time. In fact, it was so well done that there were two adjacent stories that happened to stick out just by nature of being mildly similar. There were also interludes scattered in every few stories that were an interesting addition. They provided a nice breather every so often, but I don’t think they were really necessary. They were very short pieces of flash fiction that were unrelated and seemed more experimental than anything else.

Ask any book blogger and they’ll say the same thing: anthologies are hard to review. There will always be some great stories, some bad and a lot that fit somewhere in between. Ultimately, I read anthologies to force myself to explore new genres, discover new authors, and see how wildly people’s perspectives interpret a common theme. If the job of the editors is to accomplish these goals, The Outcast Hours is nothing short of a resounding success.

The Steel Seraglio by Mike Carey, Linda Carey and Louise Carey

It’s rare when, after finishing a book, you have zero qualms with it – even little nit-picks. But that’s exactly how I felt after finishing The Steel Seraglio by Mike Carey, Linda Carey and Louise Carey. This is going to be a short review and really more of a rave; there’s not much else needed to say except that it’s just very nice.

The book takes clear inspiration from A Thousand and One Nights – from the prose to the chapter names. Each chapter is named in the format of a short fairy tale (‘The Tale of the Girl, Her Father, Her Two Suitors and the King of Assassins’, ‘The Youth Staked Out in the Desert’ etc) and usually is quite short in length to fit this theme. The narrative style is reminiscent of folktales in that it’s flowery and poetic. Almost every chapter works as a standalone tale and they occasionally contain nested tales. One, for example, is recounted by the narrator about an elderly lady who then tells a story to her grandkids. It’s a simple but surprisingly effective way to emphasis the mythical nature of the book.

The overall story is about the rise and fall of Bessa – the ‘city of women’. As the narrator points out almost immediately, this moniker taken literally is an inaccurate description of the city but is more or less an accurate statement given the gender politics of the book’s setting. The book tells the story of the late Sultan’s harem of 100 women after they get banished from the city by the new ascetic leader. Forced to fend for themselves in an environment that is far less luxurious than what they’re used to, they quickly create a new  egalitarian society for themselves in the desert.

The story meanders along, occasionally pauses to elaborate on the backstory of a character and switches between the POVs of many of the people in the city. There are roughly 5 main POVs but often there will be a chapter here or there following a side character who until then was just mentioned by name. Having too many viewpoints is often a recipe for disaster or at least for confusion but it works here. It never feels forced and just adds to the theme of community. It makes sense that the narrator is omniscient because it’s a made up tale so of course they can say with certainty how every character thinks and feels.

In a similar vein of Becky Chambers’ Wayfarers and Neil Gaiman’s Stardust, The Steel Seraglio just oozes warmth and humour. The characters are sympathetic, optimistic and trusting of each other. They are genuinely good people trying to create something worthwhile and lasting and it’s a joy to read.

And if you’re interested in reading poc- or female-centric books, good news pal because this book is naturally chock full of them.