The Hod King by Josiah Bancroft

The Hod King by Josiah Bancroft

hod king josiah bancroft book review eric lewis the heron kingsI knew this hat would come in handy one day.

 

The Hod King is the third of a projected four-book series by self-published sensation Josiah Bancroft. I won’t bother with the setup because hey, it’s the third book. If you’re reading this you should know it already!

This volume begins with Senlin taking on the Sphinx’s assignment to investigate the threat to the Tower posed by the brewing hod insurgency and the increasingly unreliable Wakemen. He is explicitly told not to attempt contact with his missing wife Marya, who is now—willingly or not—the wife of a powerful duke in the ringdom of Pelphia. Does anyone really believe he’ll obey that order? While Senlin poses as a bureaucrat from another ringdom, Edith and the crew take a powerful airship to infiltrate Pelphia in a more ostentatious manner, acting as emissaries of the Sphinx in order to hobnob with Pelphian nobility and retrieve one of the vital Ogier paintings. They eventually uncover a dangerous movement pledged to the eponymous Hod King.

Bancroft’s prose is as fluid as ever, with narratives that sweep the reader along like rushing rapids, and many pages can pass before you realize the sun went down hours ago. The story expands in scope from the previous book as much as that one did from the first, and Senlin’s quest to find Marya fades, somewhat sadly, into the background as more serious threats emerge. We learn more about the nature of the Tower, and exactly why the Sphinx is so insistent on finally putting ancient plans into action. There is a bit less navel-gazing from Senlin in this volume, as he seems to have accepted his transformation into a more gray character, letting the plot progress more evenly. Yet he still must wrestle with his promise to the Sphinx and his absolute, visceral need to reunite with his wife. Thanks to this there’s more than one gut-punching scene worthy of Joe Abercrombie with its cruel turns of luck. I won’t spoil the ending except to say that there’s a sort of flipping of circumstances that is very satisfying, if only it hadn’t taken five hundred pages to get to it. We also see the return of one or two characters I never expected, adding a constant sense of tension to scenes that otherwise might drag out. I was struck by Bancroft’s ability to inspire investment in minor characters that receive comparatively little word count, although conversely there are some that get the most attention that I wanted to move on from.

I greatly enjoyed the first quarter of the book that focuses mostly on Senlin. This part began to recapture the sense of adventure from Senlin Ascends, which saw him have to use his intelligence and cunning to get by, but as usual always stumble because his lingering naivete leads him to miscalculation and bigger troubles. He comes tantalizingly close to achieving several different goals, only to see it all snatched away in some manner or other. In later sections that return to his POV he is shown to have become satisfyingly capable and crafty, and seems to have threaded that always difficult needle of being a fierce rogue when necessary but somehow always remaining morally grounded and consistent.

Unfortunately this is all stopped in its tracks in the middle sections of the book. Senlin is quickly made a side character in his own story. Much of the book focuses on characters that I am not nearly as invested in, and I found myself hoping for the end of the chapter to come sooner. Voleta complaining about not wanting to go to a party should take a few pages, not multiple chapters. The pace slows considerably as the characters are moved around like pieces on a game board to slowly advance the plot. Pelphia is not a terribly interesting ringdom after a few chapters, and the casual cruelty of its vapid ruling class isn’t quite as shocking after what’s come before. I don’t mind the multiple POV style, in fact I tend to prefer it. But the jumping back and forth in time can be confusing, and kills the sense of novelty and progression that was such a vital component in the first book.

Finally there is—and I suppose it was pretty much inevitable at this point—a bit of a female supremacist thread running through the whole thing. Predictably, the female characters are all strong, smart and witty while most of the men are dumb and/or bad. There are more than a few stereotypical “oh, we poor, poor women and those horrible nasty men” whining rants that are just oh so tired. Like, really? Are we still doing this? I don’t know if it’s white-knighting or delusion, or which of those would be worse, but I’m becoming less and less willing to overlook this kind of casual sexism in books. Grow up, people aren’t that one-dimensional, unless they’re taught to be.

I think The Hod King is exquisitely written by a master author, and I’d say its few faults may stem from the success of the earlier volumes. When authors become very successful, editors tend to stop editing and just publish whatever they’re sent. This longer work needed some TLC from a red pen, and I don’t blame Bancroft for this. Senlin Ascends was famously self-published of course, but perhaps Orbit thought they’d scoop up a cash cow that they’d have to put no effort into maintaining. But everyone needs a good editor. I will certainly finish the series with the as-yet untitled fourth book, and I sincerely hope Bancroft brings back everything that made me love Senlin Ascends in the first place.

For those who seem to have trouble distinguishing between quantitative and qualitative evaluations, this is a POSITIVE review. Four stars on Amazon and Goodreads. Though I may be a bit effusive in the one or two things that really annoyed me, on balance it is 95% an exceedingly good book that you should definitely read. Sheesh.

Review of Senlin Ascends

Review of Arm of the Sphinx

Josiah Bancroft’s website: TheBooksOfBabel.com

 

Pairs well with: Sierra Nevada & Bitburger Brewery Oktoberfest 2019

 

It’s getting harder and harder to draw some kind of tenuous connection between the book I review and the beer. Spicy beer for spicy characters? Man, I’m getting lazy! Oh well. I’m not sure if Sierra Nevada counts as a macrobrew or not, but this particular beer is apparently a collaboration with German brewery Bitburger for an Oktoberfest/Märzen festbier. Yep, it’s that time of year again already. This is a pretty light-bodied but not lightweight beer at 6% ABV and 22 IBU. It’s got that typical hint of autumn spicy tingle in it, though it suits the lingering warmth of September. The bready aroma is followed by caramel and grain flavors, pretty malt-forward though not too heavy, and only the barest hint of citrus hops. The sweetness tends to overpower because of this. It’s an average to good example of Märzen lager that satisfies without overpowering you with spices. Don’t complain– in the coming months things are going to get pumpkiny…

 

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