I love this author so much. I was first introduced the the Babel series through SPFBO and then Orbit picked up the series and I got the audiobooks to accompany my physical copies. So, when I saw there was a new release coming by Josiah Bancroft I immediately had to request it.
I’ll call the Summer of 2023 the Summer of Horrors. It was just one punch thrown after another and I was too busy ducking and dodging to read. I would have had this review out much earlier than day of release, but at least I made it!
Within the first few pages I was reminded of how much I loved his prose. There’s a level of absurdity and whimsy right up front with the opening line being, “The king wishes to be cooked alive.” Later on the page it was followed by, “more precisely, the king wishes to be baked into a cake.” For me this was definitely catchy. Like, wtf are you talking about? Is he being serious? Is the kind deranged or is this some kind of code?
Nah, the king is batshit and really does want to be baked into a cake — he’s gone so far as to try and crawl into the ovens. It turns out the king has moments of lucidity followed by an utter detachment from reality. The best medical minds and healers have taken a look at him but with no success. As a last resort, the King’s messenger makes it to our main characters, the Hexologists, to ask for assistance. Not only has the king lost his mind, it appears he’s also being blackmailed and of course, there could be a link between the two. The king has no heirs, and although many charlatans have tried in the past to claim to be long lost by-blows, but they’ve always been proven undoubtedly false. There’s a letter written to the king that only the king, his sister, the messenger and now the Hexologists have seen. It was sealed with a lost signet ring that appears to be authentic, which raises the suspicions of everyone that it could be real. The Hexologists, Warren and Iz have been set on the task to figure out what’s going on and to bring it to the attention of the crown as soon as they know anything at all. What follows is a ton of misadventures that include mandrakes, golems, talking dragons, and every possible magical fantastical element you can think of. There are different categories of magic, there are numerous magical fauna and flora both tropey and brand-new and unique to this world. It is just jam packed with fantasy elements with a steampunk background. There’s tech in this world that really extenuates the whimsy, like Cruella Deville looking cars that run on magic alcohol — the cars create vapors which can burn pedestrians as they pass by. It’s those small details that breathed so much life into this world. There’s a snow-like substance that comes out of the alchemical plants just like factories used to produce a snow-like soot that covered nearby areas.
Bancroft has a completely unique way of using simile and metaphor in unexpected and playful ways that seriously add to the enjoyment of the prose. I am not usually someone who *wants* super intense prose because usually I get a little lost, or bored, or overwhelmed by it. I don’t always resonate with super descriptive prose because I struggle with visualization. If you tell me a persons hair color, eye color, skin tone, and manner of dress in a very literal matter of fact way it’s going to slide right out of my head. It’s just not going to stick. However, describing someone as having a tree stump of a neck is going to have staying power over “he had a very thick neck.” Bancroft has a command of language and I imagine for those who love words and language this book could be a treat. I did end up looking up several words along the way, this may or may not pull people out of the story. I’m someone who can’t just gloss over a word I don’t know, I have to stop and look it up so I know exactly what’s being said. So, your mileage may vary with your enjoyment of the prose. It’s not my normal style but I did enjoy myself and expanded my vocabulary.
The pacing starts off really fast and easy to slip into. You know exactly who the main players are, the problem they have, and their goal. It’s not one of those books where you have to wait around for the plot to get going. That said, I did feel as though it meandered a bit in the middle. Again, your mileage may vary with this as the meandering could be quite fun at points. There’s a talking dragon that compares a clam to “ocean flavored gaskets” and I will never, ever think of a clams as anything other than ocean-flavored gaskets. I hate them so much.
I loved the fact that the characters were already an established loving husband and wife. There’s no big issue between them to solve or drama in their relationship. They are a loving husband and wife and make a great team. I utterly adored that aspect of this. The dialogue is a touch exaggerated but it’s so much fun. When Iz and Warren are first being propositioned by the crown to take up this case, Iz’s terms were, “I am not responsible if anyone is inconvenienced by the facts I uncover; and I will not, under any circumstance, appear before a judge, cooperate with the police, or accept questions from the press. I deliver answers but I answer to no one.” Mmmmmm, girl, tell him what’s what. Iz’s father sounds a bit like Indiana Jones and was an archeologists that goes on adventures — he seemingly wanted to find the hollow biosphere in the middle of the earth. He’s supposedly dead, a magic sand timer that had sand flow in both directions stopped, and that’s supposedly a sign that he’s died.
This wraps up nicely while leaving room for more in this world and characters — which is my personal sweet spot with books. I absolutely recommend this book to anyone who has enjoyed his work before!