As an author I know there’s an inevitable degree of fear when you cast your book out on the waters of the reading public and offer them the chance to tell you that your baby is ugly, or worse … average.
I’m less familiar with the other side of the equation, the fear that a long awaited and much anticipated book will not capture the magic held by earlier books from the same author. In a series this can be a particularly sharp anxiety as the author holds in their hands the legacy of beloved characters. To see that squandered would be a sad thing.
This is a long book. Not a George RR Martin doorstop, but substantially longer than anything I’ve written. And … let me end your suspense … it is not merely a 5* book, it’s a masterpiece.
The recent explosion of adoration for these books doesn't surprise me. What shocks me is that it's not much bigger. I’m not surprised that Senlin Ascends made the Goodreads Choice Award semi-final, just sad that it didn’t make the final. My prediction is that readers will be talking about these books long after much of what currently keeps them company on the shelves is forgotten.
Reading these books makes me feel as if I'm a really clever intellectual sharing in something magnificent that only a rarefied few could appreciate. When of course that is the genius of the writing. Actually the series is highly accessible and loved by many, as witnessed by the high ratings and general praise.
To the book then! It’s no secret that I love Bancroft’s prose. If the story were mediocre this book would squeeze 5* from me just because of the razor sharp wit edging the lines. The descriptions deliver whole personas in a single line. In context they are amazing, even in isolation they are impressive. They encapsulate new characters immediately:
Lady Xenia de Clarke talked with the urgency of a burst pipe.
Or deliciously remind you why you love familiar ones:
Voleta surveyed her options miserably. "I think humanity peaked at the spoon, don't you?"
"And I will tell you again, if you ever eat your fish with a spoon, I will appear out of thin air wherever you are in the world, snatch the spoon from your hand, and rap you on the head with it!"
The observational wit had me chuckling on many occasions and I am not given to chuckling.
The Hod King is a masterclass in contrast. In the book a particular ride is described as including a ponderous rise and a sudden terrifying fall. The story begins with a similarly slow (but fascinating rise) then takes sudden appalling turn into darkness. After that it’s a sequence of dizzying highs and terrifying lows. Sometimes in the space of two lines. At one point I was starting to laugh at one line and startled out of it by the next line, one that made my face fall and had my eyes prickling. You’ll know it when you get there.
I read a chunk of this book on a trip to a hospital, a day on which I laughed out loud in a hospital foyer beside a bald skeletal child on chemo and later on the bus home had tears in my eyes while crammed on a bus beside a giant with world class, paint-peeling BO. And not from the ammonia stink … though that would have done it soon enough had I not opted to stand.
There is, on nearly every page, a line so weighted with warmth, wit, or humanity that it makes you pause to consider it. Sometimes all three at once.
A word on the plot, which will potentially have SPOILERS for book 1 & 2, so if you haven’t read them … go do that.
The books so far have centred on Senlin’s quest to find Marya. The previous book ended with us seeing that the Sphinx has located her. In The Hod King Senlin is sent to spy on the ringdom where Marya is. The story unfolds from Senlin’s point of view, and from those of Edith, Voleta, Iren, and Bryon. I love Bryon, he’s such a complex character and so artfully rude. Actually I love all of them. We spend a long time with each of them and it’s generally a leisurely stay, I never felt bounced around. The story telling device has us moving to a new character as the current one falls into peril but I was always captured by the new view on the unfolding but glorious mess. In several places we step back in time to see how the other characters separately arrive at some critical point. It’s all very well done and adds a nice multi-layering to some scenes.
The stakes are raised and raised again, both at the world level and at the character level. Bancroft is not gentle with us. Nobody feels safe. Nobody is safe. And the villains are oh so villainous, while at the same time being frighteningly ordinary and understandable. Take random people and allow wealth and a regimented class system to elevate them above the constraints of morality … and a fair few will become monsters.
Anyway. To conclude. I was thrilled by the story, wildly jealous of the writing, and am now very keen to read the final book.
If you’ve seen my ravings about the previous books. Well this was certainly as excellent, and very possibly better. I would have to re-read to be sure, but this one felt as if it raised the bar in terms of heart-in-the-mouth moments while maintaining the wonder and charm.
Gaze upon my early copy and despair that you have to wait until January! Still, you can pre-order now.
An index of my reviews.
Join my 3-emails-a-year newsletter #prizes