I did enjoy the first book in this series a lot so I was looking forward to reading the sequel. I had thought “Senlin Ascends” got maybe a bit weaker towards its end and I felt “Arm of the Sphinx” similarly started off relatively poorly. The first third of the book follows Thomas Senlin’s unlikely second career as an unusually gentlemanly airship pirate preying on some of the ships flying around the skies surrounding the Tower of Babel. One problem with this part of the story is that it felt like it moved away from the uniqueness of the setting of the Tower itself and I think the airship piracy plotline has been done better elsewhere (Chris Wooding’s “Tales of the Ketty Jay”, in particular). The story also felt a bit aimless at this stage, the first book had a lot of momentum from Senlin’s quest to ascend the Tower in an attempt to track down his missing wife but it was sometimes hard to see how the adventures of the crew of the “Stone Cloud” were taking them any closer to the goal – something even the characters themselves acknowledged. There are also some times when it started to get a bit too hard to really suspend disbelief, in particular there’s a scene with a harpoon gun and a train which didn’t seem like Senlin’s plan should have worked anywhere near as well as it did. Fortunately, I thought the book improved a lot in the second and third sections where the story returns to the Tower itself.
The second part of the story takes place mostly around the Golden Zoo region of the Tower which, like the other regions of the Tower seen in the first book, alternated between being wondrous and sinister (and sometimes both simultaneously). It also introduced a character who might possibly end up being the series’ main villain. The third part of the book might be the best in the series, with Senlin and his crew reluctantly entering the domain of the mysterious being known only as The Sphinx in an attempt to gain his aid in Senlin’s quest. I thought The Sphinx was the most interesting character in the series so far, and I thought the author did a great job of gradually revealing new aspects of his character while keeping The Sphinx’s true motivations enigmatic. Part of the reason this works so well is that we always see The Sphinx from the perspective of one of the other characters and they mostly bring their own pre-conceived prejudices and can’t help this colouring their opinions of The Sphinx’s motivations, it’s quite clear in some cases that they completely misjudged what The Sphinx is trying to do. Sometimes they seem to assign unfairly malign motives to him, while he may be capable of ruthlessness and definitely has his own agenda there are times when he does seem to be genuinely trying to help, although even by the end of the book it’s hard to really be sure whether he’ll ultimately be a force for good or ill. This part of the story also brings in more hints of what the over-arching plotline of the series is going to be, since despite Senlin’s obsession it is clear there’s much more going in the Tower than just his missing wife.
While the first book was shown entirely from Senlin’s perspective the sequel rotates between the points of view of the five crew members of The Stone Cloud (and occasionally others). I think it made sense for the first book to be primarily from Senlin’s perspective because as a newcomer to the Tower he has to learn about it in the same way that a reader does, but broadening out the perspective in the sequel is a good idea. It is interesting to see how Senlin himself looks from the other perspectives and the other crew members are interesting characters and Edith in particular gets some good characters development in this book, although I did find Adam’s story arc to be a little bit dull. Away from the crew of the Stone Cloud, I did find Byron and Ferdinand to be entertaining supporting characters in the chapters set in the Sphinx’s lair.
Overall, I’d say this book got off to a bit of a slow start but I think it recovered in the remaining two thirds of the book and the last section in particular was excellent and set up several interesting plotlines for the rest of the series.
Rating : 8/10