Books Within Books: In Halting Praise of Ancillary Texts in Fantasy, by Josiah Bancroft

The B&N Sci-Fi and Fantasy Blog

Author photo by Kim Bricker.

One of our favorite new fantasy series of 2018 (and many years before that, to be honest), is Josiah Bancroft’s The Books of Babel, a deeply original adventure-cum-exploration of the titular fictional edifice. And one of the defining features of the series shows up on the first page of Senlin Ascends, before the story proper even begins: an epigraph drawn from the fictional Everyman’s Guide to the Tower of Babel. Throughout the three books of the series to date, Bancroft has used epigraphs pulled from a raft of nonexistent books to enrich the world he’s building—to grand, often humorous effect.

To celebrate the release of The Hod King, he joins us today to talk about the merits of epigraphs—why he loves them, and why it is ok if you don’t.

Do you ever skim the elven hymns? Do your eyes cross when your encounter italicized druidic diary entries that seem to exist only to stall the pace of an otherwise rollicking fantasy adventure? If so, you’re not alone! The truth is, writers know that, on average, readers want the cheesy pizza pie of plot and dialogue, not the dry crust of textual marginalia. Prophetic poems, scribal ephemera, and epigraphic adages all invite readers to scowl, skip ahead, or close the book. We know.

Then why do so many fantasy authors do it?

Partly, I think it’s because the siren song of ancillary texts is too strong for most fantasy writers to resist. Yes, yes, we get that you don’t really want to read a stanza of dwarven free verse or plod through a rogue’s internal monologue communicated via footnote. We just can’t help ourselves! We love the sprawling worlds inside our heads so much that we decide to include the sort of minutia that very few people enjoy. And even so, we indulge in fantastical glossaries, demonic brochures, and wizardly theses, all in the pursuit of originality and verisimilitude. I’m quite sure it is only a matter of time until a fantasy author adapts a gym membership contract to their speculative universe.

Of course, there’s a little more to this creative quirk than a lack of self-control. Writers are by nature (and sometimes profession) steeped in many forms of the written word, much of which resides outside the speculative genre. My own creative history includes comic books, poetry, experimental prose, classic adventure novels, the modernist literary canon, antiquity, cult films, absurdist texts, and popsicle-stick puns. We are products of our influences, and so it is natural that we writers conceive of our imaginary worlds through the same lens that we understand and experience reality. We build the new with olden stone!

And, all facetiousness aside, most writers have reasons for penning these inconvenient, unlikable, and tangential texts. They might not be universally compelling reasons, but we don’t set out to torment our readers with doggerel and asides. But sometimes, inspiration arrives in unlikely forms.

Originally, Senlin Ascends was meant to be a collection of prose poems and lyrical fragments fashioned in the vein of Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities. The fragments would explore the Tower of Babel of another universe from the perspective of a travel guide writer. The book was going to be experimental, brief, and undoubtedly dreadful. It didn’t take me long to recognize two essential truths. One: I am not Calvino. Two: What I really wanted to write was an adventure novel, and that would require pesky things like characters, plot, and a coherent world.

But I still liked the idea of writing a fantastical guidebook. And I thought it could be useful narratively, acting as a lens into the world of the Tower. I imagined a multiple-volume guide book called The Everyman’s Guide to the Tower of Babel, which was a sort of homage to Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Rather than wedging large chunks from the guide into the narrative, I landed on the idea of including short epigraphs at the start of each chapter. And thus, the epigraphs were born. Quickly, I realized the potential of the idea, and expanded the sources of the epigraphs to include instructive manuals, diaries, newspapers, letters, and poems, all authored in the world of the Tower. This imaginary collection of sources would ultimately give the series its name— the Books of Babel.

I knew early on that I didn’t want the epigraphs to be ornamental or tonal. I wanted them to do some real narrative work; I wanted them to be entertaining and worth reading. The epigraphs are written in a variety of styles and voices to suit their subject and genre, but they all share a few things in common. They either reflect upon the revelations of the last chapter, or they set the scene for the next. They often provide context to the history, institutions, and citizenry of the Tower. Whatever the purpose of the epigraph, the message is usually indirect, metaphorical, or ironic.

In fact, one of the defining qualities of the epigraphs is that they often supply bad information, or well-meaning but lethal advice. Sometimes the epigraphs represent a repulsive philosophy, or they make a fallacious argument that sounds good on the surface, but upon reflection is actually banal or dangerous. The epigraphs (and the books they represent) have to be read critically to be of any use.

The importance of critical reflection is, to my mind, one of the central themes of the series. Thomas Senlin—the “hero” of the story—falls victim to his inability to read both texts and people successfully. He is duped by guides, charmed by charlatans, and undermined by venerable institutions again and again. Gradually, he learns to distrust appearance and his first impressions, to examine his impulses, to interrogate his biases and assumptions. The infuriating truth he eventually discovers is that good advice and valuable insight sometimes comes from flawed and unlikely sources. And conversely, sometimes good books give poor counsel. It’s not enough just to read with incredulity or faith. We must be rigorous in our analysis.

But this makes the epigraphs sound more serious than they generally are. Many of them are silly or obviously foolish. In the second book, Arm of the Sphinx, several of the epigraphs come from a work called The Unlikable Alphabet, which is an Edward Gorey-styled moral and manners guide for children. In The Hod King, some of my favorite epigraphs come from a source entitled, 101 Reasons to Attend My Party. I didn’t want the epigraphs to feel instructive or, god help me, significant.

A few readers have asked if the epigraphs represent finished works. The answer is quite definitely, No. While I have composed far more than I’ve used, I have not written a travel guide to the Tower. At least, not yet. But even in their incomplete state, these imaginary books have served as invaluable aids in building the world of the Tower. So far, I’ve resisted the urge to plunge down the rabbit hole of completism. If I ever do, I’m quite sure I’ll never escape.

But as enamored as I am with my epigraphs, they are by no means required reading to enjoy the story. I’ve heard from some readers that they skip epigraphs as a matter of course, finding them either tedious or disruptive. And who am I to judge? As a young reader, I skimmed most descriptive and expository paragraphs, preferring to glean the story from the dialogue. Admittedly, the habit worked well enough for the Hardy Boys’ The Secret of the Island Treasure but less well for Treasure Island.

The Hod King is available now, but you’ll want to start reading The Books of Babel with Senlin Ascends.

Author photo by Kim Bricker.

The post Books Within Books: In Halting Praise of Ancillary Texts in Fantasy, by Josiah Bancroft appeared first on The B&N Sci-Fi and Fantasy Blog.

In The Hod King, a Revolution Brews Within the Tower of Babel

The B&N Sci-Fi and Fantasy Blog

Imagine, for a moment, a world in which ancient universities are closed and remade as Colosseums. Halls of learning are transformed into quarters for fighting slaves.

Consider a world in which lords and ladies cosplay as prison inmates for want of something—anything—better to do.

Finally, if you can, picture a world with a population full of people seeking pleasure wherever they can find it, their hedonism inadvertently and absent-mindedly fulfilling a roles in a greater, more terrible plan.

This and more you’ll find in The Hod King, the third entry in Josiah Bancroft’s Books of Babel series, which takes us further into the mysterious Tower of Babel at its center. (Some spoilers for earlier volumes follow.)

The best fantasy novels mirror our own reality. They play out our anxieties on a mythical, mystical, or otherwise fantastical plane. Bancroft’s series has accomplished that from page one of Senlin Ascends, when when erstwhile headmaster Thomas Senlin set out on a search for his wife, gone missing on their honeymoon, through the Tower’s various Ringdoms (themselves fully conceived worlds characterized by the author’s greatest fears).

Those anxieties have never been on fuller display than they are in The Hod King, the longest and most focused of Senlin’s adventures to date. By all accounts, this third book should feel claustrophobic and incomplete: in both Senlin Ascends and Arm of the Sphinx, we traversed up and down the Tower, discovering new Ringdoms and new secrets at a quickening pace. The Hod King largely stays put, settling the action taking within the opulent and bloated confines of the Ringdom known as Pelphia.

The gang’s all here, and briefly together, dispatched by the enigmatic Sphinx (the Tower’s clockwork master behind the curtain) on a mission to explore a “blind spot” in Pelphia, but soon enough, the crew of the Stone Cloud is split up.

Tom, who has accumulated aliases and enemies as if it is a contest, is destined to infiltrate the Ringdom undercover, posing as a dullard tourist (not unlike the one we met in the opening pages of the first book). Edith, captains the Sphinx’s flagship, the State of the Art, with Iren, Voleta, Byron, and the newly revived (and possibly rehabilitated) Red Hand in tow; they are to be the Sphinx’s envoys to Pelphia and beyond.

But let us not forget the reason this ragtag band has come together: Tom’s search for his wife Marya, misplaced two books ago at the foot of the Tower. Pelphia may be a strategic concern for the Sphinx, but for Tom, it’s the end of a quest. Marya lives in Pelphia, the new wife of a powerful duke and the object of fascination to the local gossip mongers.

Tom is under strict instructions to lie low: to cause no scenes, to avoid run-ins with his wife and her high-powered circle, to bide his time, and to wait for the right moment. So, of course, he does the opposite of all of that. As do Edith and the rest.

The resulting calamities do much to reveal not only the dirty little secrets of Pelphia, but greater conspiracies lurking within the Tower. A revolutionary phrase, “Come the Hod King,” reverberates throughout the Ringdoms and along the dreaded Black Trail, where they enslaved hods march unseen. Whispers of war reverberate, though no one is sure with whom war will be waged, and why. The Sphinx warns of an impending catastrophe for the Tower’s delicate ecosystem.

There are the rulers, a resistance, and a greater power behind the proverbial throne, and the only ones who see the whole picture are Tom and his friends. Accordingly, we follow the action from each of their perspectives in turn. In Arm of the Sphinx, Tom’s ensemble cast stretched their legs as the story shifted from his emotional journey to the group’s collective internal and external struggles. Here, that transition continues, with a story told in alternating chunks from the perspectives of Tom, Edith, and the dynamic duo of Iren and Voleta.

The narration zigzags through time, bringing us forward and backward, and allowing each of the main characters space to reveal their innermost selves—their shifting hopes and fears—and to find different pieces of the same puzzle. The result is a taut, tense, and suspenseful continuation of the story, a somehow still impossibly charming penultimate installment that marches toward a climax with increasing intensity, as if the narrative is trying to solve a Rubik’s cube against an egg timer.

The Hod King devotes as much space to propelling the plot toward the as-yet-untitled concluding volume (due out in 2020) as it does addressing the lingering questions the Tower invites. Sure, the mysteries abound: the Sphinx, the identity of the titular Hod King, the lingering influence of the Tower’s builder, the true nature and purpose of its various Ringdoms. But the questions of chief concern center stage are more personal. Tom is plagued by matters of identity; he is a master of disguise who has done things his textbooks never described. Edith is a fierce captain, but worries about her reliance on and melding with the mechanical arm crafted for her by the Sphinx, who obligates certain things in return. Voleta, the willful acrobat, chafes at being forced to don the ill-fitting gowns of a high-society debutante. Meanwhile, through a new friendship, Iren confronts the missed opportunities and self-denial that marked her pre-Senlin life.

The Tower has changed each of those people, as it changes all those who enter it. Warped personalities abound in Pelphia, and clash when it comes to addressing the bigger questions: how radical must a revolution be? Who is more wretched: those trapped in slavery or those kept complacent in their gilded cages? Who gets to define the greater good? How do you attack the source of rot without bringing the whole house down?

There are no easy answers, a reality the Books of Babel have thus far done a fine job illustrating. The Hod King is another smart and dizzying medley of storytelling and worldbuilding, building momentum for an explosive (perhaps literally) finale.

The Hod King is available January 22.

The post In The Hod King, a Revolution Brews Within the Tower of Babel appeared first on The B&N Sci-Fi and Fantasy Blog.