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***** Everything below is a SPOILER *****
What happened in Arm of the Sphinx?
Senlin’s plan to get into Pelphia—posing as a purveyor of mail order brides and presenting Voleta as a woman requested by a Pelphian man—didn’t work. So Senlin and his small, ragtag crew have resorted to piracy: an unorthodox method, but piracy just the same. The crew of five (including Senlin) uses his creative plans to steal small amounts from every ship they board.
Ever since he was exposed to high levels of the drug white crumb, Senlin sees hallucinations of Marya, his bride, quite frequently. No one on the ship, not even his closest friend Edith, knows about this.
Their ship, the Stone Cloud, docks in Windsock so Senlin can visit with an old friend. He asks Artuna if he can provide him with fake introduction papers to get Voleta into Pelphia. Artuna can’t and warns Senlin that if the fake papers aren’t very good ones, he’ll be banished or worse.
Adam wanted to stay back on the ship alone, but after two betrayals Senlin won’t allow it. So Adam goes to a tavern with Iren instead. He can’t blame Senlin for not trusting him but hopes to earn it back soon.
Edith decides to try again at writing in the ship log. It was supposed to be a group project. No one’s work was up to snuff in Senlin’s opinion, however, so he took the task upon himself. Edith realizes it’s become a diary of sorts for Senlin since no one else is helping. She knows it contains private information but continues reading when she sees Marya’s name. She learns about Senlin’s hallucinations.
Senlin visits Artuna’s mother. She makes Senlin question historical accounts and realize the reason the stories he read about the tower were false: The proprietors want to draw people in to get their money. She gives him a hint that his books deny. He now realizes they leave it out for a reason: to keep visitors out of Pelphia. She says you can enter the city from the ring above it, but you must pay tribute in the form of books.
Back on the Stone Cloud, Edith confronts Senlin about his hallucinations. She’s frustrated Senlin didn’t trust her with this information. Neither of them are sure why the crumb is still affecting him. He asks if she’s going to reveal it to the others. She won’t because they’ll call for him to resign as captain and will ask her to step up and lead. She doesn’t want that job.
Senlin can’t turn loose of the books in his possession; they’re essential to navigating this world. They’ll need to steal the books to sacrifice. They board the ship of an unsuspecting doctor and his daughter who are new to the tower. They steal most of their books, but Senlin feels sympathy and leaves the daughter’s diary behind upon her request.
The Stone Cloud is attacked the one and only time Voleta daydreams while on lookout duty. The Ararat, the commissioner’s flagship, sneaks up on and attacks them. Despite their meager numbers, the Stone Cloud crew is able to fight them off and escape.
A young Pelphian nobleman watches this all play out from the window of his luxury ship. He’s trying to woo the handmaiden he’s attracted to as they observe the battle, but it doesn’t seem to work.
The Stone Cloud is in bad shape after the battle. They need to land and make some repairs. Senlin says they’ll head for the Silk Reef/Garden. They have the books they stole from the doctor as a peace offering for Luc Marat as Artuna’s mother prescribed.
Voleta informs Senlin that the galley was damaged in the battle and they’re out of food. She sees the painting of Marya and comments on her beauty. Then she asks about the Silk Gardens because she’s not going to be allowed to leave their ship while they’re there; only Senlin is going to search for Luc. She notices a piece of paper on the floor that’s fallen out of the book Senlin is reading. It’s a strange map of the Silk Gardens.
They find the beautiful Silk Gardens nothing like they’re described in Senlin’s books during their glory days. They’re now old and basically in ruins. Many ships have wrecked while attempting to land, and Adam thinks he can scavenge for parts to fix their ship. Edith insists on accompanying Senlin on land. He eventually agrees.
Senlin leaves Adam in charge, with Iren and Voleta to assist him with the ship repairs. He advises them to leave without him and Edith if the ship is attacked or if they don’t return by breakfast.
They try to follow the strange map in which the landmarks are often rusted clockwork animals. Senlin shares his theory that the person who designed these animals is going off of notes from the genius who designed the tower, whoever he is. Senlin seems to see similarities between the clockwork items and the beer-me-go-round in the basement of the tower. He tries to get information out of Edith about the Sphinx, the man who designed Edith’s clockwork arm. She provides none.
While they’re traversing the landscape, Senlin discovers why Edith has been in a foul mood. The Ararat crew destroyed her room in the battle, including the backup batteries for her clockwork arm. It won’t last long without them. A mass of the spiders approach them as they’re talking, and Senlin and Edith have to dive into a deep pool of water nearby to escape them.
Voleta goes missing as Adam and Iren are working on the ship repairs. Adam prepares to go look for her, but Iren begs him to stay and continue their repairs. He relents.
Voleta climbs and swings through the trees, hoping to catch up with Adam and Edith. A swarm of spiders crawls over her, but none bite her and none stop. They apparently have a different purpose.
Senlin and Edith barely escape the water and pass out like they haven’t slept in months when they make it back to land.
Adam and Iren find everything they need among the wrecked ships plus extra to boot. In a hidden compartment in one ship, Adam finds a log book with a bar of pure gold in it. The writer says he made it into heaven and saw what they dreamed of: huge riches like streets of gold and posts of silver. But he says they had to flee because sparking men pursued them.
When Senlin and Edith awake, a hod is caring for them. Once they feel like it, the hod will take them to Luc Marat. Voleta made it to them and watches from the branches of the trees above.
After a long trudge, they make it to the Golden Zoo. There are hods everywhere working furiously. Finally they get to an area where Marat rolls up in a wheelchair.
Marat listens to Senlin’s story and then tells his. He says they’ve been there nine years. The operation has grown steadily since they arrived. He rescued the hods from the black trail, the tunnels the designers put in the walls of the tower for hods use to transport goods. It’s a dangerous place. Hods die often from exhaustion, injury, illness, and thirst. He explains that the gibberish language the hods use developed over time so they could speak with no one else able to understand them.
Marat says Edith must know the Sphinx because of her arm. He says her arm is in charge of her. She says she knows what she gave up when she accepted the mechanical arm. He says the animals in this zoo were all bolted down because the elite distrusted the Sphinx’s machines. Everyone should probably distrust them because of the hold they often take on people. He says they can use these tunnels to get down to Pelphia, but they’ll have to pose as hods to do so. They’ll have to be shackled and will have to carry a load of some sort.
Voleta follows them to the zoo and observes from above. She sees the hods kill an unwilling one and bury him in a shallow grave. She shaves her head and poses as a hod to try to get to Senlin and Edith.
A spider eater attacks Adam and Iren. They barely make it back to the Stone Cloud alive. Escaping danger together brings a newfound camaraderie between the two, and they work as companions to repair the ship. After the repairs are finished, they realize how tired and hungry they are. All they can do now is wait to see if the others will make it back to the ship.
Senlin and Edith are led to the Golden Zoo and put in a cage with the door open. They discuss whether they’re captives or not. Even though Marat says they can leave at any time, they know the open door is a false one. They’re trapped. They notice books laying around in which every word and page number is methodically blacked out. They also see an abundance of weapons through the curtain in their room/cage. Senlin also notices five identical framed pictures exactly like Ogier’s of the girl on the beach. He sees Marya, goes into a frenzy of sorts, and passes out.
When Senlin comes to, they debate about his visions of Marya. Senlin knows she’s just a manifestation of his insecurities. He’s afraid he’ll never find her or if he does she’ll have a better life in this new world. He then begins to scold the naked Marya for putting paint in Edith’s hair (which is, of course, not really there). After discussing all of this, they’re both exhausted. Senlin tells Edith she can nap, but then he falls asleep, too.
When they awake, a bald Voleta is in their room. She explains how they’re going to escape. She’s planned an explosion which will sound soon. She has a rope they can use to descend to the ground level and make a run for it while everyone’s distracted. She’ll escape back through the trees.
Voleta’s plan works. At one point during the escape, Senlin sees Marya’s paint between his fingers on the rope. He knows it’s not real but panics and falls. But they still manage to escape. The spiders are fleeing the explosion, too, and crawl all over Senlin and Edith. But they don’t sting. They’re just trying to get away, too.
Senlin and Edit end up amid what they think are boulders. They turn out to be sleeping spider eaters. They try to quietly tiptoe away, but then a hod breaks through the foliage yelling, “Come and be free,” the motto Marat uses to attract hods. The hod takes a shot at them. It hits a spider eater instead. The five sleeping eaters awake and stand up.
The hods chase them to the ship. A fight ensues. They battle every last one and get away. They eat a great meal of Voleta’s stolen food as they fly away. Edith is the only one who isn’t in high spirits because of her unworking arm.
In his cabin that night, Senlin visits with Marya. Edith soon knocks on the door. Senlin asks the question he’s withheld forever: what happened when Edith made her deal with the Sphinx. She signed her name away when she was still out of it from her injury. She’s now a Wakeman, basically a tower guard at the Sphinx’s disposal. He can call on her whenever he pleases. He hasn’t done so yet. She figures he might when she goes back to get more fuel for her arm. And now she’s in dire need of it. There are a couple hundred Wakemen throughout the ringdom, and the Red Hand was one of them. Senlin wonders about their purpose. She thinks it’s to preserve the tower.
Senlin suggests she cut her losses and run either within or without of the tower. Edith refuses. When Senlin hears the Sphinx paid Billy Lee for recruits, he knows he must need money to keep the new Wakemen coming. If the Sphinx is interested in money, Senlin has one thing that’ll bring it big: Ogire’s painting. He’s still not sure why, but it seems to be a prize for everyone. Senlin is also ready to sell out Marat.
They decide everyone will stay aboard the ship while Edith confronts the Sphinx. While Edith addresses the crew, Squit the squirrel digs in Voleta’s bellybutton, causing her to laugh. Edith reprimands her for all of her impertinence and warns that she needs to grow up and shape up. Not even Adam seems to disagree.
The Sphinx resides in the pinnacle of the tower, just under the collar of heaven. They only have enough supplies for a direct path, which will be dangerous. Senlin decides the crew must pose as dead on the deck to keep them from being attacked. They’re fired upon as they approach the uppermost ring. They know there must be a signal to make as they approach but don’t know what it is. Senlin hopes having Edith with them will work as a good enough signal. Somehow they narrowly pass through the opening to enter this ring of the tower.
The entire crew is dumped from their ship. Byron, a stag/man hybrid who Edith knows, approaches. He takes them to the Sphinx. They pass through rooms representative of each level of the tower as they make their way to the Sphinx. He does resemble a spoon, the vague description Edith mentioned to the crew earlier. His room contains too many mechanical items to count, stacked from the floor to the high ceiling.
The Sphinx immediately inspects Edith’s arm, asking what she’s done to it. He tells Ferdinand, his gorilla-like guard, to attack Senlin if he speaks anything out of turn, like he initially tries to do to get to the point of their visit. The Sphinx mentions he has an eye that would work well to replace Adam’s lost one.
When the Sphinx finally lets Senlin address him, Senlin tells of information they can give in relation to Marat and his hod army. The Sphinx says he can make Senlin give up much more than this information and tells Senlin he knows where Marya is. He mentions a red sun helmet that she keeps hidden from her captors to reinforce his point. The Sphinx says he can fix their ship and have Senlin to her tomorrow if only he’ll let his crew stay behind. Senlin rejects this offer.
The Sphinx asks about Ogire’s painting, which he calls The Bricklayer’s Granddaughter. He asks Senlin if he has it on his person. He does. The Sphinx has him check the bottom corner for a series number. Seniln never noticed it was there, but sure enough, there’s a faint three. It’s the third of sixty-four, each with subtle variations on the original. Senlin tells him Marat has five. The Sphinx is surprised he has that many already. Senlin asks about the Bricklayer. The Sphinx says he’s trying to carry on his work.
In this vein, Senlin says he wonders whether he would consider a proposal from him. The two men form a contract. It takes a long time, with each debating back and forth before they arrive at an agreement. In exchange for information on the revolution Senlin believes Marat is developing, he wants their ship rebuilt, a letter of introduction that will give them a favorable reception in Pelphia, information about Marya’s whereabouts, and Edith’s arm fixed and returned to her.
The Sphinx says Senlin must be sober to sign the final contract. He knows Senlin is somehow addicted to crumb. He determines the painting of Senlin’s wife that he touches often was soaked with crumb and dampened by snow such that the drug seeped into the paper. So Senlin has been high on crumb without even knowing it for some time now. The Sphinx sends Senlin on a journey for a particular book in his bottomless library. When he gets sober and finds the book, he can come out and sign the contract. The others live in relative ease and calm (almost boredom).
Then Edith goes to Adam to propose he try to escape. She’s afraid the Sphinx will get to him with the allure of a new eye. Adam finally agrees to go. They crawl under the carpet in the hallway/elevator. Ferdinand comes charging down the hall. Edith jumps out from under the carpets to stall him. He obeys her because she’s a Wakeman. They escape to the stables, where Edith drives them away in a vehicle that Adam thinks is like a horse and a train, with the worst qualities of each.
Adam and Edith discuss her relationship with Billy Lee as they climb the wall in the mechanical beast. They arrive at the top of the tower and stow the climbing machine under the lip of the pinnacle. They can’t see much because it’s foggy. They’re approached by a group of soldiers in weird rubber suits armed with wands that shoot lightning. They recognize Adam but not Edith and say maybe she’s part of a later story. They decide to let Adam stay but to kill Edith. Adam says he’ll come willingly if they let Edith go. They do so but say she’ll be shot on sight if she ever returns.
Voleta’s squirrel gets away one night, and she chases it through the ductwork. She ends up falling right into the Sphinx’s music room, where he has retired for the evening. The two become fast friends and begin to secretly spend each evening together.
The Sphinx reveals she’s an aged woman. She shows Voleta all around, including areas no one else gets to see. Voleta sees a huge vat of the substance that the Sphinx uses in the machines: clear, viscous liquid made up of over 200 different things. It’s a medium that’s able to hold an electric charge.
Voleta later sees the room where the batteries are formed and stored. It has vials filled with the lightning that suffuses the room at regular intervals. They watch the lightning once, and it’s horribly loud and bright. Voleta loves it. The Sphinx shows her vulnerability to Voleta. She doesn’t have legs and is powered by batteries. She lets Voleta replace the battery, trusting her with her life during the process.
Iren has been experiencing back pain. One night when she’s lying still trying to manage the pain, she hears something in the ventilation. She listens carefully and recognizes it as Voleta talking to Squit the squirrel. She decides not to ask her about it because Voleta’s life has always been controlled by someone. Iren doesn’t want to be the next “parent” in line to watch over her. As long as Voleta appears at breakfast every morning, Iren will let her explore in peace.
Then one morning Voleta doesn’t show up. Iren rushes to her bedroom, and there she is, safe and sound. Iren confronts her, and Voleta tells most of the truth about her nightly escapades. But she leaves out the fact that the Sphinx has been with her.
As the two are making breakfast, Edith returns and tells them what happened with Adam. She’s sheepish when Voleta asks about any parting words from Adam. Edith tells her all he said is, “Tell the little owl not to forget my birthday.” Voleta recognizes the code as one they used when they first entered the tower. It means to check the Owl Gate on August 23rd, his birthday.
Byron takes Edith to the Sphinx to make an appeal to see Adam. On their way to the Sphinx, Byron shows her that they have the Red Hand. He didn’t die. The Sphinx is slowly nursing him back to health after his fall.
The Sphinx confides that she trusts Edith. She is nearly always honest and only lies when she’s trying to help her friends. The Sphinx wants Edith to play a more important role in her empire. She wants Edith to dispel the myths, remind the ringdoms of her power and their responsibilities, and confront the threat of the hods. The Sphinx would allow Edith to kill other Wakemen in the process, if necessary.
Edith agrees. They form a new contract between the two of them, and then Edith gets a new mechanical arm. She’s exhausted from the procedure. Byron tells Iren and Voleta about this and warns them about the Red Hand. He tells them they should be watchful when he’s restored to his full health. He’s not sure whether the Red Hand will hold a grudge against Edith and try to attack her.
Senlin has been keeping a daily journal during his time in the library. It’s mostly just ramblings. His visions of Marya began to change as he comes down from his crumb high. It’s hard to tell if the odd things he’s seeing in the library are actually there or are hallucinations. He finds himself thinking of less often of Marya and more often of Edith, mostly of her strength and resilience.
Senlin takes ill from the withdrawals from the crumb, but he slowly comes out of it. He feels like the rooms are literally shrinking on him. He begins to believe the Sphinx never even wanted the book she requested in the first place. On his tenth day, he decides to try to excavate himself out and ends up buried under a pile of books. Then he finds himself sledding down a metal chute. The Sphinx is there when he lands on a solid floor again.
The Sphinx asks if Senlin found the book he was sent after. Unbelievably, the cat/librarian is sitting on a book with the very title he has been searching for. Then the Sphinx shows Senlin a portrait and asks what he thinks of it. He eventually discovers it’s one of Ogier’s pieces, this one a picture of the Bricklayer. He’s the man who designed the tower and so many of the wonders in it. Even though he doesn’t look it, he’s over 100 years old in the picture.
Senlin asks for the Sphinx to pay up on his end of the bargain. She says Marya has been in Pelphia for the past ten months. She doesn’t know exactly what she’s doing, but she’s tied to a powerful duke named Wilhelm Horace Pell in some way. The Sphinx hasn’t heard anything about her in the past several months, but she’s confident nothing’s changed.
This isn’t good enough for Senlin. He’s angry at first, but the Sphinx threatens to use her electric wand to stop his heart. Senlin backs down. He still needs the Sphinx’s assistance to get to Pelphia in return for being her spy while he’s there.
The Sphinx has something to show Senlin before he leaves. It’s a life-size zoetrope that the Bricklayer designed for the 64 paintings of the girl at the beach. Senlin gives his print number three when the Sphinx requests it. She installs it in the proper place on the device. She’s collected 36 of the paintings, and the device brings the paintings to life using motion and mirrors as it spins.
Senlin is amazed even though right now the display is only about five seconds long. The Sphinx points out something he missed: the numbers just under the surface of the water. Once all of the paintings are collected, the Sphinx will have the combination to the heavens.
The Sphinx shows Senlin a vault door with a plaque labeling it Bridge of Babel. She explains instead of a tower, this structure is a bridge to the heavens—the rest of the universe—or at least the beginnings of a bridge. She says the Bricklayer got it as far as his day’s technology and his life limits could take it.
Inside the vault is the plan to restart the work. He planned this all and distributed the paintings throughout the ringdoms so each level would hold a piece of it and would have to cooperate to achieve his vision. But the Sphinx doesn’t trust the others in power—people like Marat—and is striving to put it together on her own.
Voleta and Iren nurse Edith back to health after her new arm is attached.
The Sphinx visits Iren to help her decipher the weird ways her body has been acting. It seems that she’s going through menopause and just aging, yet she couldn’t cipher this out.
How did Arm of the Sphinx end?
The Sphinx brings Senlin back to his friends, all except Adam, of course. The reunion feels wonderful to everyone. When Senlin can’t sleep that night, he goes to visit Edith. They kiss. They don’t notice the butterfly on the wall watching them.
The Sphinx brings them all together the next day to present them with a substitute ship. Theirs won’t be ready for some time, so she’s loaning them one of hers. She wants Edith to captain it instead of Senlin. He happily gives up the leadership position. The crew pledges their loyalty to their new captain.
When the Sphinx is alone, she reviews the videos her butterflies have recorded. She sees Edith and Senlin kiss. Byron witnesses this recording. The Sphinx tells him he better go with them on her ship. She’s afraid Edith might not be as focused as she should be.
When Byron is gone, the Sphinx watches footage from another butterfly. It’s footage of Marya with a baby girl and (presumably) a new husband. He tells her the doctor told her to stay in bed. Marya said she just wanted to see the baby and make sure she’s all right. He says that’s what the nurses are for. She asks if he won’t blame her [the baby?]. He says he promises and asks Marya to come back to bed.
There you go! That’s what happened in Arm of the Sphinx, the second book in The Books of Babel series!
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