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Nathan’s review of The Hexologists by Josiah Bancroft

The tl;dr: Bancroft follows up his exquisite Books of Babel with a new series that is a bit more grounded and subdued, but still has Bancroft’s wite, humor, and prose on full display. This is the perfect place to start with Bancroft’s books if Babel was a bit too slow or weird as Bancroft drops readers immediately into an enticing mystery that you will want to help solve. The characters of Iz and Warren are some of my new favorites in all of fantasy, and the worldbuilding is sometimes subtle, but always complex. A huge recommend for fans of fantasy and mysteries, and I really hope we get more books in this series.

The Full Review:

Bancroft’s Books of Babel is one of my favorite series and continues to rank among my top 5 of all time. Bancroft’s wit and humor combine with an imagination that seems to know no bounds. Seriously – I am both enticed and terrified about the possibility of crawling in this man’s head and seeing what goes on in there. Thus, I was more than ecstatic to see what else Bancroft had to offer, and his second series does not disappoint!

The Hexologists is a very different kind of book than the Books of Babel, but Bancroft’s humor, understanding of character, and absurd worldbuilding are still on full display here. Having said that, The Hexologists is a more “toned down” version of Bancroft, perhaps a slightly more commercial or digestable version of the chaotic creations ruminating in his brain. I think this may dissapoint some long-time Bancroft fans who are looking for the same majesty and scale of his previous series. However, what this also means is that The Hexologists might be a better entry point for readers who liked aspects of Babel, but who were turned off by how slow and weird Senlin Ascends could be.

The Hexologists is the kind of fantasy mystery that only Bancroft could tell. It starts with the king wanting to bake himself into a pie, forcing the Crown to bring in Iz and Warren Wilby, two Hexologists (hex magic users) to investigate the case, leading them down a path of magicians, gods, royal scandals, and so much more.

Absolutely every element of this book works to near perfection. The mystery plot is a lot of fun, and unlike most fantasy mysteries you actually get to play along with the characters. Magic is used to help them gather clues and move the story along, but Bancroft never deploys any deus ex machinas at the end where you had to know some previously unrevealed element of how magic works to solve the mystery. This was such a breath of fresh air because we don’t get many really good fantasy-mystery mash-ups, and the ones that we do tend to really emphaize the fantasy, with the mystery becoming an afterthought to the worldbuilding.

As The Hexologists develops, Bancroft slowly and gradually builds out his world, never letting the worldbuilding obstruct the pacing of the story. Books of Babel fans might be a little suprised about how subdued the worldbuilding is here after exploring the massive and legendary Tower of Babel, but Bancroft’s restraint helps the story from becoming bogged down in the worldbuilding (as it did a bit in Senlin Ascends) or sprawling out of control (as happened a bit in the third and fourth Babel books). Bancroft introduces us to a Victorian-esque world on that has just entered into its own Industrial Revolution, causing sweeping social, political, and economic changes. We are thrust into a world in flux, one in which magic is losing its prominence to the power of modern science. There are four kinds of magic in this world – “traditional” magic, necromancy, hexagy, and alchemy. The first two are completely outlawed, while hexagy is allowed but (culturally) is dying out. Only alchemy continues to rule the day as it offers much to economics of industry. I was impressed with Bancroft’s attention to detail, and how he has considered and explained the ripple effects of social change. A lot of fantasy is dominated by narratives of cultures and empires that have not changed for thousands of years, but Bancroft’s world is one that is always changing. Sometimes these changes can benefit magic, but other times they make some magic irrelevant.

It is in this changing world that Iz and Warren Wilby are just trying to get by. I feel head over feels for this married, magical, mystery solving duo. They are middle-aged-ish (in their late 30s if I understood it correctly), and they have such a healthy and mature relationship that only adds to the charm of the story rather than creating unnecessary conflict. Iz is headstrong, smart, and brave, while Warren likes to cook and is obsessed with the decor. I love how effortlessly Bancroft builds both Iz and Warren as individuals, but also has a couple that works together and respects one another. They eschew gender conventions (Iz is really good at compartmentalizing while Warren is emotional) without feeling forced or unnatural. These are two strong people who love each other, and they were a breath of fresh air.

The Hexologists works as a standalone novel and the central mystery is tied up before the last page. The end does have a little tease of what the Wilby’s next adventure could be, and the book is marketed as the first in a series. I haven’t heard anything from Orbit or Bancroft about if a second book is definitely happening (and if it is, when), but I am eager to jump back in with Iz and Warren. I can’t wait to explore another mystery with these characters, and to see more of this world that Bancroft has built. There are so many things that happen at the end of the book that open up new possibilities for what Bancroft could do with this story next, and I hope he gets the opportunity to explore them.

 

Thank you for reading my review of The Hexologists!

Nathan

Nathan is a PhD Candidate in Anthropology where he specializes in death rituals of the Ice Age in Europe and queer theory. Originally from Ohio, he currently lives in Kansas where he teaches college anthropology, watches too much TV, and attempts to make the perfect macarons in a humid climate. He is also the co-host of The Dragonfire podcast with James Lloyd Dulin. He reads widely in fantasy and sci-fi and is always looking for new favorites!

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