Author: Josiah Bancroft
Publisher: Orbit Books
Published: January 2018
Senlin Ascends is simply wonderful; a fantastic, page turning debut masterpiece!
It’s the story of Thomas Senlin, “a reserved and naturally timid man who took confidence in schedules and regimens and written accounts” who takes his new bride Marya on a honeymoon to the Tower of Babel. The Tower, a mysterious edifice rising out of the Land of Ur with its top lost in the clouds draws people to it from every direction:
“The Tower of Babel is sometimes called the Sink of Humanity. Its immensity, the variety of its ringdoms, its mysterious and luxurious heights are irresistible to all comers. We are drawn to it like water to a drain.”
– Introduction to Everyman’s Guide to the Tower of Babel (Fourteenth Edition)
But once they arrive outside the tower Marya promptly disappears while going off in search of some underclothes. Senlin, the mild mannered school master waits for his bride into the next day then remembers his wife’s declaration that if they were separated they’d meet at the top of the Tower. Senlin sets off on a new journey into the Tower to find Marya, and in the process discovers more about himself than he ever anticipated.
I absolutely loved this book and didn’t want to put it down. I fell in love with its characters, the story, the setting…everything. There’s no way I’ll be able to do it justice but here it goes…
I’m going to move back and forth between the world-building in Senlin Ascends and character development and plot because of how intricately they are tied to together. The world Bancroft has created in this novel has familiar elements but is wholly it’s own. It is set in a steampunk light version of the late 19th century. It’s hard to get a grasp on where it is set though we are told it is in Ur. Historically Ur was a city state in ancient Mesopatamia that was one of the early empires in the region. The Ur of Senlin Ascends is something else however. It exists in a different timeline, and has a much broader reach. We really don’t get much of a sense of any nation existing outside of Ur. Senlin is from a coastal village to the east and has a very British feel to him. Yet the geography (what little that is described) is descriptive of Mesopotamia.
Then there is the Tower itself. While the Tower of Babel exists within our experience of history, myth and religion, the tower as it exists in this novel is different altogether. It is a massive edifice with unique levels, or ringdoms, that offer different experiences as you ascend. The Tower is so tall it reaches into the clouds, so tall nobody really knows how many levels there are. Its circumference is so wide that a person on one side may be in daylight while a person on the direct opposite will experience night. Apart from a few flashbacks and the initial scene on the train when Senlin and Marya arrive, the entirety of the story is set within or around the tower. Specifically it is set only within the first four ringdoms and the outer market that surrounds it.
The world of the Tower is presented initially through commentary by Senlin based upon what he has read over the years and through excerpts from his favorite book on the subject, the “Everyman’s Guide to the Tower of Babel” placed at the beginning of every chapter.
“The Tower of Babel is most famous for the silk fineries and marvelous airships it produces, but visitors will discover other intangible exports. Whimsy, adventure, and romance are Tower’s real trade.”
– Everyman’s Guide to the Tower of Babel, I. V
Every ringdom is unique and offers unique experiences. Outside the Tower is the Market, a vast bazaar surrounding the entire structure whose shops change on a daily basis. Then there’s the Basement, the grand entrance to the Tower. Up one level is the Parlor, or the theater district. Above that is The Baths, a ringdom devoted to spas and hotels for the varied visitors. What lies above those levels isn’t presented in any detail by Senlin or the Guide, at least not until he leaves The Baths.
The book is told through the perspective of its protagonist Senlin. We meet a number of other characters along the way but as the title implies the story is about Senlin and his journey into and up the Tower. And though it starts out as merely his search for his missing wife, it quickly takes on the added dimension of an exploration of his character, who is he is, and how his experiences change him. The Senlin who steps off the train outside The Market at the base of the Tower to begin his honeymoon is a different person entirely from the one found at the end of the book. If you enjoy character development you’ll not be disappointed in Senlin.
Senlin begins the story as a very unlikely hero. Truth be told he doesn’t become a typical hero either. Throughout his ascent he makes mistakes…lots of them. And while he learns from those mistakes he doesn’t always learn the lesson he ought to, or doesn’t learn the right lesson in time. He bumbles and stumbles his way along as the days turn to weeks, and the weeks turn to months and he begins to wonder if he will ever find Marya. Little by little his experiences begin to have an affect on him, he becomes more assertive, more determined, more cunning even, until nothing will stop him, not even threat of violence and death. Little by little he begins to drive the events that surround him rather than be driven by them. Yet all the while he feels more and more guilty that others have suffered so that he could move on.
Marya begins the story almost the exact opposite of her husband. While Senlin is reserved she is outging. She finds “spectacles and crowds exhilarating”. She is the extrovert to his introvert both in public and in private. But because she disappears at the end of the first chapter almost everything we learn about her is through flashbacks in Senlin’s mind. The flashback’s serve a dual purpose of introducing us to more and more of Marya’s backstory and character, and also function as a means to relate Senlin’s experience of the Tower and longing for his wife.
We don’t learn anything about Marya’s whereabouts or what has happened to her until nearly half-way through the book. Even then we get only glimpses and hints of what she’s been up to through what others relate to Senlin. While her character is definitely experiencing the Tower much like Senlin, the extent to which it affects her is something of a mystery.
On every level of the Tower Senlin comes in contact with other memorable and loveable characters many of whom serve at the same time as both friend and antagonist. As one character says, “there are no friends in the Tower, only partners in business” with all that implies. Much of Senlin’s development comes in learning how to discern who to trust (if anyone) and when.
Senlin’s naïve outlook on the world and the Tower prevents him from seeing the dangers at hand. Much like the country boy who visits the big city for the first time Senlin has no idea what to expect. He’s heard stories about the Tower and read books on the subject, and passed on this knowledge to his pupils, but it isn’t until he experiences it first-hand that he discovers just how little he really knows. The Tower isn’t the rosy vacation getaway he expected. It’s a dangerous place at every level where loved ones are often separated, where people will take advantage of you, where you can be maimed and murdered, and where you may even be turned into a slave and set to work until the day you fall over and die. As Senlin will later point out, “[the Tower] isn’t the sink of humanity; it’s the sewer” perhaps without realizing one leads to the other.
As his journey progresses Senlin begins to realize just how his study of the Tower was misinformed, and how much his Guide doesn’t square up with reality. The Basement isn’t a grand entrance but a filthy cesspool of drunks and thieves (and a beer-me-go-round which is what it sounds like, a merry-go-round that pumps beer to the riders!). The Parlor isn’t just a theater district, but a massive set where you are given a part to play. The Baths while at first glance seem to be the tranquil spa resort advertised, turn out to be a trap, a place luring you into such complacency that you may never want to leave. And at each level there are the staff and governing authorities of each ringdom, those who keep it running, but who may be more of a danger to the guests than anyone else. Senlin begins to realize his Guide presents a lie, one that he must cast aside if he is to ever find Marya. Though truth be told if he’d just read between the lines he would have discovered the truth was there all along.
Bancroft’s writing is poetic and moving. I rarely find a fantasy novel where I enjoy the prose as much as the story itself, but in Senlin Ascends I definitely do. While some readers are put off by the use of flashbacks as a narrative device Bancroft uses it well to provide a glimpse into Marya and her relationship to Senlin. In fact it may have been the best way to have presented this material as it engages the reader with Senlin’s sadness and melancholy over what has happened and his burning desire to be reunited with his wife. We are informed of the Marya who was, while wondering about what is going on with the Marya who is. I also really enjoyed the quotes from the Everyman’s Guide that appear at the beginning of each chapter which serve to introduce the reader to some new aspect of the Tower, as well as hint at what is to be played out next in the narrative. They almost force the reader to read between the lines like Senlin should have done in order to figure out its mysteries.
Bancroft also manages to make good use of theme, metaphor, and symbolism. The most prominent example is probably the Tower itself. The Tower serves as that great pure, joyful thing everyone wants to experience in life but which turns out to be the exact opposite. For some it may be the experience of religion, for others a lifelong dream to act on stage or in film, or maybe the ambitions desire to enter a new field of work and change the world only to discover it beats you down into submission. How one reacts to the realization their dream was built on a lie, and how that experience shapes them governs whether they will succeed and overcome it.
The color red also serves as a form of symbolism in the book. I didn’t really notice it until about half-way through so I failed to note many of the instances where it’s found, but it seems to represent power or perhaps agency of some sort. It is first noted in the opening scene as we are told of Mary’s pith helmet which she’s colored red so Senlin won’t lose sight of her (funny how that worked out). It is Marya who is the more assertive and forceful of the couple. As Senlin explores the tower the color red keeps appearing and at some point the Guide or another character makes note of it, but I can’t find the reference. One ruthless character is even called The Red Hand because of how his color changes to red as he goes into a frenzy and rips people apart with his bare hand. Needless to say the symbolism of the color red is evident throughout. If anyone else picks up on this I’d love to read what you discern.
is Bancroft’s debut novel. He originally self-published it in 2013 and it was only recently picked up by Orbit after receiving publicity through the online blogging world, especially through the influence of fellow author Mark Lawrence. It is the first book in the Books of Babel series and Book two, Arm Of The Sphinx is set to be published later this year.
“Never let a rigid itinerary discourage you from an unexpected adventure.”
– Everyman’s Guide to the Tower of Babel, III. II
As the Everyman’s Guide says above, I encourage you no matter how busy your schedule or how full your TBR to pick up this book and devour it. Senlin Ascends is wonderfully written, alternative, and unique story sure to be among the contenders for best fantasy novel of 2018. But don’t take my word for it. Pick it up and let it guide you on your own unexpected adventure to the Tower.