Senlin Ascends – by Josiah Bancroft (Review)

The Orbit republished cover is the same that graced Senlin Ascends when it was first released in 2013. An impressive bit of art by Ian Leino.

Books of Babel #1

Fantasy, Steampunk

Orbit Books; January 16, 2018

383 pages (ebook) 14 hr 15 min (audio)

4.0 / 5 ✪

GoodreadsAuthor Website

No one is more surprised that Thomas Senlin was married than the man himself. And there was a lot of surprise to go around. The headmaster of a small school in a small village, Senlin wed one of his former pupils, a once difficult and inquisitive girl, Marya. For their honeymoon, Senlin took his new wife to visit the Tower of Babel—greatest wonder of the world both old and new. For brief moments his life was perfect; a beautiful and inquisitive wife on his arm, the most fascinating marvel laid out before him—Senlin was as amazed as he was blissful.

But in those few moments Marya disappeared. Whisked away by nothing more than the vast crowds and sweeping foot traffic, she is fated to become yet one more face upon a flyer, another missing loved one among a sea of the damned. But—no. For Senlin is determined: he will try—no—he WILL find her, and they will be together again.

And yet Senlin is also surprised. The Tower is nothing like he imagined it. Fascinated with the marvel for years, Tom has read many books on the subject, even toting an Everyman’s Guide to the Tower that he carried with him to this very point. And none of them—not even the guide—relate to his present situation. And so he must use his cunning and his wit to navigate the Tower, made more challenging by the lack of either these two assets. But, even if he survives long enough to escape the Tower, he must also find Marya. And to do so he must reach the top. But even while Senlin wades through the filth of humanity—the desperate, the lawless, the poor, the infamous, the miscreants, the traitors—he must navigate back alleys and twisting passages, bath houses and ballrooms, warehouses and theaters. But he would do these things ten times over if it means finding Marya, and returning home.

But the Tower is massive, and the task before him immense. And so, Senlin must ASCEND.

I mean, I really, really couldn’t resist that, sorry. But the book was pretty good. Bit of a slow start eventually gives way to a slow middle, a slower middle, then a hectic end. Honestly, the pacing of this book attests to its subject matter. Senlin Ascends is a deep fantasy tale, but without the battles, assassinations, or well… action. Okay okay, there’s SOME action. Just… not what you might be used to. It’s not that Senlin Ascends is boring, it’s just complex. A more of a political fantasy than an epic. There are plots, there are chases, there are assassins, betrayals, intrigue, and yes, even some action. There just aren’t many fight scenes. Battles. Armies. Glory. And while the reading may be tamer than something like GoT, or less amazing than Stormlight, it’s not any less fantastical. A steampunk adventure set in a world featuring a whole, massive Tower of Babel is certainly a new one. It’s just not what you might be expecting.

The characters of the Tower are its strong suit. Well, them and Senlin. The headmaster is a deeper and more complex individual than he may seem—which comes out over the course of the tale, mirroring his desperation to find his missing wife. What he will and won’t compromise to succeed, to continue, to find Marya at all costs. Will Tom Senlin still BE Tom Senlin when the series closes, or will he be someone else? SomeTHING else? Though mostly we are treated to glimpses into Senlin’s soul, others crop up as well. The painter, Ogire. The tourist, Tarrou. The Red Hand. Edith. Adam. Finn Goll. The Commissioner. The cast is deep and thorough, all with intricate backstories, personalities, and details that ultimately humanize them. At first we can assume that any may be good or evil, but eventually are opened to the realization that they’re all merely people. Some are better than others, true, but both are human. While there are precious few action sequences and quite a lot of politics over the course of the tale, the characters of Senlin Ascends provide more than enough reason to justify reading it.

While the Tower of Babel is justified in its brilliance, the rest of the world is very much clouded in fog. Senlin does reminisce about his home, his village, but otherwise the Tower is all that matters. A world in its own right, Josiah Bancroft’s vision of the Tower is more than a little impressive, with each level encompassing its own city, its own world. As Senlin progresses his way up the Tower, he must endure the assault on the senses, the different sights and atmospheres, while adapting to each level’s way of doing things. Bancroft has not built one but many worlds within the Tower, so that when we were granted glimpses into the world without, I was surprised to realize I didn’t know anything about it. The Tower of Babel is more than just the center of the story, it IS the tale. Though the world-building seems incomplete at first—when you realize that the Tower IS the world, the more you appreciate the job that Bancroft has done with it.

TL;DR

Senlin Ascends may seem like a dry, political fantasy, more concerned with intrigue than action, but, well, it kinda is. It’s also a story heavily driven by its complex, intricate characters; a deep story told of a man and his wife, who only wish to reconnect; an amazingly constructed world centering around a wonder most of us would consider nothing but mythical. While it is a bit drab, slow, and even outright boring at times, get through these parts and you’ll find an absolutely fantastic story beneath. Just don’t try to make it more than it is. The first few chapters I had to power through. I kept wondering when the story would pick up, over and over. I became mesmerized by the world, lost in the tale itself, subsumed with the story of Senlin and Marya, even teared up a bit later on. It’s not a thriller. It’s not built on action. It probably won’t get your blood pumping, turn you on, or sate your lust for blood. But it just might tell you an amazing tale, should you let it.

The Books of Babel is a tetralogy (a four-part series), beginning with Senlin Ascends, which was self-published by Bancroft in 2013, only to be reissued by Orbit in 20118. The second book, Arm of the Sphinx was initially released in 2014, and followed the first through Orbit later in 2018. The penultimate book, The Hod King, came out a year later, in 2019. The final entry, The Fall of Babel, is due out next year.

2 thoughts on “Senlin Ascends – by Josiah Bancroft (Review)

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