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.

Firewalkers – by Adrian Tchaikovsky (Review)

Novella

Scifi, Post-Apoc

Solaris; May 12, 2020

208 pages (ebook)

3.8 / 5 ✪

GoodreadsAuthor Website

I was kindly provided an advance-copy of the book in exchange for an honest review. Many thanks to Solaris Books and Rebellion for the ARC! All opinions are my own.

The second Tchaikovsky novella in two years, Firewalkers features a cast entirely too young to drink, but old enough to wander the post-apocalyptic wastes of the world, fighting and dying for nothing more exotic to us than A/C. Hitting the shelves next week, most of us will be forced to get it via ebook, though it proves entertaining in any format. Just make sure you appreciate the cover—courtesy of Gemma Sheldrake—which is quite eye-catching, don’t you think?

The city of Ankara Achouka isn’t perfect. There’s never enough food, medicine, or water. There are rolling blackouts, if you can find electricity at all. Jobs are scarce, money is even scarcer. But here, at the base of the Anchor, those things are at least present. The rest of the planet is burning. Deserts and wastelands cover the world, the only refuge from the dying world being aboard the Grand Celeste—the only space station in orbit above the Earth. A space station connected via space elevator at Ankara.

At the base of the elevator sits the Anchor—the only area of government control left in Ankara, perhaps even the world—and within its domain the so-called “Roach Hotel”, a resort that caters to the super-rich and elite, so named for the fact that they check in, but never check out. This is where those powerful or connected enough spend their last days on planet, before ascending the elevator to orbit and the Grand Celeste. The hotel has food, water, and amenities. Amenities including A/C, since just because the planet is burning, god forbid the 1%-ers get a little uncomfortable.

But when the power goes on the fritz, someone has to go check and repair the solar panels—located far the south amidst the desolate wastes. Enter the Firewalkers. They leave the city to scavenge, scout, and yes, fix the power. Firewalkers are all young and desperate. Or the insane. They have a short life-expectancy, on account of the raiders, the predators, the heat, the desolation, the unknown beyond the bounds of Ankara Achouka. Only those with no future and no better option would consider the life of a Firewalker.

Mao is one such man. A legend at only nineteen—a middling age for one of his profession—he once walked back to Ankara through the wastes after an accident that killed his entire crew. Joining him are Lupé and Hotep, two of the best in their respective fields. Their mission: to restore the power to the Roach Hotel, before some of the elite lose their cool. Their lives have already been filled with disaster, but this trip into the wastes may well be their last.

If Adrian Tchaikovsky is the master of anything, it’s science fiction. Specifically science fiction with the most distasteful of organisms. His Shadows of the Apt series features a whole host of insects, while the Echoes of the Fall deals with predators. Children of Time plays host to spiders, and several novellas feature several other creepy crawlies. This one is no different, as, in Firewalkers, he returns to bugs.

I can’t get much into it without giving everything away, but if you have a problem with or a phobia of insects… maybe skip this one? Otherwise it’s a highly entertaining post-apocalyptic read. The characters are lovely, each with their own personalities and loyalties that evolved to impressive levels, particularly with this only being a novella (albeit a long one). All are well-written, as each portrays both strengths and weaknesses, making them seems very, very human.

The setting itself is quite interesting—something of a cross between the world of Metro and the Darwin Elevator, with Tchaikovsky’s particular brand of chaos thrown right in. Though I’d really’ve liked to know more about the state of the world. There’re hints of additional space elevators, the status of which is unknown. The setting itself is a bit of a mystery; I was guessing Africa somewhere, though the most famous Ankara is in Turkey. Other than these few hints, the world itself is hidden in the fog. Or, it’s burned up. There’s very little given. It’s more the kind of story that’s “here’s the world, this is how it is—it’s not about what happened, it’s about the future”. I have a mind curious for details; I always wonder after what’s happened before.

While the story itself is pretty good, it isn’t the best thing I’ve ever read by Tchaikovsky. Firewalkers takes a decent amount of time to get moving, and there’re distractions along the way. It’s a solid 4-star tale, though there was a bit of a letdown at the end. Nothing big—the story was completed and all threads tied up nicely—it was just a bit underwhelming. While once I got into the meat of it I had no problem reading to the end, it took some time to get to the meat, as it were.

TL;DR

With a landscape like that of Hades and a plot out of Metro, Firewalkers tells a post-apocalyptic tale not quite like any other. Together with Tchaikovsky’s particular brand of chaos, it makes for an entertaining read—with excellent characters, a provocative setting, and good writing throughout. However, the story takes a bit to get off the ground, and wanders a bit more upon doing so. Additionally, the world-building itself seems incomplete, with little more told than those aspects directly relevant to the matter at hand. All in all, Firewalkers is definitely worth a look, especially if you’re a fan of the author, or short on reading material.

The Best Series You’ll (probably) Never Finish (Part I)

Many series end prematurely, for a variety of reasons. Sometimes the authors die (cheery, I know). Sometimes their contracts are cancelled or not renewed and the series left unfinished. Sometimes they run over deadlines, or fail to deliver, or a tiger mauls the manuscript on its way to the editor. One way or another, for one reason or another, not all series will come to a satisfying conclusion. With the impending publication of not one but TWO Dresden Files books following a six-year hiatus, I’ve been thinking over the series that I love the most, but I’ll probably never see the end of. So here are (10?) recent series that you’ll (probably) never see the planned-upon end to.

  1. The Gentlemen Bastards – by Scott Lynch

Planned as a seven-book epic, Lynch has thus far delivered on but three of his genteel thieves’ tales. While he had two somewhat anticlimactic releases of Lies of Locke Lamora and Red Seas Under Red Skies, the issues really took off after the publication of the latter, when Lynch started suffering frequent and debilitating anxiety and panic attacks. Somehow he managed to publish Republic of Thieves in 2013, after a six year hiatus. And supposedly, the fourth Gentlemen Bastards’ entry, Thorn of Emberlain, is finished (or at least drafted), and may be released soon. Now, I want to mention that I have a tremendous amount of respect for Scott Lynch—it’s only because of him that I included the “probably” in the title. Writing is hard. It’s even harder on a deadline. And anxiety, panic attacks and depression suck. I’ve had a fair amount of experience in this area, and can definitely assure you that they make everything harder. Most of the time I would wake up lethargic, morose and completely ambivalent about life—that’s hard enough when you’re not trying to write a multi-book fantasy epic. Now, I know that Gollancz has been working with Lynch, giving him time, doing whatever they can to see this series come to fruition. And I know that if anyone can complete it, it’s Scott Lynch. But we’ll just have to wait and hope, now.

2. Lucan Drakenfeld – by Mark Charan Newton

Mark Charan Newton published two full-length Drakenfeld novels and one short between 2013 and 2014. Since then, he’s come out with one other novel under a different pseudonym. As works of great fiction go, it wasn’t great. But as for the fate of Lucan—we’ve heard nothing. Not surprisingly, Newton has had a full-time, day job since before 2017. He works for the Waterford Distillery—a dream job for a whisky lover like him—as their communications head. Since we’ve heard little of him since, I’d say that our chances for a third Drakenfeld book are poor for the foreseeable future.

3. Chronicles of the Exile – by Marc Turner

Back in 2015, Tor published When the Heavens Fall, the first entry in the Chronicles of the Exile—an new epic series set in sprawling, fantastical world on par with some of the true masters of world-building. The plot, performance and pacing however, left something to be desired. But in 2016, Turner followed up with two more books—replacing many of the characters from the first novel, while installing counterparts in their places—each novel pushing the plot and world-building to new heights, and quickly established himself as one of the masters of epic fantasy. Early the following year (2017), he came out with a few shorts set in the same world, each hinting at possibility for the future of the series. He even teased the desire to return to the first cast, before continuing with the fate of the second.

Since then, we’ve heard nothing. Now, in preparation for this piece, I’ve actually tried to find what happened to him. And… nothing. Dude’s just gone. I mean, fantasy authors can be popular with their fans, but they’re not rockstars, or kings. It’s not too difficult for them to vanish, if they want to. Or if they don’t, even. Not only did I find nothing, I found a bunch of other people who also found nothing. Needless to say, the Chronicles of the Exile is on hiatus at best—at worst, though, it’s done.

4. Rising World Trilogy – by T.R. Williams

We know relatively little about T.R. Williams. Other than being the author of the World Rising Trilogy, I actually know very… nothing about them. Including their gender and/or choice of pronouns. So let’s focus on what we do know. In 2014, Williams published the first two books of their trilogy. Journey into the Flame dropped in January, proceeded by Journey through the Mirror in December. Originally, Book #3—Journey Past Time—was scheduled to come out in 2015, but was delayed to 2016. Then it was delayed again, this time indefinitely. Since then… nothing. At least for most of the other ones I had something to speculate on, something to analyze, over-analyze, write into a good somewhat decent maybe not terrible article. For the World Rising Trilogy, however, I got nothing. As far as I know, it’s done.

5. Pax Arcana – by Elliott James

Pax Arcana is [currently] a five book urban fantasy series starring Harry Dresden and Jacob Black love-child, John Charming. A ladies man and perennial smart-ass, Charming was a lone wolf (right?) until almost halfway through Book #1, when he met a lovely blonde Valkyrie that would become the love of his life. And, subsequently, ruin the series following Book #3. Now, it’s not HER—it’s THEM. Together. More to the point, while John and Sig’s interactions from the last few books may have slowed the series, it’s Elliott James’s day job, surely, that may’ve doomed it.

So, dude is a MS/HS English teacher, which means he’s criminally overworked and underpaid. Depending on where he lives, it could be much, much worse. So I’m guessing that while he may or may not already have a second job, he probably didn’t have a lot of free time to begin with. Fun fact: Writing a novel takes time. Less fun, but still a fact: Teaching children takes a lot of energy. And: Writing a novel while teaching children is haaard. I have a little experience in this area—I had to abandon a perfectly good November Novel after only a couple days. James, somehow, made it to Book #5 before vanishing off the face of the earth. Legend Has It, the (as of now) final entry in the Pax Arcana, was published in early 2017. After that, nothing more has been seen of James. His blog seems abandoned and his twitter account has been shut down. The last message I can find from him dates to just after the release of Legend, and describes the new series he’s working on. Now, though I’d read more Pax Arcana books (probably), or something else entirely from him, I kind of suspect the author might have suffered some sort of child-related death.

6. Children of the Old War – by H. John Spriggs

Knight of the Flame began a good, old-fashioned high fantasy series, released by H. John Spriggs back in 2014. Now, as with many high fantasy epics, Knight of the Flame featured a bit of a lag in the middle. Slow-paced, intensive focus on detail and world-building—it eventuall ended in a lovely manner, setting us up for a thrilling sequel. Of which we heard next to nothing for most of two years. And then, Winds of a Growing Storm was released in summer 2016. Now, full disclosure: I haven’t read it. Yet. But—I will.

Anyway, since then (July, 2016), we’ve heard from H. John Spriggs once. Just under three years since Book #2 released, he popped back up on Goodreads and Twitter to announce that he was still working on Book #3, but progress was slow. Part of the reason for this was that he was also writing a prequel to the series at the same time. Now, I’m hoping that Book #3 won’t be too much longer, that he’ll get it out soon—but it will come in his own time. The thing is: will #3 mark the end of the Old War? Or is it just another step in an exceedingly longer series? If the former, I’m skeptical that everything will be wrapped up nicely. But for the latter… it seems that Spriggs is in a good place right now. It’s just as possible he won’t get back to it. Which would be disappointing, but also okay.

This fun and totally not depressing segment will continue in… at some point in the future.