‘Senlin Ascends’ novel review
By Caroline Ho, Assistant Editor
Senlin Ascends is a fantastic, delightful steampunk novel with enough technological marvelousness, quasi-Victorian spirit, and principled adventuring to make for a powerful debut.
Written by Josiah Bancroft, the book was first self-published in 2013 then picked up by sci-fi and fantasy publisher Orbit Books earlier this year after enjoying huge critical acclaim. This first novel in The Books of Babel series lays the foundation for a wonderfully creative and beguiling world populated with an unexpectedly personable cast of characters.
The story follows protagonist Thomas Senlin, a bookish and unassuming small-town headmaster newly married to his lovely wife Marya. For their honeymoon the couple travels to the famed Tower of Babel, an enormous structure said to be the height of civilization and technological innovation. However, before their honeymoon even begins Senlin becomes separated from Marya—and to find her he must make his way up the many layers of the Tower, which he soon discovers is far more perilous and treacherous than imagined.
Setting is undoubtedly one of the strongest aspects of the novel. Bancroft’s Tower of Babel, like its Biblical namesake, stretches up colossally, incomprehensibly tall—and also testifies to the hubris and divisiveness of humanity. Each “ringdom” of the Tower has its own distinct societal character, from the chaotic and disreputable Basement, to the sumptuously staged Parlour, to the outwardly charming and opulent Baths. In addition to elaborate steam-powered contraptions, Victorian-reminiscent manners and aesthetics, and of course airships—what steampunk-esque novel would be complete without them?—the world also features a tasteful touch of the surreal and absurd.
The characters, however, truly elevate this tale to excellence. For readers seeking a gritty, grimdark antihero with a tortured background, Thomas Senlin definitely does not fit the bill, but neither is he at all an obvious and admirable lead. At the start he is well-meaning but overly proper, full of scholarly self-righteousness and almost infuriatingly seemly ideas about the Tower and its inhabitants. Yet as the story progresses and he grows more and more aware, both of his surroundings and of his own perspective, he becomes surprisingly sympathetic and relatable, gradually realizing that his own mild manners and book smarts can only carry him so far.
The supporting characters are just as dynamically well-rounded. These include the sly, desperate young Adam, who will do anything for his sister Volita; the stalwart Edith, a farmer with far more to her than meets the eye; the vivacious and endearing Marya, whom we meet mainly through Senlin’s recollections; and many other morally questionable allies and adversaries encountered along the way. The Tower, Senlin quickly realizes, can seem a lonely, self-seeking, dog-eat-dog environment—but such a ruthless setting makes the power of friendship and trust all the more poignant.
Plot-wise, the novel’s pace is conveniently supported by the Tower’s physical and sociopolitical structure, with its layered ringdoms serving to mark progress as Senlin literally ascends the levels. At times the story does feel a bit like it’s been haphazardly cobbled together, which is appropriate for the world yet nonetheless a little hectic. Bancroft’s prose, however, is excellent. From the novel’s title I envisioned a far grittier story and a more forceful, ambitious protagonist, but while Senlin Ascends certainly has its ghastlier moments, it maintains an authentically proper and very readable voice throughout.
Book two in The Tower of Babel, titled Arm of the Sphinx, was also published by Orbit earlier this year and builds brilliantly onto the richness and moral complexity of the world. The third book, The Hod King, is set for release in January 2019 and promises to continue gathering steam and unveiling the intricacies of this fantastic world.