Title: Senlin Ascends
Author: Josiah Bancroft
Published by: Self-Published [Now published by Orbit]
My rating: 5 our of 5 stars
Where I got the book: Public Library
Senlin Ascends is one of those books that makes me believe in fate because there’s no other possible way it would have crossed my path. It was an entrant in the Self-Published Fantasy Blog-Off (SPFBO) hosted by author Mark Lawrence a few years back but didn’t make it into the final rounds. Lawrence loved it though and hasn’t been shy about promoting it everywhere he can. So Senlin Ascends picked up a decent following on r/fantasy, one of the few place on reddit I bother to visit. After seeing a number of good reviews of the book, and liking the cover art I added it to my TBR. And then one day I decided to see if my local library had a copy, not realizing that it was self-published, just that it was a book I’d seen recommended a lot. Lo and behold, my library had a copy. When mentioning this on r/fantasy, Josiah Bancroft informed me that this was nothing short of a miracle, because there was only about 1000 copies of the book in existence at that time. Either a fan requested the library buy it or my librarians are super on top of buying interesting fantasy.
Thomas Senlin is a mild-mannered school teacher who is drawn to the majestic and grandiose Tower of Babel, having read so much about it in the Everyman’s Guidebook . Newly married, Senlin and his young wife Marya set out to visit the Tower on their honeymoon. Only things don’t go as planned as Marya goes missing in the market, shortly after stepping off the train and even before they enter the tower. Lost, afraid, out of his element and desperate to find Marya, Senlin enters the Tower clutching to a promise they made to meet at the top floor if they were ever separated. Only the Tower isn’t quite as the Everyman’s Guide made it out to be and Senlin must navigate his way through slums, theaters, prisons and ballrooms, surviving betrayal, assassination and violence on his journey to the top.
Books like Senlin Ascends is what I often consider speculative fiction at its finest. I love a good traditional fantasy. But I’m easily bored and am always on the lookout for new and innovative stories. It’s incredibly hard to describe this book, as it’s a mash-up of steampunk, new weird, alternate history, gaslamp fantasy and mythology. The level of detailed world building and characterization Bancroft as crafted is astounding.
One of the things I like most about Senlin Ascends is how Thomas Senlin changes over the course of the book. In the beginning he’s incompetent, makes foolish decisions, is exactly a middle aged school teacher who ended up in a situation way over his head. But he perseveres. This is an unexpected hero story, not in that Senlin suddenly becomes a mary-sue chosen one, but that when things go wrong, after he gets over his shock, he willingly walks into hell, the deranged, mad bowels of the Tower of Babel in order to find the woman he loves. He learns from his mistakes, takes risks, schemes and gathers information, all in order to get as close as he can to Marya, chasing her shadows up the levels of the tower. Thomas Senlin is one of the most human characters I’ve ever read and that why I love him so.
Mayra is also an incredibly interesting character. Since she vanishes within the first few chapters I wasn’t expecting to learn much about her. A lot of narrative like this erase women, leaving male characters to search after specters of their memories or idealized images of the women they love. But although Marya is not physically present for most of the book, she’s an undeniable force that shapes the narrative. We learn about her from Senlin’s memories, reliving their courtship and gaining a deeper understanding of the woman Senlin fell in love with. We also catch glimpses of her through out the tower, as Senlin encounters people who met her on her journey to find Senlin.
I’ve been waiting on picking up the second book, Arm of the Sphinx, because I don’t need anymore books to pack for my cross-country move that’s coming up. The Books of Babel is such an amazing series though that I might have to break my book-buying ban.