I bought this as I was desperate to read it. This is still an honest review though!
Release Date: 27/08/17
Publisher: Orbit (Little, Brown)
Format: Paperback, 432pp
Summed up in a word: Escalating
I saw plenty of great reviews for Senlin Ascends within the book community and I decided to buy it and give it a go. I have been fascinated by the story and concept of The Tower Of Babel for a while now but I haven’t found and approachable and enjoyable book to sit down and immerse myself in. Luckily Josiah Bancroft has finally done it! Senlin Ascends is a cracking read that explores an unforgettable setting. I was glad that The Tower Of Babel, despite being a fundamentally religious tale, was explored in a purely unbiased format that didn’t force any unwanted theological narratives upon myself. Josiah Bancroft has created a setting that has so much potential for exploration, eventful interactions and plenty of mayhem. Every inch of this novel is covered in danger, misadventure and chaos as well as passion, heroics and dedication. Senlin Ascends is a mesmerising tale of an ordinary man facing the chaos of humanity and coming out the other side a hero. Full review below.
Mild-mannered headmaster, Thomas Senlin prefers his adventures to be safely contained within the pages of a book. So when he loses his new bride shortly after embarking on the honeymoon of their dreams, he is ill-prepared for the trouble that follows.
To find her, Senlin must enter the Tower of Babel – a world of geniuses and tyrants, of menace and wonder, of unusual animals and mysterious machines. He must endure betrayal, assassination attempts and the long guns of a flying fortress. And if he hopes to ever see his wife again, he will have to do more than just survive . . . this quiet man of letters must become a man of action.
After small village headmaster Tom Senlin and his new bride Marya arrive in the shadow of the monumental Tower Of Babel on their honeymoon they are quickly separated in the savage market place that surrounds the entrance to the tower. Hoping catch Marya on the way to their hotel, Tom heads into the tower to make his way to The Baths on the third floor. Tom cannot believe his eyes, contrary to what he has read in his Everyman’s Guide To The Tower Of Babel, the ground floor is over-populated with thieves, drunks, the desolate and worse. Hoping to find a more peaceful and less corrupt place to start looking for his wife, Tom makes his way up the tower in search of answers.
There are many apparent and invisible forces at work that threaten to derail the search for Marya and Senlin has to fight, deceive, bribe, argue and befriend his way up the floors and towards wherever his wife may be. Senlin manages to recruit some allies within the hectic masses and he soon finds information about Marya and the darker plots taking place in the dark recesses of the tower. As Tom progresses and time goes on his quest alters and survival becomes his most immediate concern. The plot had serious potential from the off and I was worried that it might not pay off. I am glad it did, this novel was addictive and I hope it continues to pan out in the other novels.
Navigating the cosmopolitan nightmare that is The Tower Of Babel is a threat in of itself but the people who occupy it are as unpredictable as they are selfish, dangerous, lost and some are exceptionally powerful with serious weaponary at their disposal. The higher Senlin climbs the closer he gets to his wife and the bigger each threat and Senlin’s reputation becomes. I am excited as Senlin Ascends only explores the first four floors of the tower (each one is its own minute world) but the potential for the story and character developments in future novels is enticingly boundless. There could be any number of worlds within the tower. I hardly ever get so excited about a setting but JB has done a great job here.
Tom is a gentle soul, a book smart and fastodious headmaster, who is a gentleman and self-professed coward. When Marya goes missing Tom has to swallow his fear and begin a fervent and fearless pursuit of the love of his life. I thought Senlin was a stellar lead for this story. His transformation over the course of events is something to behold. Senlin has studied and taught his pupils about the tower for many years; learning everything he would need to know to get the full experience on his dream honeymoon. Upon discovering the truth about the tower and its darkened heart, Senlin despairs at the contrast of what he knew and what he sees before him. Senlin must forget everything he thought he knew about this place and face each threat to his progress with intelligence, defiance and passion. Each challenge forces Senlin to question his true capabilities and in doing so Senlin turns into the kind of hero he had only ever known in the stories he has read in the comfort of his home.
Bancroft’s imagination seemingly has no limits and I was mesmerised by the imagery and themes that Senlin Ascends explores in its first instalment of of the series. This is a bold debut and Josiah Bancroft went all out. The Tower Of Babel is a phenomenal setting that has so much to offer in this story and many more to come. The tower is an architectural miracle that rises up through the clouds and beyond. The true nature of its construction and how many floors exist within have been lost over the centuries. It is even more mythical in person than it appears in books. Every floor, or Ringdom (named after its cylindrical format) has its own rules, dynamics, activities, threats and technology. From the beer soaked basement level and the theatrically deadly Parlour to the luxurious yet militant 3rd floor Baths, the grimy, cutthroat portland fourth level that is New Babel and beyond. The tower is an addictive, overpowering and endless citadel of escapism that can ruin anyone if they let it.
Bancroft writes with a mixture of wonderment, fortitude, grit and passion. I found his prose to a decent blend of unpredictable mayhem, insightful and poetic. At times JB thrusts the reader into the pandemonium and the next he is being philosophical about the human condition, the confinement of the tower and how it can twist people’s minds. I have to say this novel can be perplexing at times as JB has crafting a continuously developing narrative that changes significantly in regular intervals. The pacing does suffer a little at times because of this but not enough interrupt my enjoyment of the novel. I personally really liked this approach but it could be a tad frustrating for those who prefer a more linear format to their developments. There are a fair amount of bold themes running through this novel such as identity, courage, overthrowing the powerful, passionate love, mythology and opportunity. They all worked well in my opinion bringing us closer to Tom and his mission. Also each Ringdom brings a totally different atmosphere and aesthetic to the story which keeps the story fresh and the reader guessing.
I thought at first that the plot might be too simple. Beginning with Senlin just trying to find his wife in this vertical labyrinth with no knowledge as to whether she is dead or alive. But after taking risk after risk for because of his love for her, Senlin is taken through a remarkable series of locations and is forced to interact with a whole host of distinct characters. If you like character and setting driven tales then Senlin Ascends is certainly for you. Senlin meets a varied cast of characters in his travels, each of whom can change tact at a moments notice. Thieves, merchants, the rich, the poor, the defiant, the weak and the rulers are all vying for their place in the tower at any cost. I liked the nuanced and enigmatic secondary characters that JB has concocted for Senlin Rises. I was constantly wondering if the next individual would be integral to the story or just an amusing/dangerous side-step on the way to the next area. I thought the villains in this tale were satisyingly evil. Especially the Red Hand and his menacing presence and unknown source of strength. The tower attracts many and captures those who enter and I am not sure that people ever truly leave once they are over the threshold.
I was concerned after the first act that Senlin Ascends was going to feel patchwork and not flow very well but I think Bancroft cut off the vastness of the novel at just the right amount. Any more and I would have felt it was spread too thinly across the plot. The fantasy elements are very few and far between reading more like SF/Steampunk/Adventure instead with outlandish technology, abstract vehicles and exotic animals amongst the higher levels. It reminded me of Jules Verne but darker and bolder. Other than the Red Hand there was nothing blatantly screamed fantasy but there are a few seeds being sown for other novels. I was glad that, despite the fact that the story of the Tower of Babel is a fundamentally theological story, Senlin Ascends doesn’t depend on religious themes at all. JB focuses more on love, determination, violence, risk and change within his story instead and that suited me better as a reader definitely. I don’t mind religion as a theme but not as a plot device.
Overall I highly recommend Senlin Ascends for SF and fantasy fans who like a well thought out and complex plot. There is plenty of unpredictable chaos to sink into within this novel and Josiah Bancroft certainly has his work cut out for the next novels. The standard has been set and I am seriously excited for wherever The Tower Of Babel is going to take me next. An outstanding setting populated with the best(ish) and worst of humanity. Bancroft’s debut is a must read that definitely lived up to the hype.
About Josiah Bancroft
Josiah Bancroft started writing novels when he was twelve and by the time he finished his first, he was an addict. Eventually, the writing of Senlin Ascends began, a fantasy adventure, not so unlike the stories that got him addicted to words in the first place. He wanted to do for others what his favourite writers had done for him: namely to pick them up and carry them to a wonderful and perilous world that is spinning very fast. If he’s done that with this book, then he’s happy.
Josiah lives in Philadelphia with his wife, Sharon and their two rabbits, Mabel and Chaplin.
More examples of his work, including updates on upcoming instalments in the Books of Babel series, can be found at www.thebooksofbabel.com.