Senlin Ascends is the ground-breaking debut of Josiah Bancroft and the beginning of the Books of Babel series. Originally self published in 2013, the book was picked up by Tor / Orbit when it became clear just how special the novel really is. Since then the series has continued with Arm of the Sphinx and The Hod King, which is released this month.
The story begins when Headmaster Thomas Senlin and his new wife Mayra take the train to the fabled tower of Babel. It is the greatest marvel in the world. Immense as a mountain, the ancient tower holds unnumbered ringdoms, warring and peaceful, stacked one on the other like the layers of a cake. It is a world of geniuses and tyrants, of airships and steam engines, of unusual animals and mysterious machines.
Shortly after alighting the train they lose each other in the busy market that borders the tower entrance. As the hours turn into days it becomes clear that to have any hope of finding Marya, Tom must ascend the tower.
Tom isn't your everyday fantasy hero, quite the opposite. Marya really only becomes lost because Tom is too stiff-necked and proper, unable to cope with the embarrassment of underwear shopping with his new, young wife. Even though he is a highly organised person, he is woefully unprepared for the tower, or it's colourful inhabitants. His only real preparation being the highly inaccurate "Everyman's Guide to the Tower of Babel" which pokes fun at some of the more poorly researched guides on the market. He is however intelligent and earnest in his attempts to "rescue" Marya. The escapades he becomes embroiled in highlight the sexism inherent in the fact the Tom thinks Marya needs any rescue and I can't help but think that Marya is probably much further up the tower than Tom. Sexism forms one of the main themes of the book.
The setting is intriguing, firmly in steampunk territory with steam trains and clockwork automaton along with a Victorian sensibility and airships, which coast along on balloons. The tower itself is a wonderful creation, a vast building that's so large it houses entire kingdoms (known as ringdoms) and so tall that the upper levels are lost in the clouds. There are connections between levels too. On the ground floor people are encouraged with free beer to operate a pedal machine known as the "beer-me-go-round" which provides kinetic energy for the gift of beer. The inhabitants of the following level (the parlor) are required to keep fires stoked. The heat of the fires is then sent to the following level (the baths) by use of the kinetic energy and this heat is used to warm the water of the baths.
The writing is excellent, the prose evocative and at times quite beautiful. The author has a flair for telling a good story and an incredible imagination. The result is something totally unique - like the literary equivalent of a Terry Gilliam film but with a friendlier style and with at least some semblance of sanity. The use of an everyday soppy headteacher as the protagonist works well and how Tom reacts to the difficult situations he faces are one of the highlights. The supporting cast are equally well written and each one adds something different.
The various lowers ringdoms have their own style. The ground floor is squalid and chaotic, the parlor is just totally mad, and by mad I mean complete and utter lunacy. It's a realm where everyone has to take part in a "play" for the delight of the rulers - but no-one ever sees the audience or even knows where they are. The baths are essentially a vast city dedicated to the pursuit of enjoying a sauna / hot bath with some politics thrown in for good measure. As you can probably tell from these descriptions, there is a great deal of humour scattered throughout. While it isn't the fastest paced book I've read, it does pick up as the story progresses and the climax is both frantic and rewarding, enticing you to follow the story with the next novel - Arm of the Sphinx.
Senlin Ascends is a triumph, a compelling and totally unique piece of work. I have no doubt that in time this novel and the Books of Babel will stand alongside the great classics of the genre.
Written on 1st January 2019 by Ant.
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