Senlin Ascends by Josiah Bancroft
The Books of Babel, Book 1
Read July 21 – Sept 8, 2018
Reading Senlin Ascends felt like reading an epic poem without the poem.
It had the lone ‘hero’ going on a huge journey to achieve a goal, it had lands of intrigue, it had allegory, it had beliefs held dear by the main character shattered over and over, it had everything, man.
I adored this book.
Back in March of this year, I completed the r/Fantasy Bingo Challenge, and was lucky enough to win an ebook of my choosing as a prize, given to me by one of the sponsors of the bingo game. I chose this one, having heard about it briefly, just enough to pique my interest. And man, I’m glad I chose it – I had never really read an ebook with so much gusto before. And I admit – I was definitely reading it at times I probably shouldn’t: During restroom breaks at work, during car rides when I was the passenger even though reading in the car makes me sick, during down time at restaurants, whenever I could. I couldn’t stop thinking about it. The writing was beautiful, the main character had me rooting for him, and the world that Josiah Bancroft created is absolutely fascinating.
The book, if you haven’t heard of it, follows a man named Thomas Senlin, who upon arriving at the foot of The Tower of Babel loses his wife in the crowd, and has to ascend the tower to find her before she’s lost forever. The premise is quite simple, but the world created within the confines of the tower is quite rich. The tower itself is a feat of imagination. So high that only rumor tells if there is a top and what is there – each level, called a ringdom, is quite different from the one below it. Whether it be The Parlor, a level full of actors and performances and you can’t tell who’s playing a role and who’s not, or The Baths, a level rich in soap and hotels and conspiracy, each one feels as real and gritty as sand in your fingernails. I really enjoyed the depth of setting each ringdom had. Each felt like its own fully developed world with lore attached to it, even though they were connected by stairways and tunnels. Everytime Senlin arrived at a new one, it was like reading about a brand new place. The book also had a light steampunk feel to it – airships carried passengers from level to level, using air currents as their only source of movement, which I thought was pretty neat.
Senlin himself was a good character to follow. His development arc was nice and complicated. At the beginning, he was so full of awe for the tower. Coming with his new wife to the base of the tower on honeymoon, his story begins with him full of whimsical tales and beliefs about how wonderful the tower is and how splendid each level must be. Like all great tales though, he finds his beliefs called into question over and over again, each revelation of truth like a slap to the face. Characters he meets on each level only add to the complexity of the story – why they’re there, how they got there, why they stopped in that ringdom specifically. Each character gave Senlin added depth through the way they interacted and how each of their meetings came to an end. All of it felt like I was reading a giant metaphor. The allegory was strong in this book – it felt like a book I would read for a literature class in college. I could fill the margins with notes if I wanted. Heck, I want a physical copy now to do just that. When I continue this series (which I will be doing) I want to switch to physical copies so I can love on them without needing to worry about a battery charge.
Here is an example of the writing – a quote from near the beginning of the book. The context is Senlin is at the base of the tower, and has just witnessed the death of several people around him:
He especially delighted in the old tales, the epics in which heroes set out on some impossible and noble errand, confronting the dangers in their path with fatalistic bravery. Men often died along the way, killed in brutal and unnatural ways; they were gored by war machines, trampled by steeds, and dismembered by their heartless enemies. Their deaths were boastful and lyrical and always, always more romantic than real. Death was not an end. It was an ellipsis. There was no romance in the scene before him. There were no ellipses here. The bodies lay upon the ground like broken exclamation points.
I just. I love it. This is the first of many quotes I marked, and it’s the one that made me fall in love with Senlin Ascends. From this quote on, I was smitten. The whole book is littered with passages like this, and each one had my heart going ba-dump-ba-dump. Josiah Bancroft is a wordsmith and with just this one book, one of my favorite authors. He could publish his grocery list and I’d read it.
Another enjoyable aspect about this book is the tone it took – in addition to the characters and plot, the tone just made this world seem huge. Far bigger than a story set in one tower should feel. Repeated references to endless exploration of the tower, conversation and speculation on what and who is at the top, speculation of who built it and when, the way the people live their lives in each ringdom, almost in isolation of the others. It made each level feel like the size of a country instead of a city, and it gave the book a feeling of vastness that could allow for many, many more books set here to be written. When I said that it felt like I was reading an epic poem, I was not exaggerating. It just all feels so big.
I feel like there’s going to be a fantastic story told here, as Senlin continues his plight, and I’m here for it man. The next book is out and the third is expected next year. I’m hoping each lives up to this one, and improves on it (thought, that’ll be hard to do considering how good this one is already…).
I know I’ve done nothing but gush, but man, this book is so good. I. Loved. It. New all-time favorite, fan for life.
Ps. I mentioned in a tweet that I was reading this book and Josiah Bancroft liked it. I may or may not have peed.