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.
I went on somewhat of a journey with Josiah Bancroft’s Senlin Ascends. When I first read the description on the back of the book, my immediate reaction was: “Oh, I hope this isn’t another case of a fridged partner.” Because ugh — but it sounded really cool, so I decided to give it a try anyway. And while Marya disappears, which is Senlin’s motivation to progress up the Tower, she is no damsel, from the glimpses we have of her, has agency of her own and hopefully become an active character in her own right in future books. And in the end, I’m glad I took that chance, because I had a great time with it.
I loved the idea of the tower with its ascending levels and distinctly different atmospheres. The narrative reminded me a lot of Dante’s Inferno, the first part of the Divina Commedia. Like Senlin, Dante goes in search of his beloved, though his Beatrice is indeed dead and to be found in heaven. To reach her in heaven (Paradiso) he must go through both hell (Inferno) and purgatory (Purgatorio), guided by the Roman poet Virgil. In Inferno, they traverses the nine circles of Hell, which cover Limbo, Lust, Gluttony, Greed, Wrath, Heresy, Violence, Fraud, and Treachery. In Purgatorio they climb the Mountain of Purgatory, which serves to purge Dante from his (seven mortal) sins and prepare him to enter Heaven. Bancroft’s Tower of Babel seems to have merged that upward motion into going through the circles of hell, but the journey certainly changes Senlin.
The world building was very interesting. I loved the not-quite-steampunk vibe it had with the trains, steam engines, and all of the experimental industrial-feeling elements. In a way the Tower’s structure also reminded me of the worlds in Weiss and Hickman’s Deathgate Cycle. Like the worlds in that series, each level is built around a theme — or a sin if you keep to the Inferno analogy — and thus having the “world” be shaped by that conceit. In The Parlor for example, all the world’s a stage quite literally, meaning that almost everyone found on that level is acting their part in the play that is the Parlor.
Obviously, the levels aren’t mapped one to one onto the circles of Hell. However, as Dante learns a valuable lesson in each circle, each level Senlin has to conquer, also conquers something in himself. For example, The Parlor teaches him not to be too prejudiced and judgmental about who people are based on where they are from and what they do. The Baths’ level is all about looking beyond the surface and that people are not what they seem and do what needs doing. And perhaps most transformational is New Babel; here our timid hero learns to fight and scheme, with bare knuckles if necessary. But he also learns how to trust and to forgive.
All of this means a lot of development in Senlin’s character. At first he was somewhat unsympathetic and uptight, but each level peels away his layer and he becomes more human. His love for Marya becomes more tangible and they are shown to truly be in love. The flashbacks in which we truly meet Marya are lovely and she comes through quite clearly. I loved seeing Marya, not just through Senlin’s eyes, but the artist’s Ogier as well. It is through Ogier that we see Marya on her own and her strength and determination to get back to her husband and to go home.
The one critique I’d level against the narrative is that all of the secondary characters are there to teach Senlin something, whether about the world or himself. The only one beyond Senlin who doesn’t fit that mould is Marya. But all of the other ones, Ogier, Tarrou, Adam, Edith, Iren, Goll, and even Voleta can be seen as teaching aides for Senlin, even if they are also fun and interesting in their own rights.
Overall, I really enjoyed Senlin Ascends and I hope to at one point read the rest of Thomas Senlin’s story and to see if Marya, like Dante’s Beatrice, will come to meet him in the next instalment and hopefully accompany him home. Senlin Ascends is the first book in Josiah Bancroft’s The Books of Babel and is available in paperback. Its sequel, Arm of the Sphinx, was published last week and the final book The Hod King is expected come December.
This book was provided for review by the publisher.