If you’re a book lover, or even just a book peruser, I am sure you can recognise the despair that comes when looking for the next book to pick up. University is a busy time, and you don’t want to waste hours on a mediocre story. And yet, every now and again, the stars align and suddenly you glimpse a book with a beautiful cover that somehow also has an intriguing premise.
“A book with a beautiful cover that somehow also has an intriguing premise”
Such was my introduction to Senlin Ascends, the initially self-published (now picked up by Orbit Books) opener to The Books of Babel series, by Josiah Bancroft. It’s difficult to pin down the exact genre of this novel: although at first glance it may appear to be fantasy, there are also elements of steampunk, mystery and even humour.
The story follows the rather erudite Thomas Senlin, the headmaster of a village school, who has spent most of his life dreaming of visiting the Tower of Babel. Said to be the pinnacle of human engineering, knowledge and culture, the Tower is made up of “ringdoms”, where each floor acts as its own sovereign state, contributing to a seemingly infinite monolith.
“To say this book is beautifully written would be an understatement”
However, upon arriving at the Tower with his wife, Marya, for their honeymoon, she is soon lost in the crowds and Senlin is left alone. In order to find her, he must not only ascend through the Tower – battling through its many mysteries, brutal punishments and complex political workings – but also ascend in character, to become the kind of person who could complete such a mission.
To say this book is beautifully written would be an understatement. As the Tower itself plays such a large part in the story, almost acting as both protagonist and antagonist, being able to feel transported to its unique atmosphere was crucial to the reading experience. Bancroft achieves this by taking the time to describe every part of each ringdom in such detail that it truly is engrossing – there’s no other word for it.
“Being able to feel transported to its unique atmosphere was crucial to the reading experience”
When Senlin finds himself surrounded by the ever-evolving stalls of the Market, you feel as though you too are in the midst of the chaos. As he walks through the dingy, damp Basement level, it’s like you are walking there with him. Although this dense description does slow the pace of the first half of the story somewhat, it does mean that as the plot becomes more and more complex – particularly in the third part – you feel fully settled in this strange environment.
“More time could have been spent in showing why Senlin was so invested in finding his wife”
One of my few gripes with the novel, however, was that we didn’t get to see much from Marya as she literally disappears within the first few pages. While Bancroft does provide a few snippets of Senlin and Marya’s relationship prior to their honeymoon (and discusses this further in the sequel, Arm of the Sphinx), I did think that in this first book, more time could have been spent in showing why Senlin was so invested in finding his wife, if only so that we, the reader, could feel that same desperation.
A favourite aspect of the story, though, was the diverse group of characters. In my opinion, there is nothing better in a book than the camaraderie between a group of friends, especially when they are placed in a system like the Tower, where friendship is scarce and loyalty is limited.
“It is so rare in adult fantasy to see an older female character with such unapologetic physical strength and honesty”
Because of this, I did find the second half of the book much easier to read – especially with the introduction of one of the most memorable characters, Iren. It is so rare in adult fantasy to see an older female character with such unapologetic physical strength and honesty, and so Iren was certainly a highlight.
Altogether, despite the perhaps slower beginning, Senlin Ascends was the perfect introduction to an epic fantasy series. The character development was incredibly satisfying, the mysteries at the heart of the Tower were fascinating and the obstacles and stakes faced by Senlin were gripping. If you’re still patiently waiting for the conclusion to Patrick Rothfuss’ Kingkiller Chronicle, then I would highly recommend that in the meantime, you delve into Senlin’s odyssey.
Featured Image courtesy of Sarah Quraishi.
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