What to say about Senlin Ascends? Saying it is the first book in the books of babel series by Josiah Bancroft is saying something true, but is is also saying something that will only become relevant by the end of this review.
I first learned about this book by watching a review about it by Elliot Brooks in which she said that book made her feel dumb, but in a good way. She mentioned it was in the intersection between fantasy and literary fiction, and that was more than enough to pick my interest.
Her channel is fantastic, I really recommend you subscribe to it. Many of my recent favourite books were books I discovered through her reviews. I agree with her a lot, and think she has excellent taste in books. I’m also looking forward to reading her own novel Peace and Turmoil.
In Senlin Ascends we follow Thomas Senlin, the uptight headmaster of a small village school, as he travels to the Tower of Babel to spend his honeymoon with his wife Marya.
The Tower myths and legends enthralled Thomas. Being from a small village, all his knowledge of it comes from secondary sources such as travel guides. He couldn’t imagine a better way for Marya and him to enjoy travelling, if not for visiting the wonder of the world: The Tower of Babel.
No one knows who built the Tower of Babel, or even how high it is since it pierces through a cloud lawyer that is perpetually around some of its higher levels. It is a monumental structure, and each floor is its own ringdom (aka ring kingdom) with its own people and government.
People ascend the tower either through the stairs, or by using balloons and airships. No one is really sure what happens on the upper levels.
At the ground level, seven railways connect the tower to the rest of the world. And it is through a train that Thomas comes near the Tower.
A caravanserai-like market surrounds the tower, with tents and stalls as far as the eyes can see.
It is with this setup that the story begins. I haven’t given you any spoiler. Somehow, Thomas gets separated from Marya, and the entire book is about his adventures as he ascends the Tower of Babel looking for his wife.
Senlin Ascends feels like a steampunk story sometimes. It is as if the author put the best of steampunk into a blender with some classic English novels. The way the reader experience the story feels like literary fiction. That book is tough, but it is very rewarding, like most good literary fiction.
What the author gives us is a unique story and approach to the myth of Babel. I don’t think I have ever read a book like this; it is so fresh. As Tom moves from his village, to the market, into the ground level of the tower, and starts ascending, we’re presented with an increasing level of weirdness.
Being weird for weirdness’ sake is easy, just look at the bad movies by Tim Burton (not the good ones, look at the bad ones). One of the hardest games an author can ever win, is piling weird stuff on top of even more weird stuff while still making it all make sense from an internal logical point of view. You see something weird, and then some time later you go: OMG, that shit was because XYZ. This books favour a curious mind that loses itself on pondering about the inner workings of the Tower.
It is very hard to write about this book giving no spoilers about what goes on in each floor, but I think this book is best experienced knowing nothing about any of the levels. I just want to say that they are unique, and that soon you’ll be nervous about what each new floor will be like.
Josiah Bancroft is a really wonderful storyteller. You can feel that he is having as much fun telling this story as we are reading it. If you want something new to read that is probably unlike other fantasy novels, give this one a try.
And this is just the first book. There are four books in The Books of Babel series. If the first one was this good and this strange, I can’t wait to see what the other three will be like.