Book Review: Senlin Ascends by Josiah Bancroft
I received a review copy from the publisher. This does not affect the contents of my review and all opinions are my own.
Mogsy’s Rating: 3.5 of 5 stars
Genre: Fantasy, Steampunk
Series: Book 1 of The Books of Babel
Publisher: Orbit (January 16, 2018)
Length: 448 pages
The BiblioSanctum was part of the SPFBO (Self-Published Fantasy Blog-Off) the year Senlin Ascends made a huge splash despite not making it to the final round—proof that the “word-of-mouth phenomenon” is not to be underestimated—so as you can imagine, trying not to let the hype color my opinion of this book was nearly impossible. Had I gone in blind, my experience might have been different, but clearly that ship has sailed now, and nothing could have changed the fact that my expectations were through the roof when I picked this up. Perhaps that would explain why I was not as taken with it as I thought I would be.
Don’t get me wrong, though; this was a great book and I enjoyed it. But I did not fall head over heels in love the way I wanted to. The story follows Thomas Senlin, the unassuming headmaster of a small schoolhouse in a rural fishing village. Everyone was surprised when he marries the vivacious Marya, whose unpredictable nature seemed a poor match for his stuffiness and formality. Still, the two of them were in love, and for their honeymoon, Senlin arranges for them to visit the Tower of Babel, which is the greatest wonder in the world. Ancient and immense, the structure is made up of an untold number of Ringdoms layered on top of the other, each one containing a city with its own unique characteristics and cultures. Tourists from everywhere flock to the Tower to experience its marvelous sights and sounds, and Senlin hopes to impress his new bride with all the information he has learned from the guidebook he possesses.
Unfortunately, the newlyweds are separated in the hectic crowds almost as soon as they arrive at their destination. Desperate to find Marya, Senlin realizes that the Tower of Babel isn’t exactly all it’s hailed to be. Beneath its wondrous façade lies the ugly truth, that far from orderly, the Ringdoms are worlds of danger and chaos. It turns out that his wife is not the first to become lost in their depths, but Senlin is determined to find her, and to do that he must enter the Tower and discover its secrets.
For the most part, this book was very enjoyable and kept my attention. Josiah Bancroft’s writing is wonderful, far beyond what I would have expected from a novel that was originally self-published. There’s also an art and elegance to his prose, as well as a quality to his story construction that is self-evident. After all, creative presentation can go a long way. Detailed descriptions also helped bolster the world-building, and one of the reasons why I was so captivated early in the novel was due to the sheer amount of imagination displayed in the portrayal of the different Ringdoms. My absolute favorite was the Parlour; as one of the earlier levels we got to experience through Senlin’s bewildered eyes, this strange and unsettling place helped set the tone of the rest of the story.
Speaking of Senlin, he’s an interesting study. Not exactly a classic hero nor the warmest of protagonists, there’s an air of aloofness about him that effectively also keeps the reader at arm’s length. Thus, it surprised me a bit to realize halfway through the book how deeply I cared about his character. This connection only grew stronger as I watched Senlin become shaped by the things he witnessed in the Tower, the way he was forced to evolve or rethink his worldview after each pivotal encounter. Despite his stiff uppity attitude, there’s no denying his love for Marya (even if he does pride himself too much on his self-control to really show it at the beginning), and his determination to find her is enough to pull on anyone’s heartstrings.
For me, the first signs of trouble appeared around the three-quarters mark. Before this, I was happily devouring the story, delighting in every moment. Somewhere in the middle of Part III though, the plot began to lose its hold on me and I felt my focus waver. I don’t know what happened exactly, but I felt myself gradually becoming less interested in the events unfolding on the page. It’s possible that the novelty was starting to wear off at this point, or perhaps I’d suddenly hit my limit of weirdness that I was willing to put up with in one book—whatever the case, these later chapters of Senlin’s journey were just not enough to keep my attention. Admittedly, I did feel that the last hundred pages of the novel meandered too much, with Senlin losing sight of his main goal. And when the action finally came, it struck me as too-little-too-late, not to mention the tone of it didn’t exactly feel in sync with everything that came before. It’s just a shame because I think a book like this deserves a much stronger ending, one that enhances the story’s themes instead of distracting from them.
However, keep in mine how much I’d hyped myself up for this book, and perhaps my expectations were too high—which is something I understand is all on me. At the end of the day, I still enjoyed Senlin Ascends, just not to the point where I’d call it a personal favorite, but I can also see why so many readers praise it so highly. There’s certainly a lot to love here, and no question about it, I’ll be reading the sequel.