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Senlin Ascends by Josiah Bancroft

Senlin, a mild-mannered school teacher, is drawn to the Tower of Babel by the grandiose promises of a guidebook. The ancient and immense Tower seems the perfect destination for a honeymoon. But soon after arriving, Senlin loses his young wife, Marya, in the crowd.

Senlin’s search for Marya carries him through slums and theaters, prisons and ballrooms. He must survive betrayal, assassination, and the long guns of a flying fortress. But if he hopes to find Marya, Senlin will have to do more than survive. This quiet man of letters must become a man of action.

I’ll begin with an admission. I can probably best be described as an anxious traveller. Whenever I have to go anywhere outside the local area, I become ill at ease. I’m a bit hopeless as soon as I find myself in thrall to the vagaries of strict timetables or pure dumb luck. Thomas Senlin finds himself with similar problems. Within hours of arriving at the world-renowned Tower of Babel he has lost his wife, most of his possessions, and any real understanding of what is going on. His only option is to follow the last words of advice his partner offered before her disappearance. If they get separated, they will meet at the top of the tower.

Each floor of this magnificent structure is a “ringdom” in its own right and has a distinct character. As Senlin climbs ever higher he experiences each of these strange new worlds first hand. Firstly, there is The Market just outside the tower proper. A grand bazaar where anything can be bought and sold (if you know where to look). Still at ground level there is also The Basement. This is where you will find the lowest of the low. Then there is The Parlour where things take on a distinctly theatrical air. Onwards towards The Baths for a lifestyle that is far more genteel than what has come before but, be warned, is just as dangerous if you don’t have your wits about you. Next, The Boudoir offers pursuits of a more adult nature. Also known as New Babel, on this floor all manner of vices are available, for a price.

The Tower of Babel attracts a veritable who’s who of eccentric characters. Thieves, painters and assassins rub shoulders with sky-pirates, actors, politicians and madmen. Some, like Senlin, are fellow travellers each seeking their own prize. Others have accepted where they have ended up and become part of the vibrant, diverse chaos that makes the tower the wonder that it is. These strange individuals flow in and out of Senlin’s life from moment to moment. Each of them are a delight to discover. One of my personal favourites was a young woman named Edith who Senlin encounters multiple times.

Our protagonist’s journey is as much about the internal as the external. Each event Senlin witnesses or takes part in leads to intense introspection. He is forced to confront his inadequacies and evaluate his path in life. Thomas Senlin, the somewhat naive school teacher, is a safe pair of hands. He doesn’t take risks, he doesn’t make rash decisions. Senlin is reliable to the point of being boring. Is that really the person our hero wants to be? The Tower shows him the person he could be given half the chance.

One of my favourite things is that each chapter begins with a brief sentence or two detailing hints and tips that will ensure any tourist knows what to expect when it comes to visiting the tower. Most importantly, the necessity of being adequately prepared for all circumstance.

The handkerchief is the universal utensil of the seasoned traveler.

As I have often suspected, one can never underestimate the requirement for a reliable pocket square.

There are some subtle, darkly comedic, moments in the narrative as well. As I mentioned previously, Senlin is somewhat naive and the situations he finds himself often descend into something akin to farce. He does learn though, and more importantly, he evolves. The Thomas Senlin you meet at the base of the tower is quite different from the man we see in New Babel.

When this first book ends, it leaves a handful of questions left tantalisingly unanswered. Just how many floors does the Tower of Babel have? What other mysteries lie above? Is there someone/something in charge of everything? The mind boggles.

Part steampunk travelogue, part character study, Senlin Ascends almost feels like a modern day fairy-tale. This is far more than just a cracking well-paced adventure, this story offers insight into the human condition. Try to imagine what would happen if Studio Ghibli and William Goldman collaborated with Mervyn Peake, and they reimagined Dante’s Divine Comedy. That’ll get you about half way there. Thomas Senlin is forced to travel ever upwards in an effort to reclaim the life that he feels he has lost, but perhaps he is really looking for something else entirely. This really is quite a remarkable book. The characters are truly memorable and I found the plot utterly engrossing. I don’t think I can properly express how much I enjoyed this experience. My advice, buy the book and just dive on in. Be prepared for the trip of a lifetime, I can guarantee you are going to be entertained.

When a novel defies expectation and categorisation, choosing a musical accompaniment becomes the trickiest of tasks. After much pondering, I finally decided upon the soundtrack to the computer game RiME by David Garcia Diaz. Senlin Ascends is more about the journey than the destination and I think this particular collection of music perfectly captures that feeling of far horizons and wanderlust.

Senlin Ascends in published by Orbit and is available now. A sequel, Arm of the Sphinx is set to follow. I can’t wait to read it, I suspect Senlin’s journey is far from over. Highly recommended

Senlin Ascends: Book One of the Books of Babel


New From: £4.65 GBP In Stock
Release date January 18, 2018.

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