Book Review: Senlin Ascends
Every now and then you see one of the self-publishing success stories, the book that did so phenomenally well that a big press will offer to print and promote it even more. Senlin Ascends, book one of the Books of Babel series, is one of these unicorns. I was excited to pick up the Orbit edition of Senlin Ascends, especially since I like off-the-wall, strange fantasies.
Thomas Senlin and his young wife Marya set out on their honeymoon. Their destination? The Tower of Babel, a structure of debatable height where each level is basically its own country. But when he loses Marya outside the Tower, Thomas must instead undertake a rescue mission. Armed only with his desperation, he must climb the lower levels of the Tower, where danger lurks around every corner and nobody can be trusted as a friend.
The premise is what really drew me to the series, and it doesn't disappoint. The Tower of Babel fascinated me, with its quirky yet deadly ringdoms and the vibrant cultures that inhabit those spaces (not to mention the Hotel-California-esque inability of visitors to leave). In Senlin Ascends, we really only see the lower four ringdoms, but each one has a distinctive feel, ranging from the chaos of the Basement to the spa of the Baths. Bancroft fills in each level with clever inventions and nuances, each one a tie to the upper levels. I was particularly fond of the beer-mes and the airships. No wonder the Tower attracts visitors like Thomas and his wife!
I was a bit curious about the rest of the world, outside the Tower. Bancroft doesn't seen to be particularly focused on it, and it's fuzzy as a result. Is this some sort of alternate Earth? An entirely different world? It's unclear, and I would have liked slightly more attention paid to that aspect of the worldbuilding.
Thomas is a classic everyman character. He's a schoolmaster, a bit sheltered, very intelligent, but lacking common sense at times. He's not particularly strong or skilled. He trusts a little too easily, though the Tower beats that out of him quickly. In fact, Thomas grows quite a bit as a character over the course of the book, and he eventually becomes more practical, more daring, more bold. Bancroft makes a point of noting that by the time he reaches the fourth ringdom, Thomas has used his fair share of others to get there--though Thomas himself would prefer to think of himself as still a decent person.
I wish I could say the same attention is paid to Marya, but it's not. The book is told only from Thomas's POV, and what little we learn of Marya we have to glean from what the other characters know or share of her. She felt flat for me, more ideal than real. In part, that's a reflection of Thomas's feelings for her; as the length of her absence increases, they shift toward viewing her as an ideal of a woman, rather than a human being. I'm hopeful that we'll actually get to see her in later books, because there's a lot of unused potential here.
I will say that Bancroft has a gift for introducing characters, letting them drop out of sight, then bringing them back to relevance toward the end. That said, the rest of the characters are a mixed bag. I found Adam extremely annoying and easily predictable, so much so that it baffled me that Thomas couldn't predict him as well (seriously, it's that easy, even a naive character should be able to do it). Goll is slimy and easy to hate, as are many of the book's smaller villains.
Honestly, the women were the most compelling. Edith's story was a highlight for me, and I cheered when she returned later, still indomitable. She has a bottomless well of courage and common sense, and she's a great foil for Thomas. Iren, meanwhile, defies stereotypes: she's the "brute" and the muscle, but she's a women and she's actually intelligent (and desperate to learn how to read).
The pacing is where this book falls down a little for me, and the reason I didn't grade this higher. It starts pretty strong, and it ends with a bang as all the characters collide in one insane confrontation, but the middle drags like crazy. The section in the Baths sucked out a lot of the book's momentum and immediate danger. It's rare for me to take longer than a week to read a book, but I took upwards of two weeks to read Senlin Ascends because the middle lost me. It's not enough to make me quit the series, but I really hope the second book doesn't have the same problem.
Still, it's a clever book with a great premise that merits a read. And the great news, if you're like me and like to binge through series, is that the second book, Arm of the Sphinx, is already out from Orbit and the third book is coming this December. Plenty more of the Tower to explore!