Senlin Ascends by Josiah Bancroft
Publisher - Orbit
Published - 18th February
Price - £8.99 paperback
I thank the publisher for an advance copy of this book in exchange for an honest review
Mild-mannered headmaster Thomas Senlin prefers his adventures to be safely contained within the pages of a book. So, when he loses his new bride shortly after embarking on the honeymoon of their dreams, he is ill-prepared for the trouble that follows.
To find her, Senlin must enter the Tower of Babel – a world of geniuses and tyrants, of menace and wonder, of unusual animals and mysterious machines. He must ensure betrayal, assassination attempts and the long guns of a flying fortress. And if he hopes to ever see his wife again, he will have to do more than survive – this quiet man of letters must become a man of action
Travel broadens the mind they say. You go and see how other countries live you pick up new ideas; have great experiences and the person who comes back isn’t always the person who left. In the alternate world of Ur if like the newly married Senlin who work in a small fishing village’s school the one place EVERYONE wishes to go is The Tower of Babel. The wonder of the world a huge tall tower that climbs into the crowds. Each floor its own mysterious place of wonder. Think Disneyland combined with Rome and New York. But as many people who have had a holiday recommended to them the experience may not resemble the guidebooks. In the start of what looks to be an incredibly promising trilogy Bancroft gives us a very unique and surprising fantasy adventure that also asks questions about the joys of knowledge versus temptation and greed.
The story takes a bold choice and giving us an initially quite difficult lead character in Head Master Thomas Senlin. Described as a sturgeon even by his villagers he comes across stuffy, over-bearing and a tad pretentious. His wife Marya is in contrast warm, funny and bold – hard to see how this relationship started! But swiftly worse than losing the luggage Thomas swiftly loses Marya at the base of the tower. A fruitless search leads him robbed and stranded in the Tower’s first layer The Basement. If you’ve lost everything how can you progress in a place that is very much focused on wealth and status?
The concept of the Tower which is effectively layered cities on top of one another is a stand-out idea in the book. The Basement seems to be happy to just please people with basic pleasures – a fountain you can pedal yourself to get beer! But as Thomas moves upward each new level adds new challenges. A mysterious level known as The Parlour requires entrants to enact a play; while The Baths offers quality entertainment and endless nights of expensive decadence. But the Tower as Thomas quickly finds has a much darker side. While it endlessly welcomes new guests, there are rules and if you break them you will suffer physically and potentially never leave alive. It’s a perfect gilded cage of wonder and as the story progresses Thomas finds himself having his ideals of a place of science and wonder clashing with reality. It is a very subtle character progression initially he can easily turn a blind eye to an injustice as he doesn’t want to risk not being allowed to search for Marya but then he realises that to progress he needs to be prepared to fight.
It is a fantastically described world of beer fountains; giant metallic wall siders fixing the tower with airships bringing in supplies (and battles) that within this hellish wonderland Bancroft can explore some interesting ideas. The Tower makes people pay to live the lives of the elites, but they will be used in the process; made broke and if not felt to be sufficiently loyal then cut loose (or worse). It’s an amazing technical beauty of pleasure that seduces those from afar. We have a society that offers these expensive wonders demonstrating consumerism which with Senlin battling to find his wife means we have an ongoing battle with the headmaster who values science, ethics and decency. I loved the sense that alongside Senlin’s quest we have a fable about modern life struggles to stay true to who you want to be.
What could sound a very dry book is very action packed – reminiscent of an 19th century adventure story with each chapter offering new sights and adventures. No one can be trusted, everyone has an agenda and often more than one! The book hints at wider battles for power that Thomas is falling into, but this story is very much focused on Thomas’ journey. By the end of the book I’m cheering for this quiet man as he does things I never would have expected of in Chapter 1, but the progression feels very natural and he becomes a new favourite character. Resourceful and on occasion happier to use his wits to beat far stronger opponents.
My only reservation is that in each level of the Tower we see Thomas gain and lose companions who help illustrate the risks and traps that the Tower has in store for the unwary. Unsurprisingly women often have an unfair deal – many simply used as property/entertainment but while Bancroft gives us some interesting characters such as a touring land-owner and a gang-master’s enforcer we rarely get to see the world from their perspectives. There is a lot of potential for this though set up in the next volume which I really hope is a theme that continues to be developed.
I will admit I am often wary of a book that seems to suit the label steampunk. Often for me it’s been a disappointment where style is delivered but without substance. With Senlin Ascends I was wrong! It’s a very creative and thoughtful novel that I think in our ongoing society’s discussions with itself over the nature of consumerism and when should we rebel against those in power it really feels like a fresh fantasy voice is debuting something quite unusual. The next volume will be out later this year and I will be fascinated to discover what else lurks in the clouds. Strongly recommended you pick this up now!