Senlin Ascends by Josiah Bancroft

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Senlin Ascends by Josiah Bancroft

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Category: Fantasy
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: JY Saville
Reviewed by JY Saville
Summary: A gripping and original fantasy novel, the first of a series set in the peculiar and mysterious Tower of Babel. A must for lovers of adventure-filled quests who also like a touch of steampunk.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 432 Date: January 2018
Publisher: Orbit
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 978-0356510811

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Thomas Senlin embarks on his honeymoon with high hopes. He and his young wife Marya are travelling on a sleeper train across Ur to that engineering marvel, that fabled centre of culture, the Tower of Babel. It's a place he's read books about, taught his pupils about, and longed to visit, but the bustling and chaotic surroundings of the Tower in the desert are a long way from the quiet fishing village in which Senlin teaches. When he loses sight of Marya shortly after their arrival, he has no option but to look for her in this strange and overwhelming place. For all his background reading before the trip, he is ill-prepared for what he finds in the Tower, both its marvels and its horrors, and thus begins Thomas Senlin's arduous quest to recover his wife.

Senlin Ascends is Josiah Bancroft's first novel and what a spectacular debut it is, though it should be noted that this isn't strictly new but a traditionally published edition of a book he self-published in 2013. The mysteries of the Tower itself haunt the novel, and its baffling systems and arbitrary justice are as chilling as anything Kafka wrote. At the same time the invention of the setting, the details in each of the strikingly different levels of the Tower, are incredible and mean that each location has its own atmosphere, whether basic or opulent, oil-lit or electrified. Nothing is quite as it seems and there are some dark surprises for the unwary tourist who doesn't know who or what to trust.

I started out pitying Thomas Senlin, the mild-mannered headmaster out of his depth in both marriage and the hectic surroundings of the Tower, thrown into confusion and despair at the loss of his wife. Soon, however, he developed in a believable way from the shy, rational, open and trusting man he started out as, into someone altogether stronger and more wily. Spurred on by hope, Senlin stumbles through his adventures and learns more about the Tower as he goes. It's clear from the beginning that this isn't a safe or cosy place, and there is a certain amount of violence including the occasional gruesome moment, though none of it seems out of place considering the circumstances. I liked the quotations from the Everyman's Guide to the Tower of Babel at the start of early chapters, highlighting the disconnect between the guidebook and reality, the version Senlin has taught in his school and the version he experiences.

My only slight reservation was the change of story-type, quite a way through. For well over half the novel it had a classical feel to it, with Senlin moving through his quest in slightly detached episodes, each with its own location and cast of characters, almost like the Labours of Hercules or the Odyssey. Suddenly a character reappears and with them comes more of the cohesive plot structure of a modern novel which gave me a moment of disruption, having got used to the previous style, and I also found I had to refresh my memory on the reappearing character as they had been gone so long. On the whole, though, this is a fabulously gripping start to a series. Senlin is a likeable character and the Tower is a fascinating setting: I can't wait to return for the second instalment.

If you're in the mood for another inventive steampunk-tinged thriller that's the start of a series, I can recommend Grandville by Bryan Talbot. It's a graphic novel populated with anthropomorphic animals, so a different approach but equally good on detailed world-building.

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Buy Senlin Ascends by Josiah Bancroft at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Senlin Ascends by Josiah Bancroft at


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