“The subtext was obvious: Love, pure and eternal, reigned supreme. Senlin did not believe in that sort of love: sudden and selfish and insatiable. Love, as the poets so often painted it, was just bald lust wearing a pompous wig. He believed true love was more like an education: It was deep and subtle and never complete.”
Synopsis: Mild-mannered small-town professor Thomas Senlin has arrived at The Tower of Babel, a gargantuan testament to the miracles of human ingenuity. He and his young bride, Maria, have come to spend their honeymoon at the place Senlin has always dreamed of visiting. When Maria promptly goes missing and Senlin is thrust into a series of hardships, each more terrifying than the rest, it becomes clear that this dream has become a nightmare. Will Senlin be able to brave the wonders and horrors of the tower to find his love? If so, what will he be forced to leave behind? The tower always takes its toll…
Allow me to begin by making one thing abundantly clear: this is not your typical fantasy story, and Thomas Senlin is not your typical fantasy protagonist. One should not approach this novel with the same expectations one would reserve for a sword and sorcery yarn. Senlin Ascends is appealing for numerous reasons, one of which being that it absolutely defies the genre. There are no dragons here, nor magic, save the poetry and love Bancroft weaves into his story. This is a world of technology and harsh realities (if we must truly classify it… I believe we’d call this steampunk?), where the true wonders are made by man. Yet… it distinctly feels like a fantasy story. “Whimsy” is the word most frequently applied to the tale, and I agree that there is much of that here for certain; it is a story replete with adventure and discovery. I would argue, however, that this is not so much a whimsical tale as it is a battle for our naive protagonist’s spirit; as the whimsy is slowly peeled back and the harsh realities of this world are faced, can Senlin keep himself from lapsing into cynicism?
On the subject of Senlin: I love this guy. Bancroft turns the entire genre on its head by presenting us with a protagonist who is uniquely ill-suited to the task (or is he?). At first glance, he is abundantly naive; how else does one lose their wife and worldly possessions within moments of arrival? Senlin is a strange fellow; he is tall, skinny, not particularly strong. He isn’t a wealthy man, and begins his quest with nothing to support him. He doesn’t know how to handle himself in a fight, and he couldn’t intimidate someone if his life depended on it (which it frequently does). We are left with a polite, scholarly gentleman as our point of view focus, and it makes for an immensely entertaining read. This is not a person who can fight their way out of everything, with a well-placed sword strike and a laugh of bravado. Senlin is a man of intellect, and a great reserve of empathy and kindness. If the thought of this sort of man overcoming unfathomable odds sounds great, you don’t know the half of it.
Our supporting cast is similarly intriguing: Edith, a strong-willed woman of means; Adam, a shady lackey with a deft hand for mechanics and a strong streak of familial responsibility; Taru, a drunken layabout with a tragic past; Finn Goll, a businessman with a violent streak… and the list goes on. Bancroft does an excellent job of breathing life into each of these characters; at no point did I get the impression that the text would be stronger had he simply left one of them out. Beyond their immediate interaction with Senlin, they also all deepen our connection to this fabulous world the author has built by helping us understand different aspects of it.
As for the world… how does one describe such a glorious mess? The story takes place almost entirely (minus some flashbacks) within the world-renowned structure known as the Tower of Babel (or “The Tower” as everyone calls it). The Tower is an immense building composed of “ringdoms”, layers each the size of a massive kingdom:
Travel between ringdoms is strictly regulated, and this forms much of the danger for Senlin as his quest takes him up The Tower. People generally require some sort of writ of passage, and must ascend via specific paths. The sides of the tower have several ports (mostly regulated, of course), and airships are often used as a means of travel. Here is an illustration which depicts the scale nicely:
Each layer is governed by its own government and set of rules, and presents its own set of wonders and, in some cases, challenges. Senlin’s initial destination was The Baths, a place of luxury and excess. The Parlor, which must first be traversed, is a living play where everyone is both actor and audience, and nothing is as it seems. Truly, the setting is so huge that the possibilities for storytelling are endless, and the variety of experience is the equal of any other fantasy story.
Overall, what truly makes this story special is Bancroft’s language and storytelling technique. As one reads Senlin Ascends, with all its flavor and samples of the rich world which has been constructed, it is easy to see that the author truly loves language. As Bancroft advises: “Even beauty diminishes with study. It is better to glance than gawk”. I must, therefore, force myself to “glance” in my writing of this review, as I would not wish to spoil that wonderful feeling of discovery. I would urge anyone to take a glance at Senlin Ascends, as well as the fabulous sequels: Arm of the Sphinx and The Hod King. I realize as I write this that there is little need to dwell on the sequels; Bancroft’s writing only gets better with each book, and anyone who reads Senlin Ascends has no need of me to dwell on the merit of continuing the story. Suffice it to say that Senlin’s trials do not get easier, and that while things go down a decidedly darker path, love is always there to light the way. To those of you new to reading this author: you are in for a wild and beautiful ride, filled with action, adventure, romance, and everything one could ever ask for.