REVIEW: Senlin Ascends by Josiah Bancroft

Senlin Ascends is the masterful debut novel by Josiah Bancroft and the first volume of his Books of Babel tetralogy. Initially self-published, Senlin Ascends is one of the greatest success stories from Mark Lawrence’s Self-Published Fantasy Blog-Off (SPFBO) competition, achieving widespread critical and popular acclaim.

Senlin AscendsThe lead protagonist of the book is Thomas Senlin, a recently married headmaster who plans a honeymoon at the Tower of Babel with his beloved bride, Marya. Senlin prides himself on his knowledge of the Tower, accumulated through years of scholarly study. But he is woefully unprepared for the chaotic reality of life in and around this architectural marvel.

Senlin’s honeymoon turns into a Kafkaesque nightmare as he immediately loses his wife at the crowded bazaar outside the Tower. The bulk of Senlin Ascends is devoted to our hero’s search for Marya, believing that she will meet him at the famed third-floor baths, where they had intended to spend most of their honeymoon.

The Tower of Babel itself is massive, significantly larger and taller than any skyscraper from our own time. The outer wall alone is a quarter-mile thick, and no one is quite sure about the exact height of the Tower. The Tower itself is constructed like an enormous labyrinth, giving it the feel of a verticalized version of “The Library of Babel” concocted by Jorge Luis Borges.

In Senlin Ascends, the Tower of Babel is divided into levels called “ringdoms,” each with its own distinct culture, economy, and politics. In terms of literary structure, Josiah Bancroft draws a clear inspiration from Italo Calvino’s classic Invisible Cities, in that each ringdom evokes a different aspect of our greater human civilization, and we must put these pieces together to construct the whole picture. The absurdities and baffling bureaucracies that Senlin encounters at each stage of his journey are also reminiscent of The Castle by Franz Kafka. Part of the thrill of reading Senlin Ascends is making sense out of the chaos and finding the greater purpose of the seemingly random events happening throughout the tower.

Senlin is an outstanding protagonist. His passivity and naïveté at the beginning of the novel gradually give way to a more active understanding of what he must do to retrieve his beloved Marya. But he always maintains the good-natured core of his personality, never acquiescing completely to the corrupting influence of the Tower. While other inhabitants of the Tower look out only for themselves, lying and cheating their way through each day, Senlin has a refreshing honesty and authenticity to his character. I love how he always believes the best in others, even when they don’t deserve that trust.

Senlin reminds me a lot of Toru Okada, the similarly timid and naïve protagonist of The Wind-up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami. While Senlin and Okada spend their respective stories in search of their missing wives, these also end up being journeys of self-discovery. In a nice touch, Josiah Bancroft even includes a direct allusion to Murakami’s work in the latter part of Senlin Ascends.

Beyond Senlin, Senlin Ascends also has an excellent cast of side characters who float in and out of the main story. I particularly enjoyed Edith, a beacon of feminism in a world where women are terribly oppressed. Edith’s displays of courage and resilience will stay with me long after I’ve closed the back cover of the book.

The worldbuilding of Senlin Ascends has obvious Biblical roots, but with a steampunk flair. What if the Tower of Babel, as described in the Book of Genesis, survived long enough to see airships, steam engines, and electricity? I thoroughly enjoyed Josiah Bancroft’s fanciful melding of antiquity and modernity throughout the novel. Bancroft’s elegant but accessible prose is also a perfect fit for this world, with an understated tone that matches Senlin’s personality.

Altogether, Senlin Ascends has established itself as one of the greatest works of modern fantasy—a book that undoubtedly will be enjoyed by readers and analyzed in university classrooms for decades to come. The Books of Babel continues with Arm of the Sphinx and The Hod King, ultimately concluding with The Fall of Babel.

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John Mauro

John Mauro

John Mauro lives in a world of glass amongst the hills of central Pennsylvania. When not indulging in his passion for literature or enjoying time with family, John is training the next generation of materials scientists at Penn State University, where he teaches glass science and materials kinetics. John also loves cooking international cuisine and kayaking the beautiful Finger Lakes region of upstate New York.