Book Review: “Senlin Ascends” by Josiah Bancroft

The phrase “self-published debut novel” will raise the hackles of many a reader, who often fear finding narcissism, typos, or both among the pages of such books. Bancroft’s self-published debut, however, comes as a pleasant surprise, and was snapped up by Orbit five years after the original 2013 release. Senlin Ascends, a steampunk travel fantasy, made the Washington Post‘s top 5 science fiction and fantasy novels of 2018, and received a further glowing review from Tor.com. It is the first installment in the “Books of Babel” quartet.

Thomas Senlin is a newly-married schoolteacher who is with his wife, Marya, on a honeymoon to the Tower of Babel, a very real and very awe-inspiring structure of many levels. He is quickly separated from Marya at the base of the Tower, but remembers her suggestion that, if either become lost, they would find each other at the very top. So begins Senlin’s quest into the Tower to find his wife.

The writing is beautiful and richly descriptive. I was quickly immersed, and fell in love with the vividness with which Senlin’s surroundings were described. Each level (or “ringdom”) of the Tower that Senlin enters has its own unique quirks and features; visiting each one felt like stepping into a new country full of uncharted wonders. In spite of the seeming straightforwardness of the plot — “get to the top of the Tower” — I never knew what to expect during this first segment of Senlin’s adventure.

Each of the side characters felt unique and compelling. Adam, Violetta, Iren, Finn Goll, Edith, Tarrou, and Ogier were all a delight to read. Senlin himself, however… was a bit of a letdown. He is very much a dreamer rather than a doer, and spends the first half of the book being buffeted from one thing to the next by the forces surrounding him. Watching him adjust to his adventure and begin displaying real agency made me feel relieved at the plot finally starting to pick up, rather than exultant at Senlin’s accomplishment.

Lastly, it troubled me as a feminist that the plot hinged on the loss of Marya and Marya’s sexuality. In spite of her being the reason behind Senlin’s ascent, Marya isn’t a particularly well-developed character and is largely treated like an object. Female characters with more typically masculine traits, such as Edith and Iren, received more of Bancroft’s attention. It’s possible that this will change with later books in the series, which I plan to read, but for this reason and for the slow start of Senlin’s agency as a character I feel obligated to give Senlin Ascends three out of five stars.

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Read an excerpt from Senlin Ascends for free on orbitbooks.net

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