17 January 2018

Review - Senlin Ascends

Cover by Lauren Panepinto
Senlin Ascends (The Books of Babel, 1)
Josiah Bancroft
Orbit, 18 January 2018
PB, 432pp

I'm grateful to the publisher for an advance copy of Senlin Ascends.

I can honestly say this is the strangest book I'd read for a long time. Indeed it's hard to describe exactly how strange it is.

It would be easy just to list the sorts of book it resembles in one way or another - the eighteenth century picaresque novel where the hero travels through an indifferent or hostile world, gradually having corners (and other parts) knocked off; the bureaucratic horrors of Kafka; Meryvn Peake, perhaps; or even Pilgrim's Progress. There's swashbuckling, a heist and a touch of fantasy or even SF in the fearful Red Hand, a murderer who, upon injecting a mysterious substance from a bracelet, gains superhuman strength.

It would also be easy to summarise the plot: Thomas Senlin, a rather self-satisfied provincial schoolteacher, travels with his new bride (once one of his pupils... um...) to the world famous Tower of Babel for a holiday, in fact for their honeymoon. In the bewildering market at the base of the Tower he's parted from Marya and enters the Tower to try and find her. Passing through its various levels he meets tormentors, perils and finds few friends. Gradually he learns more about the nature of the Tower and becomes better at navigating its dangers.

But neither approach would convey the sheer verve, the atmosphere, the audacity of the book. To begin with, the concept. All we are told about the Biblical Tower of Babel is that it was an overreachingly high tower whose builders were pretty pleased with themselves. Despite the name, and the references to the land of Ur, I don't think we're meant to believe that the Tower here is somehow a surviving Biblical Babel. The scope of Bancroft's invention is much wider than that. Here we see a construction so vast it can contain whole cities - even mini states - on each level ("ringdom"). The walls are hundreds of metres thick and nobody knows how high the Tower goes as its top is hidden by clouds. Each level is starkly different - some are grim, medieval seeming places, others are bedecked with modern comforts. In the book we only see three - the Basement, the Parlour and the Baths - but these are each thoroughly, indeed disturbingly, realised.

Senlin at first approaches the Tower with high hopes. The wonder of the age, it surely contains supremely enlightened specimens of humanity - wise, brave, learned, generous, civilised? Trusting in his copy of Everyman's Guide to the Tower of Babel, Senlin is totally unprepared for the reality - one of theft, degradation, torture and not a little horror (I shuddered at the fate of the hods, shaven slaves reduced to carrying baskets of coal and building materials up the tower, and the implication of there being "wifemongers" in the Tower). Senlin's initial experiences - the first third of the book, when he's reeling from what happens, but still in denial at how bad things are - perhaps seem rather slow in comparison to the later parts when he has, to a degree, accepted the situation and begun to fight back but this allows Bancroft to pick up the pace as the story races towards its conclusion.

It also allows him to have Senlin grow and become more likeable and outward focussed as the story progresses. The Senlin of the early pages is definitely self absorbed, complacent and even somewhat deluded. By the end of the book, he's suffered losses and suffered and committed betrayals - and is a much more likeable person for it. He has even, perhaps, disproved what he is told early on: "There are no friends in the Tower". Perhaps. the group that forms around him is uneasy, riven with secrets and agendas and with diverse motives. Rather like the Tower as a whole, in fact.

In all, a fascinating, chewy read, full of wonders; battles, monsters, cowardice, redemption and hope. The start of a trilogy, this is one you'll not want to miss - start reading them now, get into the basement, as it were, and start climbing.

But keep your wits about you, and trust nobody.

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