Two years ago when we were involved with Mark Lawrence’s Self-Published Fantasy Blog Off, Senlin Ascends (2017) was one of the books that didn’t make it to the final round (so we didn’t get to read it then). But Mark Lawrence read it, started talking about it on the internet, and it got picked up by Orbit Books. Hachette, the parent company of Orbit Books, just recently produced it in audio format and sent me a copy.
Thomas Senlin is a stuffy schoolmaster from a small town who just got married and is on his way with Marya, his new bride, to The Tower of Babel, a strange structure that ascends hundreds of feet in the air and whose top (if there is one) is obscured by clouds. Thomas has read all about the enigmatic tower in a guidebook which seems to suggest that the tower contains the heights of enlightenment, knowledge, culture and sophistication. Thomas thinks it’s the perfect place for a studious and curious schoolmaster to spend his honeymoon. On this trip, Thomas and Marya plan to get only to the third level of the tower, where they will relax in the famous baths.
However, as soon as the couple reach the sprawling market town that surrounds the base of the tower, they accidentally become separated. Thomas looks for his bride for days and then decides she must have gone into the tower to meet him at the baths on the third level. When he enters the tower, Thomas soon discovers that it is not the height of civilization, but more like the dregs. It’s a dangerous place full of desperate people and making it to each level is a lot harder than Thomas ever imagined. How is he ever going to find Marya?
Senlin Ascends is a bizarre composition that’s a delight from the first page to the last. The setting is wonderfully inventive and never gets dull since, as Thomas works his way to each level, the scenery and the cast of characters changes. Further on in the story it becomes evident that Thomas’ trusty guidebook is inaccurate (or possibly purposely misleading), that each floor of the Tower is not necessarily independent of the others, and that there may be some great mystery to solve.
Also delightful is Thomas himself. Though, at least at the beginning, he’s a stodgy know-it-all who never passes up an opportunity to teach someone something, he’s also contemplative and introspective. I found him endearing and loved listening to him, especially when he had one of his many epiphanies about the faults in his own personality. Many of these moments were beautiful and/or funny, such as this scene when, at the lowest level of the tower, he is riding a “beer-me-go-round” with a bundle of women’s underwear on his lap:
Spinning counterclockwise now, faster and faster, Senlin felt like he was hurtling back down the mountain he had just conquered. The public square turned into a smudge of wet stone in a shuddering of gaslights; the faces of the crowd all stretched out like taffy. Senlin set his eyes on the serene tip of the cone at the center of the wheel and clung to the trough, even as it lashed his face with beer.
In that moment of nausea and disorientation, he recalled Marya’s description of how it felt to play the piano at the Blue Tattoo. She said, “I play and we sing until the room spins. It feels lovely to be at the center of that merry little circle.”
“But, my dear,” he replied, mistaking this as an appropriate time for a lecture on geometry, “the center of a circle is an infinitesimally small point. It hardly exists at all.”
“Suits me. I’d rather be a nothing at the center of everything than a puffed-up somebody at the edge of it all.” She said this in her usual unguarded way. And without meaning to, she had described him exactly: a puffed-up somebody at the edge of it all.
The bundle of women’s underwear that had been resting on his lap fluttered open. Hosiery, bloomers, and camisoles flew into the crowd of the public square, alighting everywhere like doves in a park.
Josiah Bancroft’s story is not only highly entertaining (there is never a dull moment) but full of wit and wisdom. The prose is thoughtful and charming and Bancroft makes excellent use of well-timed flashbacks which give us further insight into Senlin’s personality and history and/or serve to let us enjoy a bit of ironic humor (such as when Bancroft pauses a scene just at the moment Senlin startles and begins running for his life in order to give us a flashback of Senlin rigidly lecturing his students about instinct).
John Banks’ audio performance is wonderful. He perfectly captures Thomas’ naiveté and his didactic manner. I loved the audiobook and highly recommend it as 14.25 hours of excellent entertainment. I can’t wait to read the next book in the BOOKS OF BABEL series, The Arm of the Sphinx.