Ever since Mark Lawrence gave a vote of confidence for Senlin Ascends, by Josiah Bancroft, you can’t swing a dead cat (which is a weird saying might I add) without hitting a positive review of it. As such I figured I ought to check it out, because while you probably don’t need yet another review about this increasingly popular book, I was curious to see if Senlin could live up to all the hype. The short answer is yes, this is a great book. For the long answer you will just have to read yet another review of this great book.
Senlin Ascends is a new take on the Tower of Babel, an endlessly tall tower from the Bible filled with incomprehensible wonders and mystery. There have been a number of Babel stories I have read over the years, from Stephen King’s iconic Dark Tower to the manga Get Backers, and it is a subject matter I never get tired of. The running thread through all the stories is that the Tower of Babel is an infinitely tall structure, with something of incalculable worth (usually the means to ascend to godhood or ultimate power) at the top. To get to the top one must navigate through the endless labyrinthian floors of the tower, each with their own unique identity and themes – each floor getting harder to pass through as you ascend. The great thing about The Tower of Babel is that while the stories share this same skeleton, there is an unlimited amount of white space that authors can work with when they design the floors of the tower, and the people who climb them. It means that while there are a lot of tower stories, almost none of them reuse the same tower and the stories always feel fresh and fun. In this particular story, we follow Thomas Senlin, a dour school teacher who has recently married. Senlin and his new wife Marya have wanted to see the wonders of the tower their entire life, and saved up enough money to travel to it and explore the first few floors. Upon arriving at the tower, the two are immediately separated and Senlin soon realizes he must climb the tower to save Marya who has disappeared into the tower’s depths.
Senlin Ascends hits everything I want in a good Tower of Babel story. First off, Josiah’s tower is impressive. He has managed to intertwine the feeling that the tower is a selfish machine that crushes the lives of those who enter with the wonder and mystery that pervade the entire structure. Each floor has its own unique feel and theme, exhibiting crazy ideas and concepts that run from awe inducing to horrifying, and each present unique obstacles for our protagonist to overcome. Senlin is a different and enjoyable lead from most fantasy. He is a quiet, dour, and naive school teacher who stands out in the tower like a signal flare. His personality means that his trip up is not easy, as he is constantly betrayed, swindled, and stabbed in the back as he moves from floor to floor. He has a pervasive feeling of helplessness that makes him seem a lot weaker and unimpressive that most protagonists of a story like this, but it resulted in me adoring him as I got to watch him grow and evolve through his trial in the tower. One of the central themes to the book is the battle of Senlin’s faith in humanity and the tower’s power to turn every person who enters into a selfish bastard. It means that most of the conflict in the book becomes emotional, and large parts of the story revolve around Senlin figuring out whom he can trust, and whom he can make a better person. It adds a lot of tension to conversations and relationships and keeps you on the edge of your seat as you wonder if Senlin has made a mistake trusting someone, or if he has finally found a friend amidst the bandits that fill the tower to overflowing.
Senlin is a great character, and I would read about him in almost any context. However, while I certainly don’t dislike Marya, I found her a noticeably weaker character than Senlin. I found myself willing her passages to end faster so I could get back to Senlin, which is not a fun feeling. Josiah did a good job putting life into his damsel in distress, but I am not enamored by the idea of Senlin being so driven by his wife of all of a few days. The story quickly grows bigger than simply Senlin trying to find his wife (which is awesome and I can’t wait to find out what is happening in the tower), but I would occasionally find Senlin’s motivations uncompelling.
Senlin Ascends is a fresh new take on The Tower of Babel, and is just as mesmerizing, exciting, and fun as all the reviewers say it is. Based on the quality of this first installment, I’m excited to see where Bancroft can take this concept. What starts as a simple rescue, quickly becomes one of the most captivating mysteries I have ever read and a beautiful journey of self discovery. I highly recommend you check out this new entrant into the fantasy scene, and I don’t see the buzz surrounding it dying down anytime soon.
Rating: Senlin Ascends – 8.0/10