Mount Readmore Book Review, 2018 50/200
Senlin Ascends by Josiah Bancroft
Finished on 3/25/2018
The Tower of Babel is the greatest marvel in the world. Immense as a mountain, the ancient Tower holds unnumbered ringdoms, warring and peaceful, stacked one on the other like the layers of a cake. It is a world of geniuses and tyrants, of airships and steam engines, of unusual animals and mysterious machines.
Soon after arriving for his honeymoon at the Tower, the mild-mannered headmaster of a small village school, Thomas Senlin, gets separated from his wife, Marya, in the overwhelming swarm of tourists, residents, and miscreants.
Senlin is determined to find Marya, but to do so he’ll have to navigate madhouses, ballrooms, and burlesque theaters. He must survive betrayal, assassination, and the long guns of a flying fortress. But if he hopes to find his wife, he will have to do more than just endure.
This quiet man of letters must become a man of action.
Genres: Fantasy, Steampunk, SciFi
Human wickedness and human wisdom thrive in the mythic Tower of Babylon. When Senlin is separated from his wife, he’s seemingly doomed to never reunite with her again.
I loved this book by the time it was finished. It reminded me of the mysterious, uncanny worlds of Gaiman and Mieville, where nothing is as it seems and human societies are warped and splintered along unrecognizable lines. Early in the book Senlin is separated from his wife Marya, and spends the rest of the book hunting for her. Spoiler for the fact that this is a trilogy: he doesn’t find her at the end. Taking place in a steampunk-era Sumeria, this was a really unusual book.
Senlin must climb the massive Tower of Babylon. The tower’s an ancient steampunk construction, created by unknown hands and maintained by strange ungainly machines. Each level of the tower is weird. For example the Parlor is filled with men and women tourists who are addicted to play-acting. The Baths contain the most luxurious curative spas on the planet. The fourth floor, New Babyl, is a zeppelin refueling station/trading hub. It’s not explicitly a magical place, but it’s so mysterious and the steampunk technology is so fabulous that it does fit the ‘Fantasy’ genre.
The character development and characterization in this novel is the second-best I’ve read thus-far this year. Senlin’s transformation from a vaguely useless school teacher to a canny, Robin Hoodish con-artist was magnificent to behold. Truly, this was a character focused novel. The author’s treatment of Marya, the disappeared wife, reminds me of Locke Lamora’s love interest in the Magnificent Bastard series: you hear a lot about her, and are eagerly anticipating her appearance. I can only hope that Marya will be an equally fascinating character when she does show up.
Some people will complain, justifiably, about the book’s Victorian attitude towards women. Marya is treated as an object instead of a person, a distant object to be saved. I’ll be blunt: this was a save-the-princess plotline. If you’re not in the mood for it, don’t read this. However there are two main female characters who control their own destiny, so I felt the author did a good job of avoiding tired tropes.
Now for some constructive criticism.
This was quite possibly the best book I’ve ever read which I felt incredibly tempted to quit reading at several points. To be quite blunt, it’s intro was a incredibly dull. The plot and characters don’t actually become interesting until about the 1/3 part, when Senlin arrives in the infamous Parlor of Babylon. That’s over a hundred pages into the novel (or several hours into the 14 hour long audiobook).
Finally, I wanted more out of the Sumerian/ Babylonian setting. I’m a history nerd: I want cultural and historical touchstones which I recognize in alternative history books. I wanted the author to reference Anu, Anzu or Tiamat, or even the Elohim of the Canaanite religion. I wanted to know more about the broader world beyond the fantastic setting of the Tower. Where is the Roman Empire? The Persian Empire? The author just painted on a surface layer using the words ‘Babylon’ and ‘Sumer’ and ‘ziggurat,’ neglecting doing any of the hard work of actually invoking ancient culture or mythology, which disappointed me.
Net total, I think this is in the top 5 of the best books I’ve read thus-far this year. Highly recommended- just be prepared to endure a slow start.