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Thursday, April 5, 2018

Senlin Ascends by Josiah Bancroft (Reviewed by D. C. Stewart)


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Order Senlin Ascends over HERE

BOOK INFORMATION: Senlin Ascends is 448 pages divided into three parts and an epilogue. The story is told in the third person, with the exception of one chapter, from the viewpoint of Thomas Senlin, a school headmaster in the land of Ur.

OVERVIEW/ANALYSIS: Book reviews are largely an attempt by one person to tell lots of other people whether or not they should spend time and money on an endeavor. I say this to illustrate the warning that my review of Senlin Ascends will be full of praise and will attempt to persuade you to buy this book and savor it like you would a glass of barrel-aged scotch - a delicate flavor that must be experienced for oneself. Josiah Bancroft, in this reviewer’s opinion, has written the best fantasy novel published in the last ten years.

Thomas Senlin is the school headmaster of a fishing village called Isaugh in the speculative land of Ur. Having recently wed his fiancee, Marya, he has decided to take his new wife on a honeymoon to the world’s largest and most spectacular destination: The Tower of Babel. In our own earthly mythologies, the Tower of Babel is a structure from antiquity built to reach the heavens, and thus God. In rage at the audacity of humans, God takes away humanity’s collective ability to understand one another, thus giving us the mythical explanation for why there are so many languages in the world. The Tower of Babel in Bancroft’s imagination might carry such metaphysical weight, but it is no myth to Thomas Senlin. It is a very solid, unimaginably huge structure that dominates the land- and mindscape of the world’s people.

The concept of the Tower is simple and brilliant. The Tower is a magnet that draws all of humanity towards it, but it also serves as a world completely different from the one Thomas, and other tourists, know. This is made evident within the first chapter, as Thomas and Marya struggle through the mass of humanity surrounding the monolith and very quickly lose one another. Language is not the barrier that separates them because everyone speaks a common tongue. Thomas soon discovers that the machinations and politics of the Tower, a place he had studied exhaustively in his nifty and misleading guidebook, are the true wall between them.

The theme of Senlin Ascends is one of searching for something (or someone) who is lost, which Thomas must do by entering the Tower and climbing it, as people tend to do in towers, floor by floor. The levels in The Tower of Babel are so large that they are dubbed ‘ringdoms,’ each having their own ruling structure and social mire to struggle through. Along the way, Thomas meets friends and foes, titles that become interchangeable on a whim, as well as a host of marvelous and pseudo-magical delights and horrors. As he searches for Marya, he finds in himself things he would never have dreamed of back in his schoolhouse in Isaugh. “It is easier to accept who you’ve become than to recollect who you were,” a loquacious man named Tarrou tells him at one point.

In the hands of an amateur, the story of Senlin Ascends would be well worth a read because it pulls us along floor by floor through sheer curiosity. Senlin even says at one point that “the easiest way to make the world mysterious and terrifying to a man is to chase him through it.” Any setting can make for good plot, but Josiah Bancroft has a talent for prose to the point that every sentence in this novel feels meaningful. Go ahead, open a page and read a sentence and tell me that it isn’t both beautiful but also important. I’ll wait.

When I mentioned that Senlin Ascends needs to be savored, in no way was I condoning an all-night binge - this book is not chips and pizza. This book is a 200 dollar main course at a restaurant that I can’t afford and am only speculating about. Thanks to generous souls like Josiah Bancroft, I can at least consume the literary equivalent of such a meal.

Thomas’ ascension of the Tower brings him in contact with any number of rogues and villains, and a scarce but meaningful troupe of good guys - though like any “good” character, these adventurers are full of their own pathologies and skeleton-filled closets. “We shouldn’t have to go around congratulating each other for behaving with basic human dignity,” Thomas says to another character at one point, encapsulating in one sentence what the Tower does to the soul. Whether it’s the over-protective brother in the form of Adam, or Edith, a young woman making deals with devils in order to grasp the power that she is denied in her pre-Tower life, everyone is a globe of well-roundedness with only one or two mustache-twirling villains to provide character contrast. By the end of the book, Thomas himself is unrecognizable from the man who entered the Tower, transforming from a stuffy professor-type to a man who just might like a good adventure.

Obviously, this book is not perfect. No book is, and the flaws in Senlin Ascends are not without their own weight. They could be enough to pull a lesser author down, but Bancroft rolls with his mistakes enough to make us look the other way while he performs his literary magic. There is no doubt that the plot at times seems to fold together too neatly, and that Senlin continually meets and re-meets characters that, in an environment so large, should not keep running into one another. Thomas Senlin also has an extraordinary ability to plan things that seem to go in his favor, despite having no experience in espionage or deceit before entering the Tower. This can be explained by the very nature of Babel, that it changes a person, but he is often a little too proficient to believe.

CONCLUSION: In all, my complaints are as overshadowed by the book’s excellence as Thomas standing before the Tower. This book is simply too good to get caught up in nitty-gritty details. Josiah Bancroft has proven that self-publishing is as legitimate of a route as climbing the spire of the traditional publishing world, and his success story is a beautiful reminder that if we have the right idea and we believe in that idea, that we can traverse any obstacle, no matter the height. The Arm of the Sphinx, the second installment in The Books of Babel, is available for purchase as of this review with The Hod King hopefully coming later this year. Welcome Josiah Bancroft to the fantasy world, dear readers, because he is one to watch. 

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