Review: Senlin Ascends
So every once in a while I’ll perform what I affectionately call a “dummy test” to check and make sure I’m not being a dummy about something in particular. I have my opinions, my habits, my modus operandi, but as the world is constantly changing I figure I had better allow myself to change along with it every once in a while as well. It’s no secret (based entirely on my most recent SPFBO review) that I thought The Grey Bastards was head and shoulders better than any of the other entries that made their way into the final ten novels in the contest. After finishing my read of ALL of them, I happened to come upon some comments that Mark Lawrence made about one of the books that hadn’t made it past the initial winnowing of the bevvy of novel hopefuls: SENLIN ASCENDS. Specifically, he said that it was, “my best read, one of my favourite books of all time in fact. So read it.” Whoa. How then, I wondered, had it not won out in round one? I tried to read the story that had taken the proverbial cake in the first round of that group of stories, THE PATH OF FLAMES (EBR review), and quit after about 65 pages. So the situation left me wondering if I was a dummy, or if perhaps I might just like Senlin Ascends. So, I decided to put my money where my mouth was–or more specifically, I guess, my money where Mark Lawrence’s mouth was–and I bought both of the currently self-published Books of Babel.
SENLIN ASCENDS is the first of the Books of Babel by author Josiah Bancroft and another of the novels that was originally submitted to The Great Self-Published Fantasy Blog-Off run by none other than Mark Lawrence. In the normal scheme of things, this book would likely have never crossed my line of sight, but I am ridiculously glad that it did. Much akin to the way many others have made mention in their reviews of this book, I too must add my voice to theirs and say, “Thank you, Mark Lawrence, for a great review of a great book!”
SENLIN ASCENDS portrays the story of Tom Senlin and his misadventures in the well-known Tower of Babel. After a fairly secretive and short romance, Senlin, a single-room schoolmaster in a small town of people living along the coast of the vast nation of Ur, takes his new bride Marya, and travels to the Tower of Babel where they plan to spend the majority of their month-long honeymoon in the glorious luxury of the tower level of The Baths. He’s been saving for years to afford such a trip. He’s bought the Everyman’s Guide and has studied it in some detail, going even so far as to regale his students with the virtues of the tower. And now that he’s found his sweetheart, he’s finally making the trip he’s been dreaming of for so long.
Unfortunately though for Senlin, the Tower of Babel is not only nothing like it appears, but it’s also nothing like it was advertised to be, and within the first several hours Marya is lost and he has no idea how he might find her again. What follows is Senlin’s trip through the various levels of the nefarious Tower of Babel and its several occupants as he endeavors to find his wife and be rid of the accursed place forever. Nothing, however, is so simple as all of that, and Senlin has to wade through treachery and bureaucracy and happenings both seemingly random and chaotically directed before getting even a glimpse as to where he might finally find his beloved Marya.
It took no more than a single paragraph for me to realize that this author had some chops. I love finding books like that, which instantly immerse me in language where I can forget about everything else around me and just enjoy the proffered story. Rich detail and intelligent prose that is absolutely chock-full of character pulled me into the story and the mentality of Tom Senlin and the world surrounding him.
Senlin himself is a mild-mannered, studious man. He’s used to having things go his way, as they often do in the school room. He teaches what he knows and knows what he teaches. Although he can seem standoffish and even prude at times, it is his hesitation and thoughtfulness that helped me to really find his character likable and engaging. And his sense of humor and sarcasm was directly in line with that of my own. The reviewer at Pornokitsch that did the original review for the SPFBO contest (a great one too, you should go read it as well) said that Tom’s character didn’t really work for them; this being one of the largest factors, it seems, in the determination to not push this novel ahead in the contest. Tom’s character obviously worked for me. There was this scene at the beginning of Chapter 14–a flashback no less!–about flying a kite, that so absolutely and brilliantly captured the character and motivation of Senlin for me that I never once doubted him again. Likely some of the most powerful and affecting two pages of story that I’ve read in as many decades.
In my review of THE GREY BASTARDS (EBR review), I started off talking about how I’d love to find more books that avoided all of the profanity and sexual content that today’s books seem to have more and more of every year. I wrote that review before ever reading the first word of SENLIN ASCENDS, and it seemed quite apropos to get into this book and find that it was exactly the kind of book that I had been wanting to find. And the awesome thing about it is that it’s such a great book on top of being quote-unquote “clean.” I also made the statement that THE GREY BASTARDS stood head and shoulders above any of the others in the final SPFBO group, but the fact of the matter is that for me, SENLIN ASCENDS was even one step better than that. I sooooo wish that SENLIN ASCENDS had been passed along to the final group, as it would definitely have been my vote for the best of the contest, but the simple truth is that it wasn’t. That’s how the contest plays out, with the first round being entirely dependent upon the tastes of a single group, because seriously there’s no way that any of our groups alone could have tackled all 300 of the original batch of novels. There’s just no way.
Still, this is a brilliant book that needs to get more attention. I think Mark Lawrence did just that by reviewing it and pushing it out to his peoples on social media, and Amazon, and everywhere else. I figure I can also try to do my little part by giving it a good go here. Anything I can do to get this self-published author to hit that “critical mass” of readership is worth the effort in my view. Absolutely a book to read, to own, and to love. Couldn’t recommend it more.
- Recommended Age: 15+
- Language: Only very little and very mild at that
- Violence: Fairly violent points, with beheadings and bloody deaths, but there's not much
- Sex: A few references, fairly mild in nature