Book Review

Senlin Ascends by Josiah Bancroft

Mild-mannered headmaster, Thomas Senlin prefers his adventures to be safely contained within the pages of a book. So when he loses his new bride shortly after embarking on the honeymoon of their dreams, he is ill-prepared for the trouble that follows.

To find her, Senlin must enter the Tower of Babel – a world of geniuses and tyrants, of menace and wonder, of unusual animals and mysterious machines. And if he hopes to ever see his wife again, he will have to do more than just survive… this quiet man of letters must become a man of action.


Senlin Ascends begins with Thomas Senlin and his wife, Marya, travelling to the Tower of Babel for their honeymoon.  The Tower stands in the middle of a vast plain, it’s base surrounded by market stalls, very much like any tourist trap you care to think of.  Despite their precautions, they are soon separated, and the novel follows Tom as he begins his ascent of the Tower in search of his wife who he believes – hopes – will have continued with their planned journey despite their separation. 

Tom is something of an unusual character for a fantasy novel.  He is the headmaster of a small school and takes comfort in rules and knowledge.  He’s the sort who will share titbits of information (and probably advice) with those he encounters, irrespective of whether the recipient was in need or want of Tom’s views.  He comes across as being extremely naïve and prudish, unsure of how to respond to his wife’s unsubtle flirtation during their journey to the Tower, although there is clearly some affection between them.  One of the few possessions he manages to hang onto throughout his journey is his guidebook to the Tower, something that he treats as gospel until he begins his ascent and finds significant differences between his own experiences and what has been documented in its increasingly worn pages.  I think that this perfectly sums up his character – he has certain expectations, and any deviation from those expectations is a source of worry and consternation for this quiet and sensible man.

For the first time in his life, he had to confront a terrible fact about himself. Yes, he was shy, nervous, and a tad sanctimonious, but these were not his flaws. He was a coward. The Tower had proven that much.

An aspect that I particularly like about the novel is that our “hero” is so clearly unsuited to the role.  Tom is a man who believes in honesty, fairness, and justice which makes him unique in the Tower where he will have to develop some more undesirable traits in order to survive.  While he starts out as something of a bumbling idiot, his character does develop throughout the novel, and I think that this development is particularly well done.  There is no sudden zero to hero transformation, rather we see him learn through his experiences as his nature is repeatedly taken advantage of and as he adapts to survive.  It’s a journey that will also see him come to terms with some harsh truths about himself, and if there was ever a portrayal of someone’s rose-tinted glasses being forcibly removed, it’s in Tom’s journey up the Tower. 

The novel is set predominantly in the Tower which is an unusual and original concept.  No one is quite sure how tall it is, but it is divided into numerous “ringdoms”.  Each one is different to the last, offering visitors something different the further they ascend.  And each one has its own rules and traps to catch out the unwary – something that Tom illustrates perfectly, and often comically, in his search for Marya.  It’s a wonderful concept and if I’m honest I’m not sure my description here has done it justice – it’s difficult to describe the scale of it. In Senlin Ascends, we visit the first four levels and I expect that there’s a lot more to be revealed about the Tower before the end of the series. It’s certainly intriguing, and I want to know more.   

Senlin Ascends is the first novel in a series that I’m very much looking forward to reading more of.  While I wasn’t entirely taken with him at first, I developed a certain admiration for Tom as the novel progressed – his determination to be reunited with Marya is quite something given the trials he goes through.  I love the slightly steampunk world in which it’s set, and I find the idea of the Tower and it’s ringdoms intriguing.  I’m looking forward to reading the second novel, Arm of the Sphinx, soon. 

3 comments

    1. Thank you, Nicki – and I completely understand that! I struggled with him at first, but I had to admire the fact that he would not give up x

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