Senlin Ascends by Josiah Bancroft
Genre: Fantasy, fiction
Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars
Re-readability: It’s hard to know the reread value of this book before finishing the series.
Reviewed by Pete
Senlin Ascends follows Thomas Senlin, the headmaster in a small town from the land of Ur, who visits the 6,000-foot Tower of Babel with his wife, Marya, on their honeymoon. Within the first few hours, and before they enter the tower, he and Marya lose track of each other amid the chaos of the massive market that encircles the Tower. Thomas soon learns that nearly everyone in the Tower seems to have lost someone, and many people have been searching for years. The Tower of Babel is made up of several dozen “Ringdoms,” or levels, and is home to millions of people. Thomas must work his way up the Tower in a desperate search for his wife, if she’s even alive.
It’s a thoroughly terrifying premise.
I picked this book up after reading its constant praise on the r/fantasy subreddit and seeing the author’s friendly interactions on the Reddit (under the username u/JosiahBancroft).
But the main thing that drew me to it was the type of fantasy book it was: a story set in a fantasy world with little to no magic. I’m not extremely intrigued by magic in fantasy— it’s the otherness that grabs me and engages my imagination.
Senlin Ascends is filled with wonder and fantastic scenarios and cultures, but very little is truly magical or beyond the realm of possibility. There is little violence or action; the plot is primarily driven by Thomas Senlin’s decisions.
And speaking of Thomas Senlin, he may be one of my favorite protagonists I’ve ever read. He is the perfect lens through which to experience the Tower of Babel. He is strictly logical while being fairly idealistic—which leads to lots of righteous lecturing on his part that never goes well. He’s a character with obvious flaws, but he’s also very intelligent, and it’s easy to sympathize with his struggles.
Bancroft’s writing is excellent and concise, and the book is rapidly paced. The Tower of Babel is a fully-realized world filled with fascinating people and cultures, and it is far from utopian. It is filled with crime and corruption, and its economies are fueled mostly by slaves (or Hods) and unfortunate tourists like Senlin.
This is the sort of fantasy that I would like to see rise to the top of the genre. It isn’t violent or raunchy, and it could easily be enjoyed by someone who doesn’t normally read fantasy. And most of all, it provides the reader with rich escapism.
My only complaints about the book are its fairly simplistic villains—bad, corrupt men who seek power—and the fact that its main plot, reuniting Thomas Senlin and Marya Senlin, is not resolved. I was hoping for a complete, 300-page adventure. Maybe if I’d known that, I wouldn’t have felt as let down by its ending, which felt more like the ending of “part one” of Senlin’s story. I also felt like I lost a sense of the Tower in the last third of the book. It felt more like it was taking place in a kingdom—it could have been anywhere.
But Thomas Senlin’s conflicts and decisions felt meaningful, and though he considers himself a moral man, the consequences of his actions are often unfortunate. It’s a fantastic fantasy novel, and it easily sets itself apart from the crowd through its brilliant protagonist and wonderful setting.