Book: “Senlin Ascends” by Josiah Bancroft
Publishing Info: Orbit, January 2018
Where Did I Get This Book: I received an ARC from the publisher!
Book Description: 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, assassins, 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.
Review: I firstly want to thank Orbit publishing for sending me an ARC copy of “Senlin Ascends”!
For someone who used to work in a historic Victorian house in full Victorian maid’s uniform (and sometimes Victorian style undergarments), I’m surprisingly not in tune with steampunk literature. My only steps in the genre are Alan Moore’s “League of Extraordinary Gentlemen” comic series, and the book “The Clockwork Scarab”. But when Orbit sent me “Senlin Ascends”, it became clear quite quickly that I was going to be jumping right into the deep end of a complex and steampunky world. I will admit that I was a bit overwhelmed at first as I got to know Thomas Senlin, cautious and meek school teacher, and his excursion into a technology ridden and complex Tower of Babel. But as I read on, I got into the groove.
The first thing that struck me was how intricate and creative this alternate world is that Josiah Bancroft has created. The Tower of Babel is an imposing structure from Biblical Mythology, and Bancroft transports it to a Victorian-esque time period in a world that is similar to our own, but not quite the same. The references to Victorian societal norms and fashions within a world of steam blimps and flying ships was very fun, as were the strange puzzles and conflicts within the Tower itself as Senlin moves his way through, hoping to find his lost wife, Myra. From drug dens to maniacal plays to space piracy, Bancroft puts Senlin in a world that he, and the reader, doesn’t see coming. I enjoyed jumping from scenario to scenario, experiencing it through the eyes of someone just as uninitiated as I was. The writing itself to describe this world was lyrical and flowing, reminding me of more classical styles similar to an adventure novel by Verne or Stevenson. It was just another nod to the time that steampunk tends to function in, and it fit the story perfectly.
I also enjoyed seeing the journey of Senlin himself. He starts as a meek and pragmatic school teacher from a small town, who brings is effervescent and new bride Mayra to the Tower in hopes of a vibrant honeymoon. All he knows of the Tower is what he has read in guidebooks, which make it seem fascinating and wondrous. As he comes to realize that it is, in fact, far more dangerous than he was led to believe, he has to confront himself and his own pitfalls and weaknesses if he wants to get Mayra back. To be frank, when Senlin starts out he is naive and privileged, and his transformation to hero is a slow one. It’s one thing if you start out merely naive, but it seems that Bancroft deliberately wanted to make him earn his hero status, as Senlin starts out with maddening cowardice, whose idealism has put his wife in serious danger that he can’t quite confront. I would go so far as to say that Senlin starts out as a rather unlikable character, as he abandons people who are helping him or working with him if he can escape with his tail between his legs. But to start him out this way means that he is going to learn from his mistakes, and by learning he becomes a better, if more hardened, person more equipped to function within the corrupt tower. His rotating companions and allies all have their roles to play in his growth, and I liked meeting them and seeing how he interacted with them.
But there was a glaring issue I took with “Senlin Ascends”, and that is how women have functioned within the narrative thus far. The most important, of course, is Mayra, and while we do get a little bit more insight beyond his here and there, she is very much objectified as a victim to be saved. She disappears within the first pages, and becomes this specter of longing who is merely idealized and not explored as a person, but as an ideal. I’m hoping that she does show up more in the later books and can become more than a beautiful, missing woman in a red helmet (side note: I love the fashions described in this book, and if this is what steampunk fashion is for the most part, I’m down!). Then there was Edith, one of the first people Senlin meets in the Tower. While she has ended up in a pretty cool place by the time he meets up with her again, what we see on page is her being put through the ringer and tortured, and not really any of the triumphs that bring her to final, self actualized state. It’s great she gets there eventually, but it would have meant more to see it. There is Voleta, who is the sister of one of Senlin’s companions, who was forced into performing acrobatics for abusive and corrupt men of power, another damsel in distress. And finally there’s Iren, an insanely strong enforcer who Senlin teaches how to read. While she was intriguing in her storyline, wanting to learn to read and become more that just brute force, she was, again, a woman to be saved in some way. I am going to give all of this the benefit of the doubt for now, as this is book one in a series and there are more books for all of them to come into their own. But I had hoped that women would play more of a role in this book beyond motivation for men.
Those issues aside, I did find “Senlin Ascends” to be a compelling story with lots of really neat ideas.
Rating 7: An exciting adventure novel with an interesting protagonist. I wish that female characters weren’t relegated to victim status, but am hoping in the next book they will get more to do and be more fleshed out.
But there’s more! I am giving away a free ARC of this novel! Given the indie success of this book and the other books in the series, I’m thinking that it will make a splash in the mainstream publishing world! The giveaway is open to U.S. residents only, and will be running until January 23rd!
Find “Senlin Ascends” at your library using WorldCat!