Senlin Ascends. Book Review

SENLIN ASCENDS by Josiah Bancroft
Orbit. p/b. 432pp, £8.99
Reviewed by Elloise Hopkins

Headmaster Senlin and his lovely young wife arrive at the famous Tower of Babel to celebrate their honeymoon. She is well-mannered, a good match for the respected schoolmaster and, like Tom, full of excitement to see all that the tower has to offer.

One moment Marya is by his side, the next, Senlin finds himself alone, searching in vain, caught up in the unexpected downsides of the tower far too soon. An odd thing, he thinks, to lose a wife, and so early on. Yet soon enough Senlin learns he is far from the first to have lost someone dear, here at the tower.

As the tower reveals the secrets of its various layers, Senlin learns of its inhabitants and their habits – good and bad – and continues the search for his wife, who, with every step, feels ever more out of his reach.  Armed only with his ‘Everyman’s Guide to the Tower of Babel’, its advice often ringing true too late, Senlin begins to discover the tower’s rules, possibilities and secrets, though full comprehension seems always to be slightly beyond his grasp.

The first of the The Books of Babel series launches the reader into Senlin’s tantalising and tormented journey through the tower’s first layers. Captivating and wondrous from the start, Senlin Ascends presents a wonderland of possibility, trauma and obstacle. Bancroft combines the atmosphere of Victorian romance and adventure within a rather more abstract and perplexing setting, with faint traces of magical realism along the way and a steampunk core.

Whilst the Everyman’s Guide is definitely reminiscent of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, and seems a direct and purposeful nod to Adams’ influence and perhaps inspiration, Senlin Ascends is unlike anything in the current market. This series opener promises something unique, and delivers that with just enough nostalgic repackaging of the guide’s mechanism to boost the worldbuilding and Senlin’s confusion and uncertainty within it.