Sunday, April 15, 2018

Josiah Bancroft - Senlin Ascends

I really liked the beginning of this unusual fantasy novel. Newly wed teacher Thomas Senlin arrives at the Tower of Babel with his wife for their honeymoon. Babel has long held Senlin's imagination back in his far off, small village were he teaches his students science, economics, history and politics using Babel as an example. Senlin is no action hero. He's clumsy, unsure and easily startled. The embodiment of what we might called the Enlightenment he clearly believes that the world would be better if only everyone understood the rules behind it all. Disappointingly for Senlin, the local workers, peasants and craftsmen are not particularly interested in his scientific explanations as they do little to help them with their lives.

Such abstract knowledge is Senlin's biggest problem at the start of the novel. Because Babel is very different to the image that he has created in his head. At ground level its markets are a seething mass of humanity, few of whom care for outsiders other than as people to be fleeced. Immediately on arrival Senlin loses his wife, his luggage and the self absurdness he has from faithfully believing guidebooks to the Tower written by authors who have never been there.

Senlin's attempts to find his wife involving him ascending upwards. The half of the book is a fantastical mix of Kafka and Alice in Wonderland as Senlin is trapped in the weird and wonderful lower tiers. The reader has as little clue as Senlin as to what is going on. Why are people peddling beer machines? Why is one whole floor of the tower given to a series of plays that the unwitting travel has to enter into, with strange instructions to "stoke the fires"? Why are people who get things run, or run out of money treated so badly? There are few answers here, though Senlin begins to piece things together on his quest.

Much of the early part of the book I read with a sense of unease. What was going on? Why? How will Senlin, the least capable person in the world, actually survive? Later the novel is on more familiar territory as Senlin finds some stability and begins to understand things. Clearly he is getting closer to finding his wife.

And then the book ends - I'd clearly missed all the hints that this was the first of several. The reader is faced with two existing sequels and a fourth in the pipe line. There was a time when every fantasy author felt they had to have three volumes to be like Tolkien. Such epic tales have their place. But there is also room for shorter stories, that suck the reader in and satisfy them quickly. Instead, resolution for Senlin seems a long way off, and I'm not sure I wanted to climb quite such a tall tower.

Nonetheless it is a well written piece of fantasy. Should time permit, I may return. There's much to enjoy here after all, a strange and disconcerting world; Thomas Senlin is a great character, and his wife Marya clearly is a woman more able to adapt to strange and dangerous circumstances, and a cast of weird and wonderful characters involved in a complex plot.

1 comment:

Jordan @ForeverLostinLiterature said...

I really enjoyed this one and had many of the same thoughts as you. I'm really intrigued by this world and had absolutely no idea what to expect throughout the entire story, which was really pretty nice. I'm hoping to get started on the second soon. Great review!