4.5 stars, rounded up to 5.
“What if?” questions make for the most interesting stories. What if you could attend a school that could teach you the mysterious art of magic? What if dragons were real? What if we’re not alone in the universe? What if swords could talk, and their sass could not be contained? Or, in the case of this book, what if God never destroyed the Tower of Babel and it became the center of civilization?
Bancroft did a wonderful job weaving his tale of Thomas Senlin, a school Headmaster venturing to the Tower for his honeymoon with his lovely, plucky wife, Marya. Within minutes of leaving their train, the newlyweds are separated in the sea of humanity cresting around the foot of the Tower. Senlin Ascends is the story of Thomas Senlin’s mad search for his wife as he enters the Tower and progresses further up and further in. Each “ringdom” presents new challenges for Senlin and new philosophical conjectures to be mused upon by the reader. And each new leg of Senlin’s journey exposes a new, darker, and more disturbing view of the Tower lauded as the center of civilization.
What determines a person’s worth? Their wealth? Their name? Their relationships? Their position? What is the meaning of life? Is it to live rough and drink much and just endure until the end comes? Is it to become someone else, to fill a role until you can’t tell where it ends and the “real” you begins? It it to frolic and mingle and bask in your station while gloating over and pitying those less fortunate? When you live a world about the rest of the population, can you continue seeing them as equals, or do they become something less than human in your eyes? All of these questions and more filter through the mind of the reader as they follow Senlin’s ascension through the Tower.
Besides the philosophical bent of the book, my favorite aspect of Bancroft’s story was his main character, Thomas Senlin. When we first meet Senlin, he is self-conscious, nervous, absentminded, naïve, snooty, and quite honestly helpless. But when faced with the loss of his wife, Senlin adapts. He more than changes; he metamorphoses. We watch Senlin endure hardships beyond his imagining and, slowly but surely, become an entirely new creature. But unlike many of those changed but the Tower, Senlin doesn’t putrefy; he flourishes. Senlin becomes driven, focused, clever, and confident, all while maintaining a stunning optimism completely opposed to life in the Tower. He manages to make friends when none are meant to be found. His growth is some of the greatest character development I’ve read in any book. Side characters, such as Adamos, Edith, Tarrou, Oglier, Iren, and even Finn Goll are all well fleshed out and grow throughout the story. Though she is missing for a larger portion of the novel, Marya is a lovely character whose many facets are revealed nicely through flashbacks. As the story progresses, her relationship with Senlin makes more and more sense, and the love he has for her becomes more real and poignant as he fights his way through the Tower in search of her. I’m hopeful that Marya will be a greater presence in the second volume of the trilogy, because I loved everything I read about her.
I enjoyed the book immensely, though I do feel it was a bit overhyped. The character development, as stated previously, was beyond reproach. The Tower itself was a wonderful setting, new and interesting and nuanced. But the pacing of the story left something to be desired, stretching the plot too thin in places. I also felt frustrated at the lack of an ending, though I know this is the first in a trilogy and can see where Bancroft did attempt to provide some sort of resolution. But besides the poor pacing, Senlin Ascends was a fantastic read, and felt truly unique, for which I couldn’t give less than 4.5 stars. I will most definitely be reading the rest of Bancroft’s work.