book-reviews

Senlin Ascends

by Josiah Bancroft

Rating: ★★★

Something of a twisty read. I was sold the book on the premise that it was a more 'literary' fantasy novel. In a sense this is true, but not how I first thought: the book resembles something like Steppenwolf or maybe Ulysses much more than something like The Book of the New Sun.

The world is sketched in outline, centred almost entirely on the Tower of Babel, which seems to pervade not only the lives of every character, but also their thoughts, with much made of what characters think the true nature of the Tower is. I found this odd, as something so huge and subdivided should become as a whole almost invisible to the individuals. The Tower seems almost to be a linguistic swap-out for 'life' or 'the world' in most conversations. I didn't like this muddling.

The main character is initially hard to support, not because of his carefully arranged array of character flaws, but because his decision to plunge into The Tower on a jaunt is almost impossible to reconcile with those flaws. Even the muted descriptions of the Market and the lowest levels in his inaccurate guidebook quite clearly reveal that it is a horrible place to visit, and the sheer lack of planning in the trip, cause of much of the horror, speaks to deep recklessness . You could say this is his underlying need for adventure breaking through, but that just renders his plight all the less sympathetic.

Senlin's later development, into a man of decisiveness and authority, is somewhat sudden and strangely trouble-free, with the 'adventure' Senlin gathering far more luck and largely escaping from the complex, unassailable systems which previously featured. This is clearly Bancroft's intent at a higher level, but within the plot the shift of gears is quite odd, as we seem to stumble from one book into an entirely different one that just happens to share the same characters and setting.

I'm not unhappy with the novel. It is competently presented, the plot has some momentum, and there is depth to it. However, it is not quite what I was hoping for.