Senlin Ascends is the first in Josiah Bancroft’s “Books of Babel”. If I had to summarise, I’d say it’s the novel of one man’s journey. That journey is, of course, geographical – he moves ever upward through the levels of the eponymous tower, being enveloped in the strange societies, cultures and politics which hold sway there. But it’s also personal. The Senlin who begins the journey up the tower – well, he changes, and grows as the narrative proceeds – and not always for the better.
Senlin Ascends has a baroque, imaginative world. Along with Senlin, I was often left somewhat flabbergasted by the people whom he encountered. There were the showmen and grifters at ground level, of course – small time thieves and hustlers, charmers and liars. They exist within the constantly stirring entrance of the Tower, a first level fuelled by tourists and victims. At the same time, there’s a sparkling, carnival atmosphere to it – one where the barkers have sharper teeth hidden behind their smiles. But things only get stranger the further up the tower one goes. Each step is increasingly surreal, each movement away from the base also a step further into the machinations, machineries, and villainies of the increasingly bizarre denizens. There’s a sense here of Alice in Wonderland, with a cutting edge. I can’t say much about the rest of the environs without touching on spoilers – but I will say this: the tower is a fresh, imaginative tapestry of diverse, colourful locales, and it successfully conveys a sense of energy and corruption in one word after another. This is a roaring, virile place, crackling with life – and at the same time, is shot through with rot, coiled serpents just waiting to fall upon the unwary visitor. In other words – it’s great.
The characters…well, they’re an odd bunch, that’s for sure. Senlin is the protagonist, and walks into the tower at least as baffled as the reader, if not more so. He’s a man who has been shaped by his circumstances – a teacher in a fishing village. In fact, the only teacher in the village. He’s intelligent, with an unconscious air of superiority. He cares about his pupils – though with a degree more enthusiasm for the intelligent ones. He feels like a prim, proper man, confined within his own expectations – a self-constrained avatar of social mores. Still, there’s a wit and an incisive intelligence there, and, it appears, a passion. Senlin is in love with his wife – and he’s a romantic and an idealist. His romance is one of the great backdrops to his life, a brilliant surprise he’s determined to hold onto with both hands. Here the flames of his personality peek out a little behind his enforced façade. Senlin walks with the reader, a narrator in the tower – and his passion and his restraints on it serve to make him feel very human.
Indeed, as the text progresses, Senlin’s internal geography shifts along with the external. Events force him to decide what sort of man he is, and exactly what he will do to accomplish his goals. The man who enters the ground floor of the tower for a honeymoon – well, let’s just say he may not be quite the same man that nears the top.
There’s a delightful crowd of assorted misfits alongside Senlin as he travels. They’re not all entirely trustworthy, and some of the antagonists are downright unpleasant. Still, when they’re given the time to shine, they do – be that in impassioned speeches on the human conditions, or in the odd brutal murder. In each case though, they’re imaginatively, convincingly portrayed – strange to us, but perhaps not strangers, in the broader sense. As the journey continues, they don’t become any less strange – but also become more familiar; it’s cleverly done, and left each of the supporting cast feeling memorable as I turned the pages.
The plot – well. As ever, no spoilers. Senlin is working his way through the tower hunting his wife. Along the way he’s exposed to the best and worst that the tower has to offer, from beer fountains to sky-ships, from loving families to murderous lunatics. The story is in the journey, in how Senlin adapts and changes in the face of challenges thrown up to him on each floor of the tower. There’s shades of Moby Dick, the protagonist driven to fulfil his heart’s desire, even with the associated costs. In any event, it’s a cracking read – there’s betrayals, firm friendships, battles, banter, and even true love. It’s a charming, fascinating piece, and I highly recommend it.