So I spent my last review squealing all over Mark Lawrence’s Red Sister, which I thought was some of the best fantasy I had read all year. Well, the universe must be spoiling me or something, because Josiah Bancroft’s books run in at a close second!
I’ll be reviewing them both together, so there will be very, very mild spoilers for the first book. I’ll try not to do too much damage, but be warned.
I’ve always enjoyed the more weird and wonderful entries into the speculative fiction genre – that’s why we call it that right? It’s why I think the books from the Craft Sequence and the Terra Ignota series appeal so much to me. And as it turns out, I can now add the first two books in the Books of Babel series to that list: Senlin Ascends and Arm of the Sphinx.
So who is Senlin, and what is he Ascending?
Thomas Senlin is a school headmaster who’s on his honeymoon with his new bride. More the stuffy, bookish type than a romantic, Senlin has chosen to visit the great Tower of Babel, which he enthuses over as he reads from his copy of The Everyman’s Guide. His wife, Marya, while not quite as enthusiastic, seems happy enough to indulge him.
But things quickly turn dire once they approach their destination; after having to disembark from their train early, Senlin loses track of Marya under the shadow of the tower. To make matters worse, the much-hyped Tower of Babel is nothing like it was advertised. While there is a veneer of pleasantness, it is soon rubbed away, exposing its more sinister nature. A disoriented Senlin then decides that the best hope he has of finding his wife involves him scaling the tower and hoping she meets him at the top.
The bizarre nature of the Tower slowly unfurls as Senlin makes his way through the levels or ‘ringdoms’; from a grimy beer drenched basement, to the theatre level, then on towards the tourist resort. All of these things can be given a positive spin in a travel brochure, but once there, they are not what they seem. Josiah Bancroft has some serious skill with the English language. His writing has a gentle poetry to it, and I found it very compelling. One of the masterful things he pulls off here is not letting the story dip straight into the more horrifying elements but lets them build slowly. It starts with a general unease that lurks in the background, which, while it grows, never quite pushes its way into the forefront. I didn’t even realise the horrifying implications of some of the background machinations within the tower until I sat down for a tea and biscuit afterwards.
Interestingly, the same goes for some of the worldbuilding as well. The different parts of the tower seem drastically different from each other, but they are more interconnected than you initially think. This doesn’t just apply to the mechanics of the tower itself, but to the people and politics within it too.
I loved this book so much, that when I saw that Arm of the Sphinx had also been released, I basically did the Kermit mad-arm-wave dance and jumped into it straight away.
In the second book, Thomas Senlin, while he’s not without leads, has still not been reunited with Marya. What he has gained though is an airship, which can be used to navigate around the outside of the tower; and, critically, some friends to help him crew it.
This is where the sequel differs most from the previous book – the story is no longer being told from the point of view of Senlin alone. Instead, we’re given the opportunity to see the world form the eyes of the others, who have all had very different experiences of the tower. An extra bonus of this is that you get to see Senlin with outside eyes, and it’s then you really start to appreciate how his character has grown from the first book.
The pacing and tone of the second book are slightly different as well. I felt it was slightly less episodic, and the general unease felt less prevalent. Part of the latter might be due to spending time in the heads of Senlin’s friends, who, along with adjusting to life on the airship, are now exploring their relationships with each other. Queasiness does not mix much with tenderness. (Although I haven’t ruled out this as a horrifying new direction for later instalments!)
And of course, the slow reveal of both the tower’s underlying mechanics and politics continues to progress, with a hint that we might eventually learn why the tower was built. My only disappointment is that we are left with a cliffhanger! The next book, The Hod King, is not out until the end of the year, so it’s going to be a painful wait.
So I’m giving them both fives stars, and am encouraging everyone to pick up the first book and give it a go. But the wait for December is going to be agonising.