Bingo 8 (So It Begins)
This makes twice recently that I have gone into the library to kill a few minutes after returning something and come out with something I’ve been wanting to read for a while. This time I found Senlin Ascends, which is book 1 of what I think is currently a trilogy, The Books of Babel. I actually saw books 2 and 3 first on the display, and after a few minutes I found book 1, which has been on my TBR list for a while. I literally teach the value of library shelf-browsing for academic stuff, so it feels a little silly to suddenly be aware of how well that tactic works for fiction and fun reading too. Also a major argument for the value of the physical book, a hill on which I am prepared to die.
Senlin Ascends has a pretty basic premise: nerdy and homely schoolmaster Thomas Senlin and his new wife Marya are on their honeymoon to the location of his dreams, the legendary Tower of Babel, the upper limits of which are unknown. A few minutes after they arrive, he and Marya are separated and he spends the rest of the novel, and probably the sequels too, trying to find her.
There are wonder, horrors, strangeness, friends, traitors, mysteries, etc. to be found on the lower levels of the Tower that Senlin works his way through. As he progresses through the Tower and learns bits and pieces of may have happened to Marya, and what could happen to them both, he gradually has to start developing an unwilling heroic adventurer sort of attitude.
This is not a book about the story, and it’s barely even about the characters. This is a novel about the setting. Senlin is initially enamored of the Tower and what he believes it is and represents, though obviously he learns quickly it’s something else in reality. Towards the end he even comes up with a theory about how the lower levels represent a corporate (ie-evil) scheme to use the masses for the benefit of the higher levels of society. Much of the first two hundred pages is dedicated to descriptions of Senlin’s surroundings, and his gradual shift in perception. That makes for a slow start, and also misses some chances for really interesting character development. Senlin meets Adam, whom he believes is a helpful street urchin, Edith who has some kind of past and reason for being in the Tower, but he finds her a highly competent and capable person, the corporate and aristocratic bad guys, including the Commissioner, an artist named Ogier who gives him the first big clues about Marya, a “lost soul” Tarrou, the lady warrior Iren, the assassin Red Hand, Finn Goll with whom he has two very different encounters, etc. This group together makes for a potentially great action story with lots of good character, but much of that is left undeveloped, as the adventure really doesn’t get going until half-way through the novel. By the end of book 1, the adventure is underway, characters are starting to develop, mysteries are set up, and possibilities are intriguing.