Senlin Ascends has gotten a lot of hype the past few years in fantasy circles. After reading it, I can really see why. It is utterly imaginative, crafting a fantasy world very different than most: one that takes place almost entirely within a tower that reaches up towards the heavens.
Thomas Senlin is a mild-mannered schoolmaster from an analogue of 19th century Britain, who travels with Marya, his new wife, to visit the Tower of Babel for their honeymoon. Yet he loses Marya almost instantly, and the rest of the book tells of his endeavors to find her. The world of the Tower is in no way what he expected from his reading, however, and Senlin must struggle for his own survival as much as Marya’s.
Senlin is the real focus of this book, a naive coward who is forced to confront the worst of humanity and the worst in himself in his efforts to find his wife. Interspersed are memories of how he and Marya came to fall in love, poignant reminders of why he searches for her–because she challenges him to be more than his natural instincts. There are other fascinating characters Senlin encounters during his travels–some of them multiple times, in surprising ways. But the real power of this book is not in the plot. It is hardly a page-turner, although it is thoroughly engrossing. It is in the commentary on humanity that runs throughout: on greed, on cowardice, on all the baser instincts of man. This sort of commentary is one of the greatest powers fantasy and science fiction offers, the ability to create a new world that says so much on our own.
I love how the language Bancroft uses has such a different feel from most fiction that you read today. It adds a lot to the world and the feel of the book, as do the little quotations throughout at the beginning at chapters, which offer a meta-commentary on Senlin’s own experiences. I also love the biblical references–I’m not as up on my knowledge of the Old Testament as I used to be, but I caught several throughout.
I will definitely pick up the rest of this series, and it ranks pretty highly on my end-of-the-year list. It’s not the sort of thing I feel the need to devour, but one I will savor, enjoying over a longer stretch of time.
Review 9/? of my catching-up-on-reviews series.