I did enjoy the first book in this series a lot so I was looking forward to reading the sequel. I had thought “Senlin Ascends” got maybe a bit weaker towards its end and I felt “Arm of the Sphinx” similarly started off relatively poorly. The first third of the book follows Thomas Senlin’s unlikely second career as an unusually gentlemanly airship pirate preying on some of the ships flying around the skies surrounding the Tower of Babel. One problem with this part of the story is that it felt like it moved away from the uniqueness of the setting of the Tower itself and I think the airship piracy plotline has been done better elsewhere (Chris Wooding’s “Tales of the Ketty Jay”, in particular). The story also felt a bit aimless at this stage, the first book had a lot of momentum from Senlin’s quest to ascend the Tower in an attempt to track down his missing wife but it was sometimes hard to see how the adventures of the crew of the “Stone Cloud” were taking them any closer to the goal – something even the characters themselves acknowledged. There are also some times when it started to get a bit too hard to really suspend disbelief, in particular there’s a scene with a harpoon gun and a train which didn’t seem like Senlin’s plan should have worked anywhere near as well as it did. Fortunately, I thought the book improved a lot in the second and third sections where the story returns to the Tower itself.
The second part of the story takes place mostly around the Golden Zoo region of the Tower which, like the other regions of the Tower seen in the first book, alternated between being wondrous and sinister (and sometimes both simultaneously). It also introduced a character who might possibly end up being the series’ main villain. The third part of the book might be the best in the series, with Senlin and his crew reluctantly entering the domain of the mysterious being known only as The Sphinx in an attempt to gain his aid in Senlin’s quest. I thought The Sphinx was the most interesting character in the series so far, and I thought the author did a great job of gradually revealing new aspects of his character while keeping The Sphinx’s true motivations enigmatic. Part of the reason this works so well is that we always see The Sphinx from the perspective of one of the other characters and they mostly bring their own pre-conceived prejudices and can’t help this colouring their opinions of The Sphinx’s motivations, it’s quite clear in some cases that they completely misjudged what The Sphinx is trying to do. Sometimes they seem to assign unfairly malign motives to him, while he may be capable of ruthlessness and definitely has his own agenda there are times when he does seem to be genuinely trying to help, although even by the end of the book it’s hard to really be sure whether he’ll ultimately be a force for good or ill. This part of the story also brings in more hints of what the over-arching plotline of the series is going to be, since despite Senlin’s obsession it is clear there’s much more going in the Tower than just his missing wife.
While the first book was shown entirely from Senlin’s perspective the sequel rotates between the points of view of the five crew members of The Stone Cloud (and occasionally others). I think it made sense for the first book to be primarily from Senlin’s perspective because as a newcomer to the Tower he has to learn about it in the same way that a reader does, but broadening out the perspective in the sequel is a good idea. It is interesting to see how Senlin himself looks from the other perspectives and the other crew members are interesting characters and Edith in particular gets some good characters development in this book, although I did find Adam’s story arc to be a little bit dull. Away from the crew of the Stone Cloud, I did find Byron and Ferdinand to be entertaining supporting characters in the chapters set in the Sphinx’s lair.
Overall, I’d say this book got off to a bit of a slow start but I think it recovered in the remaining two thirds of the book and the last section in particular was excellent and set up several interesting plotlines for the rest of the series.
Rating : 8/10
The first thing that really stands out in “Senlin Ascends” is the originality of the premise, in which a headmaster, Thomas Senlin, and his new bride, Marya, go on a honeymoon to legendary The Tower of Babel. The book’s interpretation of the tower is a vast structure stretching far above the clouds where each level is a different ‘ringdom’ with its own culture and its own idiosyncratic rules, the inhabitants of each ringdom might know about their neighbours but often have little knowledge of the rest of the tower, or the wider world beyond. It’s an unusual and memorable setting and much of the book is a journey of exploration through some of the lower levels of the Tower which is an alien environment to the protagonist – initially most of Senlin’s knowledge comes from the “Everyman’s Guide to the Tower of Babel” which he soon realises is a comically inaccurate guidebook which glosses over most of the Tower’s complexity.
In the first chapter of the story Senlin and Marya get separated in the vast crowds around the base of the tower, and Senlin soon comes to the dreadful conclusion that he has no way of finding her, making the rest of the book a quest to try to be reunited with her, a quest made more difficult by the fact that he has to guess how she would try to be reunited with him. His initial assumption is that she might try to follow their initial plan of ascending to the third level of the Tower, the resort ringdom known as the Baths, leading him to enter the Tower, although he quickly finds that ascending the Tower isn’t as easy as his Everyman’s Guide had made it sound. His quest is made more difficult by the other inhabitants of the tower who tend to be either wrapped up in their own problems or seek a way to exploit his desperation to their own advantage. The supporting cast has a number of memorable characters and one of the strengths of the characterisation is that it’s often quite difficult to tell what a character’s true agenda is or whether Senlin can trust them. Senlin himself is a likeable protagonist and while he can be frustratingly naïve in the early chapters he does go through quite a lot of character development as he is forced to adjust the way he behaves in order to survive the tower, while still trying to hold on to some of his principles. The book also does a good job of slowly revealing Marya’s character through flashbacks.
Senlin’s quest to be reunited with his wife does make for a compelling main plot but there are also some interesting subplots, particularly intriguing is the suggestion that all is not as it appears inside the Tower and there may be a hidden purpose to many of the oddities of its design. It feels like the story is only scratching the surface of some of the mysteries, but this does set things up well for later books in the series. If there is a flaw in the plotting it’s that some of the plot developments feel a bit too convenient to be entirely believable, such as Senlin encountering potentially helpful characters at just the right time or a heist Senlin takes part in which never really feels like it should have worked.
I think the setting is definitely the most memorable aspect of the story. There are individual elements that feel familiar from other books but nothing that has combined them all together in quite the same way. There are plenty of wondrous things in the tower, as well as aspects of the tower that feel very dystopian, and often the good and bad parts of the tower are intertwined, the Orwellian surveillance in the theatre ringdom known as The Parlour being particularly memorable. One thing that was a bit disappointing was the wider setting beyond the Tower, the land of Ur may have names reminiscent of ancient Mesopotamia but other than the names the society largely seems to be a form of Victorian Steampunk, it’s a bit of a shame that a book with so much originality in its world-building wasn’t a bit more original in that respect.
This is the author’s self-published debut novel but the writing is so consistently good throughout that this doesn’t feel like a debut. The book isn’t without some occasional flaws but it’s a very promising start to what could be an excellent series.
Rating : 8 / 10