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