On the fence about this one. Praised/hyped widely, this debut was first self-published in 2013, and picked up by Orbit in 2017. You’ve probably read it elsewhere, but Senlin Ascends is the first in a four book series – The Books Of Babel – about a headmaster on a quest to find his wife, which he lost while on their honeymoon in the Tower of Babel. Not the biblical one, but a mammoth with an unknown number of ‘ringdoms’, in a steampunkish setting. Thomas Senlin transforms from a quiet armchair bibliophile to an air-balloon pirate in the process.
While lots of reviewers rave about the prose, to me, it felt different. It’s generally okay for sure – it does the job telling an escapist story which main goal is entertainment – but it didn’t ring truthful to me. I guess I should not expect natural speech in a fantasy story like this, but there’s an artificiality to Bancroft’s wordiness that made me aware of the fact I was reading a 21st century book trying to masquerade as something set in a secondary world at the dawn of electricity.
Wordiness, yes. I found myself skimming a few times in the second half of the book, yet it seems I didn’t miss a thing. Following the story was no problem skipping whole paragraphs, just ogling sentences here and there to spot where I should slow down for real story development, instead of filler. The pacing is generally good, that’s not the problem, but overall you know what to expect the next few pages. I’m not saying the book on the whole is predictable, yet in its subsections, it often is.
There’s also something wrong with certain similes. “Square-folded handkerchiefs covered the nearest table in a heap like a snowdrift.” or “The bodies lay upon the ground like broken exclamation points.”
The prose’s lack of truthfulness ties in with what is my main issue with this book: it failed to suspend my disbelief. I don’t feel like going into all the issues in detail, there’s really tons of stuff that don’t add up if you think about it. While this is secondary world fantasy, it is a world populated by humans and seemingly governed by Newtonian laws. The steampunk elements however, boil down to downright magic. Not a problem, by the way, and part of the genre.
What is a problem however, is the setting of the Tower itself. Aside from countless questions about the practicality of its workings, both social and material, the way it’s positioned in the story seems to me to be inconceivable in any human society. The problem is that Bancroft wants to describe the Tower both as an utter mystery and a pillar of society, widely know to all since time immemorial, the number one tourist attraction even. As Bryce Jones ends his rant on this on Goodreads: “Are we then to assume that this particular fantasy nation is a totalitarian regime capable of suppressing all truth about the Tower? To what end?“
In the novel’s defense, you could approach it as slightly surreal in intention, and as such my disbelief criticism would be nullified. For me however, it was not surreal enough to make such a line of reasoning work – a matter of taste in the end. A similar thing could be said for approaching the novel like a fairytale.
Dugan Maynard made another interesting point, valid for lots of other speculative fiction. It’s worth quoting in full.
why is it that every mediocre piece of a sci-fi/fantasy can only present the world where everything is divided into completely uniform groups: the heros visit the swamp/desert planet; district 3 only mines coal; the whole city is a market; etc… it’s impossible to suspend your disbelief when you spend any amount of time thinking— “Okay, but how would that work in practice?”
Likewise, the characters aren’t fully believable. They are generally stereotypes, starting with Senlin himself – the nerdy know-it-all headmaster. One theme of the novel is his self-discovery – the title easily substituted with Senlin transcends himself. The tower transforms him and the image he had of himself. Sure, extreme situations change people, but that doesn’t make this particular transformation likely. His romance with Mayra didn’t convince me either, and even if it would’ve, it falls squarely into the opposites attract cliché. A romance that doesn’t convince is a problem when the main thing driving your story is a lover trying to reunite with his partner.
To top things off, the reappearance of a certain character nearly killed it for me. It was just too convenient as a plot device, saving Senlin just at the right time. Coincidence happens in real life, true that, but Bancroft already pulled a kind of similar trick on the readers with Finn Goll, and this particular plot device doesn’t just involve lucky coincidence, but yet another spectacular, unlikely transformation of said character. Lazy, sloppy, meh. Hollywood.
Although I generally liked reading this, I don’t think I will continue The Books Of Babel – even though these two trusted reviewers urge their readers otherwise. Based on what I’ve read in quite a lot of reviews, I have the feeling the things that troubled me will get worse in book 2. It all might be redeemed in book 3, but I’m just not that kind of series reader. Maybe on the beach. If I would coincidentally find a copy for free.