Review: Senlin Ascends by Josiah Bancroft


Senlin Ascends. Well, what can I say? I was sceptical of the premise, but when I started to read it I just got swept off my feet and in the interim of finishing the book and publishing this review – yep, sorry about the wait – I’ve already finished book 2 and 3.

At this point I will say that neither Arm of the Sphinx nor The Hod King will give you the sense of wonder that the first book does, but that they are nevertheless excellent sequels.

Moreover, Senlin Ascends has of late given me cause to reflect on my own writing, not as a comparison in style but rather as to methods of publication. Bancroft self published his work and tells in an interview how he distributed it at writing conferences. The book developed such a large fan base and created such popularity that it netted him a book deal with Orbit.

(My thanks to fellow writer H.A. Hood for the info).

Call me cynical, but I get the feeling that this is another layer in the submission process where the publishing houses let the author take the burden of ALL the costs, and the ones that soar high can be snapped up without them actually lifting a damn finger (and literally the other day my self published friend told me she was approached by a publisher who wanted to republish her first book, but it would require her to do the chores of finding two celebrity endorsements etc).

But I digress….. because if any book deserved to be snapped up, then it was assuredly this one.

What’s It About?

Thomas Senlin is the prim headmaster of a small school in the fishing village of Isaugh who decides to honeymoon with his new wife in the famed Tower of Babel. It isn’t long before he realises that the world painted by his tourist guide and the reality of the Tower are at odds with each other. He quickly manages to lose his wife in “the Skirts”, a market that rings the bottom of the tower, and is then quickly robbed and befriended by a young man who has lost his sister. Thankfully the headmaster was not entirely without caution and still has his money tucked away.

Believing that all he need do to be reunited with his wife is to reach the agreed upon location, he enters the Tower with the young man as guide.

Thus begins his adventure through the mysterious ringdoms: the first ring is a grind house of poverty with many a beer dispensing merry-go-round, the second ring is a surreal role-play theatre, and the third level where Senlin comes to stay for a time is a rather pleasant bath house that isn’t so pleasant once you get beneath the surface.

Each level has a strikingly different character, and contain all manner of oddities, some of which are quite subtle but the keen witted will perhaps become suspicious of their purpose.

Common to all the rings appear to be the hods, a host of pitiful, indentured debt slaves who move between levels via the ominously named Black Trail.

As Senlin “ascends” in the search for his wife his naivety is preyed upon and many a time he finds himself betrayed or played for a fool, and as the plot unfolds Senlin finds himself at the mercy of a man who might know where his wife is, but who wants the prim and proper school master to perform a rather daring theft.

But to say more of the plot would be to spoil the treat…..

Should I Read It?

Yes, and that recommendation should be extended to folks who aren’t necessarily fans of the genre. I think that in part this is because there isn’t a lot of hard work to do to understand the world. The setting is filled with things that require little to no explanation, like trains, air balloons and a certain Victorian style that feels old fashioned but which only exceeds its familiarity when you learn of its surreal qualities. It bridges the gap between familiar and fantastic nicely.

The setting is also simply delicious mind-candy: the Tower is such a vivid and fantastic place, with each level acting as a self contained bubble of culture, wonderfully conceived with the future promise of you learning more and more. I think that spoke to the anthropologist in me, that there was always more to learn about the citizens of each unique ring.

Meanwhile, the protagonist is a brilliant and unexpectedly engaging character that plays a wonderful foil to the devious and cynical world of characters that cross his path, all of whom are well drawn, their motivations drawn from the reality of living in the cut-throat world of the Tower. These are perfectly pitched against Senlin’s refusal to give up his principles.

Bancroft’s writing is clear, colourful and concise. The dialogue flows nicely and the descriptive language never compromises the pace of the narrative. It was, as is clear, a joy for me to read.

What Might Put Me Off?

You know, I’m just stumped. If you’re a fantasy fan that enjoys the wider spectrum, then there’s nothing beyond just finding it not to your taste that should put you off. Equally, if all you want is another hackneyed, medieval royal feud then this isn’t going to be for you. If you want an intelligent, imaginative tale that is like a breath of fresh air, then honestly, check it out.

Maybe it’s not perfect. I doubt there’s anything that is, but I’ve sat here trying to think of a criticism and it’s really hard. Help me out if you can? I feel like I’d just be trying to find the smallest of nit-picks.

Hell, slap me if I’m gushing. I am, aren’t I? 

The View From the Top

I mentioned this in a comment with a reader recently – this is the kind of book that makes you go back and re-evaluate the scores that you doled out previously because Senlin Ascends is just so damn good that it raises the bar. It’s a brilliant romp through a surreal world that is vividly painted and which never gets boring. You’ll be on the edge of your seat, and by the end you’ll be eager to dig into the sequels which not only expand on the world, but draw you deeper into the series’ meta-narrative.



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  • Freakin’ brilliant, right?! I had the exact same reaction as you did, both about the first one as well as the second and third. I am so looking forward to fourth to see how he wraps it up.

    And, as you mentioned (and thanks for the shout out!) beyond the actual book and into the nitty gritty of his journey, it has me rethinking my approach to publication. Wouldn’t it be lovely to have control over everything?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Too true – really excited for the fourth book. As for the industry, it just seems that (as a writer) you’re going to need an agent, and the agent is going to want something that they can sell. So I envisioned my submissions going on a big slush pile which the agents just sift through for whatever might appease the industry, something that’s a safe bet more often than not (another Game of Thrones clone). However, Bancroft did his own thing, and proved that people can connect with more imaginative works. It’s this kind of vision that makes readers aware they can have something different. So it’s really down to us to follow our vision and do the back breaking work. It galls me that the industry will just sit back and cherry pick the best, and I’m belligerent enough that I might just tell them to stick it where the sun doesn’t shine. As my friend in the post highlighted, even when they came to her with an offer, they still wanted her to do all the leg work. She said “it’d be nice to get my book on a shelf in the airport, you know? but I’m already working all the time without having to do all the extra things they asked for.”


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