Senlin Ascends Audible Audiobook – Unabridged
The first book in the word-of-mouth phenomenon debut fantasy series about one man's dangerous journey through a labyrinthine world.
"One of my favorite books of all time" (Mark Lawrence)
The Tower of Babel is the greatest marvel in the world. Immense as a mountain, the ancient Tower holds unnumbered ringdoms, warring and peaceful, stacked one on the other like the layers of a cake. It is a world of geniuses and tyrants, of luxury and menace, of unusual animals and mysterious machines. Soon after arriving for his honeymoon at the Tower, the mild-mannered headmaster of a small village school, Thomas Senlin, gets separated from his wife, Marya, in the overwhelming swarm of tourists, residents, and miscreants.
Senlin is determined to find Marya, but to do so he'll have to navigate madhouses, ballrooms, and burlesque theaters. He must survive betrayal, assassins, and the illusions of the Tower. But if he hopes to find his wife, he will have to do more than just endure. This quiet man of letters must become a man of action.
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|Listening Length||14 hours and 15 minutes|
|Whispersync for Voice||Ready|
|Audible.com Release Date||January 16, 2018|
|Best Sellers Rank|| #17,080 in Audible Books & Originals (See Top 100 in Audible Books & Originals) |
#210 in Historical Fantasy (Audible Books & Originals)
#517 in Paranormal Fantasy
#572 in Action & Adventure Fantasy (Audible Books & Originals)
Reviewed in the United States on March 18, 2013
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✓ Fast paced action
✓ Character development
✓ Adventure, plots and deaths
✓ The unmasking of dark human nature
✓ Wonderful, colorful yet very realistic characters
Now I want to talk about that last bit. This book has so many characters you’ll love! Colorful, real-people characters. Starting with Thomas Senlin, the main one, who undergoes a complete transformation and shows the best character development in the book, going further on with Edith, a woman Senlin meets in the Tower, turning from a petticoated country bumpkin into a strong independent lady, onto Tarrou, a man defeated by his demons and his own smallness, enslaved in body but suddenly freed in the soul, up to probably one of my favorite ones – Iren, the illiterate amazon hulk, finding her belief in herself and her own mind through Senlin’s doing. All of this not just because Thomas is looking for his lost wife – it’s because he is looking for fairness, not even justice – but rather meaning and justification that this is not the only thing life, the world and humanity can be. Because life in the Tower, said to be a hallowed and elevated paradise to the simple person, indeed is just a big, dark and treacherous lie, a trap meant to bring the naive and the innocent in, only to be eaten by the machine.
And let’s not forget Senlin’s love for his wife. We start off thinking the same as every other person in his home village thinks – their ‘love’ is a lie. It was convenient. Or maybe it hides some cheesy secret. Surely there can’t be anything between these two people, this shadow of a man and a beautiful, wonderful and playful girl, quite a bit younger than him. But as the story unfolds, we are taught that what we see is not always everything. That love is a mystery, often only for two people to understand. That if a person doesn’t talk much, it doesn’t mean they don’t feel much. Thomas builds a monument to their love story by remembering it. And it’s a touching story. You will not remain cold.
This is for you, if you like adventure. Also, if you don’t fear glancing at the real world – a really dark world. But brace yourself, because the first half of this book is really dark. People who ponder the real nature of the world order will also like this book. And quite simply if you just like books with good emotional development and great character building – you will love this. It’s a great book. A very strong one. And I can’t wait to read the sequel.
First thing I noticed was that Bancroft can really write. His prose is crisp and clear but always concise, driving the story forward very effectively. Like most readers I will put up with a certain level of mediocre writing if there is decent story wrapped inside but a good story well-told is so much more enjoyable.
That being said, I still almost clicked away after reading the sample. His protagonist Thomas Senlin is initially presented as a self-satisfied, self-centered individual with few redeeming qualities. In fact the Senlin appearing in the early chapters so borish and unlikable that my first instinct was to pass on the book.
As I was short on other reading options at the time, though (and very fortunately so), I went ahead and bought the book. As it turns out, the evolution of Senlin is deftly managed by Bancroft, and Selin's journey from obnoxious scholar to an all-to-human adventurer is a joy. Bancroft's other central characters are equally intriguing, often surprising the reader with their depth and humanity.
Bancroft's world building is also notable, with his Tower of Babel and its many "Ringdoms" being meticulously and believably constructed. His eye for "defining details" pulls the reader into the storytelling, bringing the people and places to life without laborious exposition.
I just finished the 3rd Books of Babel novels, "The Hod King" and highly recommend the series. Of course now desperately waiting for the series finale. Bancroft's website currently shows 2021 publishing date.
A point of clarification on "genre" labeling - the Amazon description indicates this is a fantasy novel but IMO this is really a sci fi-fantasy crossover with steampunk/Victorian era overtones.
Senlin's Ascend feels closer to something Miyazaki's Studio Ghibli would make. There's this other worldly feeling to it. There are familiar elements in this setting yet so different. The Tower of Babel feels so rich and creative and full of wonder.
It took me a little longer than expected to read this book. It's written in a much more stylized prose which makes sense since Bancroft is/was a fan of poetry. There's a lyrical aspect to the prose that's beautiful and slows the reading (not necessarily in a bad way, just is).
One last thing: Thomas Senlin is one of the best protagonists's I've read. The idea for a simple headmaster as the lead of a fantasy novel... Wow. Such an inspired choice. I'm surprised I haven't read something similar. He's smart and capable yet bashful and unsure. He feels like a regular person I would know put in an irregular situation.
Top reviews from other countries
Senlin Ascends is the first novel in a trilogy called The Books of Babel, followed by Arm of the Sphinx (out now) and The Hod King (working title, due next year). This is fantasy, but not quite as you may know it. It's a steampunk romance with airships and sky-pirates. It's a character-focused slice of the New Weird. It's a Biblical allegory (...maybe?). It's a science fiction novel set inside a Big Dumb Object created by peoples unknown for scientific purposes (...perhaps?). It's a black comedy of manners, a dashing adventure, and a devastating deconstruction of people, places and tropes. It's what you'd get if China Mieville and Christopher Priest collaborated on a novel and both brought their A-game, and it was then adapted for film by Studio Ghibli. It's quite possibly the most striking debut work of speculative fiction published in the last decade.
Senlin Ascends is the story of a man who visits the Tower of Babel - which may or may not be "our" mythological tower - on honeymoon only to lose his wife. He ventures into the miles-wide, miles-tall tower in search of help, only to find most people indifferent to his plight and out to rob or enslave him. Initially he proceeds with optimism and reason, but as he suffers repeated setbacks he becomes more willing to manipulate and deceive people to achieve his ends. At key moments he realises the danger of what he is becoming and resolves to find his wife and escape before the tower batters him down from the man of integrity he used to be.
In the course of this first novel, Senlin only ascends the lower four (of over forty) ringdoms of the tower. Each ringdom is an impressive feat of worldbuilding, complete with its own rulers, function and cast of characters. The Basement is a place of squalour and robbery. The Parlour is a bizarre place where guests have to take part in insane plays for the amusement of its rulers. The Baths is a vast spa resort where deadly politics play out and Senlin is blackmailed into becoming an art robber. New Babel is a collection of docks and markets where people toil in labour. Each location is painted in rich detail, each fulfilling a function that Senlin tries to grasp (and, late in the novel, manages to do so in an intriguing moment of revelation about the tower's purpose) and each being compelling enough for entire novels to be set there.
What makes Senlin Ascends work so well is a combination of literary ambition - Bancroft's prose is evocative, exciting and occasionally beautiful - with a relentless pace. Chapters are short and punchy, Senlin's adventures rich and compelling, and Bancroft peppers the book with comic interludes, excerpts from quite ludicrously misleading tourist guides to the tower and, later on, Senlin's own journal about what is going on. A supporting cast of players is subtly put in place, ranging from the redoubtable painter Ogier to the fantastically violent warrior-woman Iren to Edith, a fellow lost traveller who inadvertently runs afoul of the tower's harsh and arbitrary justice system. There's also a genuinely unsettling and terrifying villain, of sorts, in the Red Hand, a literate and erudite enforcer with a tremendous capacity for violence. The supporting cast is small, but fantastically well-drawn.
The novel builds over the course of its reasonable, focused length (350 pages) to an action-packed climax which sets the scene wonderfully for Arm of the Sphinx.
In another universe, Senlin Ascends, which was originally published in 2013, would have already won the Campbell, Hugo, Nebula and Arthur C. Clarke Award. In this one, however, the author chose to not only self-publish it, but self-edit it as well. He did exactly the stuff that you're not supposed to do as a self-published writer and has done with tremendous skill, restraint and self-awareness. To date self-publishing has given us some very fine light adventure novels from the likes of Michael J. Sullivan and a reasonably strong epic fantasy from Anthony Ryan, but now it has given us SFF's first genuinely evocative work of self-published literature (that has broken through to mainstream attention, anyway). It may mark a serious turning-point in the field.
Senlin Ascends (*****) is available now in the UK and USA. The sequel, Arm of the Sphinx, is already available.
“Learning starts with failure.”
The book tells the tale of Thomas Senlin, newly married to Marya. The pair go on their honeymoon to the infamous Tower of Babel where each floor is its own marvel, where within five minutes Senlin loses his wife. He enters into the tower to find her, but instead he only finds himself change from a quiet headmaster to a man of reluctant action as morality and the world he thought he knew blurs around him.
This book is cool. Characters revolve in and out as Senlin travels. We spend fifty pages with someone here, another fifty with someone else. Senlin Ascends documents a tapestry of lives, interwoven and drawn apart. With each person, Senlin changes. The book drew me in (I turned down the pub to go read more, a rare occurrence!) and fascinated me.
“I’m suspicious of people who are certain.”
It only didn't reach five stars because some of characters really rubbed me the wrong way, particular how Marya is viewed: she was Senlin's student and she becomes lost because he's too embarrassed to shop for underwear with her. Women in Senlin Ascends are mostly viewed as whores (even if they aren't) and whilst there are several great female characters - Edith, Voleta, Iren - women are not treated well. Even the three good women are framed in terms of sexuality: Iren is too brutish to be considered sexual, Voleta is a beautiful young reluctant exotic dancer, and Edith represents some kind of temptation to Senlin's marriage. It's a bit exhausting.
I loved the tale that Senlin Ascends weaves and the way that Senlin himself develops and changes over the book. I just wish that there was a bit more effort put into how all of the women are viewed. I have high hopes for the next book.
The story's setting of the Tower of Babel works very well. Don't expect a carefully researched historical fantasy or a Biblical fable though. For Bancroft, the setting is largely a device that allows the story to progress through different and clearly demarcated realms (there's a definite sequential thing going on here, though less so in book 2). He uses this as licence for a rampant and unembarrassed anachronism; that's something that usually sets my teeth on edge, but here it doesn't come across as lazy but as an utterly believable whimsy. think of the movies of Karel Zeman, say, or Terry Gilliam, or even studio Ghibli, and you might be thinking along the right lines. It's also very fun!
Flaws... Well, it uses a lot of steampunkery, which is a genre I've generally found a bit tiresome; the imagery works great here but is a bit tarnished by association (it might help, actually, if the anachronistically modern elements went more recent than C19th, but YMWV). A harsh critic might complain that the basic plot structures and character relationships are a bit familiar; again, this is likely going to be a matter of taste! Personally I'm a fan of good old storytelling archetypes, if used well, so this satisfies me. A similar thing goes for the language: Bancroft has a nice eloquent turn of phrase, but I can imagine some readers finding it a bit overblown at times.
Overall a bloody good read (along with its sequel, which is even better). Can't wait for more.
In addition, the language used by the writer is several notches up from that usedin much Fantasy writing. It is a ‘literary style’, that’s a pleasure to read. No cliches, no repetitive phrases, but it also doesn’t use long and little used words for the sake of it.
It’s very hard to express my admiration for this book, other than to say that if you had to read one fantasy novel this year from an author new to you, please chose this one (oh, and the follow up book; it’s just as good).
I don’t really care too much about the sub-genres in Fanatsy (Grim dark, Steam Punk, etc) as for me good writing and plot stand on their own. This happens to be Steam Punk, which I’m not overly familiar with. It doesn’t matter, it’s still a great book, though maybe the era does mean that the characters are more recognisably modern in their outlook than for those based in earlier eras.
Senlin Ascends is set in a mythical version of The Tower of Babel with apparently Victorian era characters that mostly seem to be quasi-British. We have airships docking at the various "ringdoms" of the tower and many examples of steam powered machinery.
Thomas Senlin is a studious Headmaster lacking somewhat in passion and spark who has an encyclopedic knowledge of everything around him based on what he has read from books. His real-world experience of most things appears absent. Newly married, he brings his young vivacious wife on a honeymoon journey to The Tower of Babel and promptly loses her in the crowded markets around its base as she sets off to find a "scandalous" dress to wear.
Poor Mrs Senlin appears to have to work far too hard to get the kind of attention from her new husband that a bride would expect on her wedding night. She resorts to innuendo - "would the Tower [of Babel] be tall enough to fill the well beneath it" to try and encourage him. Senlin is not a man of action. If he wants to try and find his bride lost somewhere in the 60 levels of the Tower of Babel he will have to become one. Senlin and his wife appear to be poles apart and early in the story, I felt the urge to grab Senlin by the lapels, give him a shake, and yell at him to show some bravado.
Josiah Bancroft is a talented story teller. Long before the end of the story, I realised that is exactly how I'm supposed to feel about Thomas Senlin, at first. But he is destined to ascend not just the tower, but his own claustrophobic limitations. At this point, I will mention that I think the book cover design is a work of genius. Go and take a hard look at it.
Josiah does an incredible job during in the narrative of simultaneously doing many things - building a world of plotting villainous characters, showing the world of the tower seducing Senlin into abandoning the hopeless search for his wife, giving the impression of his wife moving ever further out of reach into a disastrous new life while Senlin is ever more desperate to find her. It's a little like one of those nightmares where you are trying to reach the door at the end of a corridor that seems to stretch further into the distance the more you strive to try to reach that door.
As it says in the book description, Senlin must become a man of action and that propels the story on a new and more dangerous course.
Senlin Ascends was one of those books where the stuff I have to do in my life got in the way of me reading it. It's going up there on the shelf next to my other all time favourite books.
If you hold a flintlock pistol to my head and force me to find fault with this book there is just one thing I can come up with.
Early on in the narrative and also during the climax, perhaps when Josiah is trying the most to impress the audience, he might have tried just a tad too hard. I felt there were occasionally a few too many metaphors per page. It's a subjective opinion that feels a bit like whispering to Michael Angelo that he may have overused that particularly vivid shade of blue he likes in his painting of the Sistine Chapel ceiling.
Yep, Senlin Ascends is beautifully and almost poetically written and deserves to be recognized as a classic story in the Steampunk genre.
So far I've successfully talked my mother, my wife and one of my friends into buying it. Don't miss out yourself now!
I've moved straight on to reading the next book in this series - The Arm of the Sphinx