Fiction Reviews

Senlin Ascends

(2013/2017) Josiah Bancroft, Orbit, £8.99, pbk, 429pp, ISBN 978-0-356-51081-1


This is a good, old-fashioned, romp. And I mean each and every one of those words.

Good. I would recommend this book to anyone who’s looking for a well-written, first instalment (there are no clues about how many volumes there are to come, other than we know the next is called Arm of the Sphinx). Set on the Tower of Babel, which has either lasted all the centuries since the description of the start of its construction in the book of Genesis in the Bible, or it’s a new build (if so, it doesn’t have any ‘affordable housing’). The hero of this tale is Thomas Senlin, head teacher, who has travelled to the Tower with his new bride, Marya: this is their honeymoon. Thomas possesses a guidebook to the Tower, which he soon discovers is a work of fiction (and potentially designed to entice and trap new victims).

Old-fashioned. There are a number of Steam-punk elements in the tale – dirigibles/balloons are one way to move between levels of the Tower, there is a burlesque show on one of the levels – with musical accompaniment on an organ - and one of the returning characters has between episodes gained a mechanical arm (her natural one having had to be removed because of gangrene, caused when she is branded). Thomas himself has a number of Victorian attitudes, particularly with regard to sex and manners, which he is forced to abandon during the course of the book (and I suspect the others). His bride is considerably younger than him, and he is shocked when the first thing she wants to do on reaching the Tower (having arrived by steam-train), is buy a ‘scandalous’ frock. ‘Just a little something to disgrace our clothesline back home.’ ‘He felt uneasy.’

Romp. When she goes off to buy the frock, she disappears for the rest of the book (apart from a scene which sets up events, possibly in the next book, or the next, or the next …). And so begins Thomas’ search for his wife as he progresses up the Tower (they arranged to meet on an upper level if they were ever separated), with each level a new assault on his morals. There are elements here of Dante’s description of the circles of hell, or Pilgrim's Progress. At various times he has a new companion on his journey, who then reappear later in another instalment. He is by turn an actor in a drama, a prisoner in a cage, an art thief, a Port Master, a pirate captain of a stolen dirigible. He learns how to fist fight (badly) and fire a gun. This is a romp.

There is very little which was not to like. I would have really appreciated some sort of ‘map’ to the Tower, or at least to the part which is featured in this volume – anything more would probably give any number of games away. Some of the action seemed a bit forced or unclear. The book began as a self-published novel in 2013, and I just wonder how much it was or wasn’t edited by Orbit.

But these are minor quibbles. I look forward to the next instalment.

Peter Young

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