Book Review: Senlin Ascends – Josiah Bancroft, narrated by John Banks

My rating: 5 dragons

Senlin Ascends Cover

Overview

I LOVED Senlin Ascends. I really, really loved it. I’d heard so much about this self-published novel that had gone on to secure a publishing contract that it appealed to my author side as well as my reader side. It was recommended by a good friend of mine, and I decided to get the audiobook version, which was narrated expertly by John Banks. It was so expertly narrated, in fact, that my next audiobook has been chosen specifically because of him! (It’ll be the Dragon Lords: Fool’s Gold, for anyone wondering!)

I’ve not read anything quite like Senlin Ascends. From the outset, I knew it was going to be a slow story, and I knew the premise: a couple went on a honeymoon to the Tower of Babel, became separated, and then the story followed Senlin as he ascended each “ringdom” of the tower. I understood the title character, Thomas Senlin, to be, “by the book,” and would gradually change during his time in the tower. That was all I knew, and it was more than enough to make me want to read this.

I just… It’s a wonderful, wonderful read. Thomas and his wife Maria are brilliant characters. There were times I laughed out loud, and other times that brought me to tears. I love character-driven stories, and Senlin is a fantastic protagonist. It’s fantastic to see him change and adapt and grow as the story progresses.

Thomas encounters a number of characters during his ascent – all of whom are colourful and charismatic – all of whom add layers of depth to this fantastic story, and the tower itself is a character all its own. I guessed a couple of the twists and turns in the later chapters, but I have very little to complain about.

The pacing is slow. Glacially slow. But in its slowness, we get to unravel Senlin and learn who he is and what makes him tick. The story wouldn’t work otherwise. I also love the fact that Bancroft was able to tell the story as he wished to tell it by virtue of self-publishing. There were no editors telling him to chop and change and cut, which is fantastic. It’s a pure, escapism story, with some incredibly poignant moments interspersed with dark violence, humour, wrapped up in an absolutely breath-taking setting.

The Tower is indeed its own character. It’s a fable, and yet real, and still shrouded in mystery. Each ringdom of the tower (the total number is up for debate, but I imagine it to be somewhere 60 rings high) is a completely different locale, with different individuals inhabiting it, and behaving to different rules.

We get to visit a number of these ringdoms with Senlin, and I won’t spoil anything by saying how many, but they are each unique and wondrous, if not downright scary. Senlin has his own theories about how they interlink – I suppose as a school Headmaster, he would – but I was happy to just bask in the incredible imagination of Bancroft’s world.

The wider world is hinted at – and we visit areas of it in flashbacks – however the book is primarily set at the tower, beginning on the approach to it by train. I cared for the world and for the people in it. I shuddered at the unfairness of the rules and regulations that bound and crippled and killed those unfortunate enough to land on the wrong side of things.

Things I loved

Originality and uniqueness. It has to be the first strength listed. I’ve never known anything like it. It’s fantasy and steampunk and modern and yet not, all in the same breath. The Tower is NOT somewhere I’d like to visit, especially not after seeing the scrapes Senlin managed to get himself in and out of! The people, the power, the “magic,” the machinery… Electricity is a new discovery, yet found in abundance on one ringdom.

Prose. This is written so beautifully. It got to the point where I no longer imagined the story, I was there with it, watching it happen, feeling the heat, the pain, the stress, the fear, the elation. I adore Bancroft’s writing style immensely, and it was brought to life by Banks’s outstanding narration. It’s a book to read slowly, to get lost in, to understand how writing can be art and dream and story all in one!

Senlin. Such a wonderful protagonist, even if I did want to shake him violently several times! As protagonists go, he is brilliant. Flawed and honest and determined and cowardly and so very human. He’s put into tough situations and has to make tough decisions. But his growth was wonderful to see. He is in a VERY different place at the end of the book than the beginning. A wonderful character fleshed out even more with his flashbacks and love of kites, and so many other little details that brought him to life.

Other characters. There are a number of side characters, but each leaves their mark. From Maria to Edith to Adam to Fin to the red hand. The painters, the actors, the guards, the ones with power… so many fantastic characters bring the world to life and are wonderful adversaries and allies for Senlin to interact with.

Vast, endless imagination. I had no idea what was going to happen half the time. The settings were so vastly different, so completely out of this world and yet so very real. I have no idea how long it took Bancroft to develop the settings, the people to populate them, or Senlin’s actual journey. It’s a vivid imagination, and the world has a dreamlike quality that can quickly shift into a nightmarish one.

Things I didn’t like

Pacing. I don’t mind slow books at all, but there were a couple of points where I felt it dragged on slightly TOO much. Coupled with the fact it’s such an incredible setting, I wanted to skip ahead to find out what was going to happen to Senlin next / where was he going to find himself after this next tangle.

Final thoughts

If you’re looking for something quirky, surreal, incredibly well-written, with a cast of fantastic characters, then this is a book you can savour for a long time. I cannot wait for the sequel, which I’ll definitely pick up in audiobook on account of Banks’s superb narration. I cannot wait to re-enter this world in the sequel and see where Senlin’s story goes next.

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