Senlin Ascends by Josiah Bancroft, Review: An Imaginative World with Unimaginative Characters

Josiah Bancroft’s Senlin Ascends is a curious beast. Initially self-published in 2013, it became something of a sleeper hit in the science-fiction/fantasy book community. It was recently republished by Orbit Books, leading to its wider distribution and almost overwhelmingly positive reviews. Yet despite high Goodreads ratings and glowing reviews from science fiction-focused outlets such as Tor.com and Forbidden Planet, it has received scant attention from mainstream reviewers.

Senlin Ascends tells the tale of Thomas Senlin, headmaster in a small seaside town, honeymooning in his dream destination: the Tower of Babel – a huge, fantastic construction. Before they even make it inside, however, Senlin loses Marya, his bride, in the vast bustling market at the Tower’s base. He soon ventures inside the Tower in search of her.

At its best, Senlin Ascends is reminiscent of Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities in its accounts of fantastical city-scapes; and of Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast, through its invocation of an almost self-contained society in a vast architectural confinement. As these comparisons suggest, it is the novel’s setting that is most striking, standing out from the space stations and medieval European cities that abound in science-fiction and fantasy works. Bancroft also evokes Steampunk elements (a science-fiction sub-genre, based around steam-based technology), creating a nineteenth-century atmosphere, complete with bicycles, bonnets, watch-chains and gaslights, alongside airships and steam-driven systems working inside the Tower.

Senlin Ascends by Josiah Bancroft, Orbit Books
Senlin Ascends by Josiah Bancroft, Orbit Books

In its depiction of a grimy, unglamorous alternative to the nineteenth century, the novel recalls the video-game world in Dishonored. There are other points of comparison: the sense of discrete ‘levels’ for the hero to conquer, and missions needing to be carried out, such as the stealthy theft of a painting. But while this episodic structure is entertaining, it is perhaps better suited to a video game than a novel.

There are further problems with the novel’s narrative. The final act becomes messy, with various confusing plans put in motion while characters run around from place to place without a clear sense of purpose. The latter half incorporates an extract from Thomas Senlin’s journal, interrupting the third-person narrative for no apparent reason. Chunks of backstory are filled in using flashbacks that are too full of exposition and disrupt the story’s flow.

There is an individuality and inventiveness to the narrative voice in Senlin Ascends. Bancroft enjoys playing with language, lending an air of charm that sweeps the reader along. But his experiments do not always succeed: some of his phrases – such as describing a young women as ‘exuding an erotic sap’ – fall flat. Although imaginative, his writing is frequently overblown: ‘The afternoon sun no longer dazzled but seemed rather like a scaly disease that scabbed the tourists and blighted the pastel hotels.’ These issues combined with the novel’s structural problems affect the reader’s immersion in Bancroft’s fascinating world.

One of the quotes on the book’s cover declares the protagonist to be ‘the most unlikely yet likeable hero since a certain hobbit rushed out of Bag End’ (Fantasy Faction). But Thomas Senlin so neatly fits the Baggins-esque mould of the ‘unlikely hero’ that he is ultimately too conventional. Bancroft clearly intended for him to be an ‘everyman’ character that readers can identify with, but he represents only one social group: middle-class, straight, white men who yearn for adventure. Not being in that category myself, I wondered how the novel might have been different had Bancroft applied his ingenuity to his protagonist. What would the story have looked like if Edith, a 34-year old farmer, or Iren, a morally ambiguous ‘amazon’, had taken the lead? Moreover, Senlin’s development is not entirely believable. His rapid transformation from a mild-mannered and reserved teacher into a resourceful, daring hero is accelerated during the book’s final part in a way not entirely accounted for.

If Thomas Senlin puts the ‘man’ in ‘everyman’, this might have been less wearisome had Bancroft’s treatment of his female characters been more nuanced. Two out of the four main female characters in the novel, Senlin’s wife and a friend’s sister Voleta, are presented merely in terms of their significance to men, and both are placed in danger of sexual violence or degradation. Marya falls victim to a ‘wifemonger’, while Voleta is forced into erotic burlesque performances, and the threat of coercive sex work constantly hangs over her. Yet it is the emotional responses of Senlin and his male friend to these incidents that Bancroft is most concerned with, rather than those of Marya and Voleta.

It is troublesome too that the central emotional thread in the novel, the romance between Senlin and Marya, originates in a teacher-student relationship. Not only is Marya ‘his junior by a dozen years’, but she was also his student at his hometown’s only school. The pedagogical origin of their romance – Senlin ‘driven to punishing her on a near daily basis’ at the beginning of their encounters – goes entirely unchallenged. While Marya is an adult by the start of the story’s main narrative, she remains childlike: innocent, questioning, playful in the face of Senlin’s didacticism. This loops uncomfortably back to Senlin’s position as an everyman figure with whom the reader is intended to identify. His marriage to Marya resembles a certain male fantasy, one which involves possessing and educating a younger woman.

Senlin Ascends nevertheless remains imaginative, entertaining and engaging. There are aspects of social satire and commentary in its depiction of class hierarchies and the hidden structural oppression in the Tower of Babel. While the commentary is not as subtle or inventive as China Mieville’s The City and the City, it still has depth, making it more than a straightforward, rollicking adventure. As the first in a series of four books, one can only hope that its shortcomings will be addressed in the following instalments.

Senlin Ascends by Josiah Bancroft is out now from Orbit, paperback £8.99.

Simone Webb is a PhD student in Gender Studies at University College London and aspiring film writer. She can be found tweeting about films and academia on @SimoneWebbUCL