Senlin Ascends by Josiah Bancroft
This is an exceedingly rich book. A depth of imagination married with a poetic turn of phrase and an engaging cast of characters (both those we meet and those who keep us waiting) conspire to deliver an epic story soaring high above the clouds.
The engine of the fantastic story is a terrifyingly ordinary dilemma. Thomas Senlin has got separated from Marya – his wife of a few short days – on the very threshold of their once in a lifetime trip to the legendary tower of Babel. The wonderful honeymoon they planned rapidly turns into an extended nightmare as Senlin navigates the tortuous ringworlds of the tower in a bid to find his missing spouse.
Despite the high (and entirely justified) praise for this book from Mark Lawrence and others – I hesitated to throw myself into it. The simple disaster that all but overwhelms Senlin was almost too personal, the pain and despair of his predicament too credible. For a terrifying handful of minutes, my wife and I once lost our youngest daughter (then aged four) at Disneyland Paris. Against the anxiety such a kind of separation provokes, threats of global disaster and the collapse of civilisation as we know it pale into justified irrelevance.
I feared this book – with its poignant central premise – would seize me and not let go, and so it did. I began by dipping my toe somewhat carefully into the seductive prose, allowed myself to gradually soak in the ambiance of the disparate worlds – or ringdoms – that Bancroft has created on each level of his extraordinary tower. However, like the Tower of Babel itself, the story soon drew me in and swallowed me whole, until I was cantering through the last quarter of the book in a single sitting.
Thomas Senlin himself is the most unlikely yet likeable hero since a certain hobbit rushed out of Bag End leaving his second breakfast half-finished and entirely unwashed-up. A teacher, headmaster and man of letters, he is a character who has travelled far in his mind through the medium of books. A man who thinks being learned makes him worldly. He soon discovers that theory has left him ill-equipped to face practice, that books seldom tell the whole or even a partial truth, and that there are few more unworldly people than those who are over-read and under-travelled.
But he journeys on, he learns lessons, many lessons – some of them quite painful – and he grows as he climbs, so much so that the Thomas Senlin on the last page of the book would be quite unrecognisable to the one on the first page. And watching his honest self-reflection at each setback and his stubborn determination to come back and rise above it – the reader finds in him the living embodiment of the maxim “teacher teach thyself.”
On reading Mr Bancroft’s author page, I discovered he has also published poetry and there is something special that a poet brings with them to the world of prose, a respect and versatility with words that makes for exquisite reading. I first saw Chitty Chitty Bang Bang when I was very young and the child catcher was truly terrifying. Many years later I learned the actor was in fact a dancer by profession and he brought that skill to inject a special malevolence into his prancing preying gait across the town square. In the same way Bancroft makes his words dance with some beautifully poetic writing, meanings within meanings that work on as many levels as his multi-storied tower.
To pick out a few of the many spots I book marked, there is when Senlin reflects on the weathering of his humble school house.
Each spring, the schoolhouse was painted as white as a bride, and every year the oceanic elements slowly undressed it.
In a back street within a city within the confines of the tower, we see,
Shutters hung unevenly from glassless windows, and laundry lines sutured the alleyways.
In a flower filled room we are told,
The air was so cloyed with perfume it smelled almost like rot.
Each chapter is preceded by a quote initially from Senlin’s only book and precious almanac Everyman’s Guide to the Tower of Babel. For example, chapter three begins with the observation,
Even beauty diminishes with study. It is better to glance than to gawk.
The whole book is riddled with pithy asides – I heard once of a book the Tao of Pooh which drew out deep philosophical messages within A. A. Milne’s Pooh Bear stories. So too, in Bancroft’s work, there are flashes of insight that shine brightly enough to illuminate well beyond the book and the world he has created.
And Senlin is the archetypal everyman – the ordinary person thrust unwilling and unwitting into extra-ordinary circumstances. It is perhaps a measure of the man’s transformation – from everyone to someone – that after a while the guide is supplanted as the herald of wisdom at the start of each chapter and we begin to hear Senlin’s own voice.
The tower is the star. The tower draws people to it as ancient Rome once must have – all (rail)roads seem to lead there and if the everyman guide is to be believed one might imagine that when one is tired of Babel one is tired of life. Certainly it lays a spell on those who surround and inhabit it, a reek of humanity – and in its rich variety it makes all other fantasy cities feel terribly two dimensional. Different as each ringdom is, there is a thread of meaning, of common purpose, that links their bizarre architecture and strange machines. Indeed, as Senlin gradually discovers the entire tower appears to be itself a machine and the millions of tourists unwitting workers within it – drawn into its embrace by a delusion of advertising. And so we begin to suspect there is an epic story spiralling around the frail central thread of one man’s quest to find his wife.
Senlin finds companions, allies maybe, friends – perhaps not – for the tower is a lace of treachery and self-interest. Those who would help him in his search will first demand some service on one side or the other of the tower’s multi-faceted factions. As Senlin learns to be guarded – though not miserly – with his trust, we hope that he will teach others to be more generous with theirs and that they in response will lead him to Marya.
Our glimpse of Marya is so brief before she disappears from the reader and her husband’s sight. Yet it is enough for us to want to know her better, enough to fear never seeing her again, enough to tremble for the trials her husband must face in pursuit of her. The one reassurance we have is that she appears more capable in practical matters than her schoolmaster husband. She is no Rapunzel waiting helplessly for a princely rescue.
The accounts we are given into their courtship have a charming innocence and yet a subtle lewdness – that depicts two people wholly and deservedly absorbed in each other. I found myself smiling and blushing at a conversation they had on their train journey to the tower. Marya, lying close beside Senlin in their narrow travel bed, interrupts his regaling of her with Babel facts about the height of the Tower and the depth of the well within it.
“If it were wide enough, would the Tower be tall enough to fill the well?”
When he blusters, she replies,
“It’s possible?” she said, her mouth near his blushing ear.
“Possible,” he confirmed. And the moon flickered through the aspens and the car sawed from side to side carrying them further from familiar things.
The all too brief insights that other witnesses give us of Marya’s own adventures re-affirm her resourcefulness, her pragmatism, her freespirit, her fidelity. And yet the fear that fills us (well, me and Senlin) as their separation becomes more extended, is that Marya may not so much have been lost, as been changed.
Senlin is transformed, why not Marya too. We hope the practicality with which she was so much better supplied than her husband may have armoured her against her own trials and tribulations. That, being better equipped for the ordeal, she might have survived it better. But as a reader I awaited the longed for reunion with as much anxious trepidation as her husband.
Don’t get me wrong, there is much much more to those book, in the quality of Bancroft’s writing and the breadth of his imagination than one man searching for his wife. There are characters to die for and characters to cry for. There is a story of epic fantasy within it being teased out with the care of an archaeologist scraping sand from a buried mosaic. But, for me – like Senlin – it was always about Marya . . . but then, I have a fondness for red-haired, green eyed heroines.
This review appeared first on Fantasy-Faction on November 8, 2016.