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[Book review]: The Books of Babel by Josiah Bancroft

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Senlin Ascends by Josiah Bancroft

 

Senlin and his new wife, Marya, have decided to visit the fabled Tower of Babel for their honeymoon. The vast tower, miles wide and unfathomably tall, is divided into many different levels or "ringdoms", each level controlled by a different force and fulfilling a different function. Reaching the tower, Senlin loses his wife in the crowds and desperately tries to find her. This requires him to begin an ascent of the tower, searching for clues to her whereabouts and learning more about the powers that control it...and learning more about what he is capable of.

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. The author's website is here and you can follow him on Twitter here.

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Arm of the Sphinx by Josiah Bancroft

 

 

Senlin's quest to recover his wife from the Tower of Babel has led him from a quiet life as a schoolteacher to an unlikely new career as an air buccaneer, scouring the skies around the Tower for a way of finding his way back inside. A series of unlikely mishaps leads him and his crew to the domain of the mysterious and enigmatic Sphinx, the master-inventor who oversees everything in the Tower for their own inscrutable - and unscrupulous - purpose. There they must face their greatest and most formidable challenge yet: recovering a book from a library.

Arm of the Sphinx is the second volume of The Books of Babel and the sequel to Senlin Ascends, already the best book I've read this year. Like its forebear, Arm of the Sphinx is a clever, witty, beautifully-written, offbeat and joyously engaging slice of speculative fiction that grabs hold from the first page and doesn't let go until the end.

Arm of the Sphinx is a different novel, however, with the author changing things up. Senlin Ascends was primarily told from Senlin's POV and he was the primary character. In Arm of the Sphinx the viewpoint now expands and we get POV sections from all of the other characters. This fleshes them out in much greater detail, giving each character their own internal and external struggle to deal with, and allows the reader to re-assess Senlin. It was easy to feel sorry for Senlin and motivated to root for him when we saw his viewpoint on everything. When we get to see what others think of him, something of a re-appraisal is in order.

Bancroft also wrong-foots the reader. If you thought this was going to be another whistlestop tour of the ringdoms of Babel with lots of stand-alone-ish adventures in each new locale before we get a fresh clue to Marya's whereabouts and set off again...then you're kind of correct. But things aren't as predictable as that. The new ringdom of the Silk Gardens is bizarre and strange, forming a slightly surreal mini-adventure that doesn't immediately connect to the rest of the book around it. But it's clearly laying groundwork for later events, and I suspct this will turn out to be a very key episode in the series. The rest of the book is set in the Sphinx's domain and sees our heroes split up into smaller groups. We learn a lot about them even as the Sphinx does, but we also learn more about the Sphinx and the ultimate purpose of the Tower, which starts moving things in a more SF direction. However, we also learn some more about the world, and can start forming more of an idea if this is supposed to be the Biblical Tower or not.

There's also a harrowing solo adventure for Senlin and the introduction of the best librarian in fantasy fiction since that one that goes "Ook". Arm of the Sphinx packs an awful lof of story, character and incident into its pleasingly restrained page count (370 pages in paperback).

Arm of the Sphinx (*****) is available now in the UK and USA. The third book in the series, The Hod King, is due out next year. The author's website is here and you can follow him on Twitter here.

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