Book Review – Senlin Ascends, by Josiah Bancroft

I am, I confess, something of a hypocrite.

As a self-published author, I naturally harbor a constant hope that readers will be willing to take a chance on books like mine.

On the other hand, being a slow reader with a finite lifespan, I generally only read books that have come highly recommended, either by people whose opinions I trust, or by the greater sphere of readership-and-review at large. For better or worse, most of these tend to be traditionally published works. (Sobering thought: I am 47 years old and lucky to read 40 books in a year. If I live to be 80 and maintain my faculties right up until the end, I only have about 1300 books left in me.)

Still, in fairness to the self-pub world I occupy, I am more than willing to read a self-published book if it achieves the requisite recommendations and/or accolades I would demand of traditionally published fare. That is how I came to choose Josiah Bancroft’s Senlin Ascends, a book I cannot recommend too highly.

Senlin Ascends defies easy categorization. It is part steampunk, and part what is called “The New Weird” (of which Perdido Street Station is probably the best known example). It features a mild-mannered small-town school headmaster, who takes his new bride on a honeymoon to the Tower of Babel. The tower is the Weird part; it’s an enormous and mysterious tourist destination full of wonders, oddities and (as it turns out, to Thomas Senlin’s chagrin) a huge amount of danger. Senlin becomes separated from his wife Marya early on, and the book tells of his journey into the tower to find her.

While the setting is undoubtedly fascinating and the characters well-drawn, it’s the wordsmithing that’s the star of the show here. Josiah Bancroft is a sultan of the simile, a maestro of metaphor, a Rembrandt of painting scenes in language at once clear but evocative. Senlin Ascends is more literature than fantasy pulp.

Here, for example, is how the main character, Thomas Senlin, describes the season of spring to someone who has never been outside:

“Spring is gray and miserable and rainy for three or four weeks while the snow melts. The ditches turn into creeks and everything you own is clammy as a frog belly. Then one morning, you walk outside and the sun is out and the clover has grown over the ditches and the trees  are pointed with leaves, like ten thousand green arrowheads, and the air smells like…” and here he had to fumble for a phrase, “like a roomful of stately ladies and one wet dog.”

There’s mild irony in me having chosen that as my favorite paragraph, because Bancroft never feels like he’s fumbling for a phrase. His colorful descriptions feel natural in a way that fills me, as a writer, with unavoidable jealousy.

I experienced only the tiniest hiccup in my reading of the book, one which most readers will probably not even notice. The vast majority of the book is written in 3rd-person limited, meaning the reader is shown only things that the main character thinks or witnesses. But on one or two occasions that point-of-view slips into 3rd-person omniscient, and never consistently enough to make it seem intentional.

Also, readers should be warned that Senlin Ascends is the first book in a series, and while it ends satisfactorily, it does not wrap up the main plotline. The second book, Arm of the Sphinx, has already been published, but the third book (Working title The Hod King) has not yet been released.

But, as I want to end this on a positive note, let me sum up: Senlin Ascends is frikkin’ fantastic and you should read it. It’s unlike anything else I’ve read, is vastly entertaining, and is exquisitely crafted. Best of all, it proves that self-published fantasy fiction can be every bit as high quality as what gets through the forbidding gates of the traditional publishing empire.

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