22/25 (88%) 4.5 stars.
So. I finally read this. Many thanks go out to everyone who kept recommending this one to me because reading this has been a joy. The first couple of chapters were just okay, but once Thomas Senlin entered the Parlor, this had me hooked. Good work, Mr Bancroft: Senlin Ascends is an intricately constructed introduction into a fascinating and original setting, carried by a wonderful protagonist.
While the worldbuilding, that elegant combination of the biblical Tower of Babel myth and steampunk elements, is truly outstanding, what really carries this thing through to the end is Thomas Senlin himself. Yes, he is naive. Yes, he does stupid things. Yes, he’s passive for far too long. But:
Firstly, he’s so relatable. He’s that normal, boring guy who suddenly has to face the breakdown of his entire world, hopes, and beliefs, who is suddenly confronted with the harsh reality of the Tower that isn’t the wonderful place he’s expected it to be – so of course he’s overwhelmed and incompetent at the start of it. But still, Tom Senlin goes on, fist like Bilbo Baggins, then with iron determination because it doesn’t matter that he’s out of his depth: he simply can’t leave without finding the elusive Marya.
„I have never been lonely in my life, but you have made me lonely. When you are gone, I am a moping ruin. I thought I understood the world fairly well. But you have made it all mysterious again. And it’s unnerving and frightening and wonderful, and I want it to continue. I want all your mysteries.“
Secondly, he’s refreshingly incorruptible. Senlin has his princpiples, he’s pretty much a steadfast tin soldier, and it’s been a long time since I’ve last read such an honest, good, relatable character. Yes, I love antiheros. But sometimes, even I need a hero who’s pure at heart.
„Because, see, by the time they get this deep into the Tower, most have had the character beaten out of them. They are willing to say anything to get what they want. You can’t reason with them or trust them. To know a person, to understand their character, you must know who they were before the Tower shook them to their roots. If you do not know how they changed, you do not know who they became. The very fact that you are resistant to me now is a sign that you are the man for the job.“
I also really enjoyed what Bancroft did with his side characters, how they enter and leave this story and pop up again – everything is interwoven expertly. It all comes together, piece by piece, so that the impressive ending sequence doesn’t feel like deus ex machina at all. The same goes for the plot: nothing happens suddenly. There are always small hints before something happens, but then other stuff happens in between so that you forget about it – then that something happens and you’re both surprised and satisfied because you could’ve seen it coming. It’s that small Rohan moment readers really cherish – excellent, Mr Bancroft.
The only thing I didn’t like in terms of characters was how quickly Senlin accepted that job offer. I’d have preferred more of an internal conflict during that scene, but on the other hand, he had to make that choice right at that moment, so I see why Bancroft chose to write it like he did.
The setting and worldbuilding are, as I said, oustanding. This feels original and familiar at the same time, it’s one of these instances where you’re thinking: „Why didn’t I think of that?“… before realising that you could never come up with something like this yourself. The whole way Bancroft constructs his Tower, the individual ringdoms and the purpose they serve, is brilliant. Brilliant.
But something’s missing for me, people. Call it the X factor, call it vibes: while I really, really enjoyed reading this, it didn’t touch me like other books did. I have no idea why. Maybe it’s because I haven’t followed a single narrator through an entire book for a long time. Maybe I’m having the first reading slump of my life. But whatever it is, this book didn’t reach my iron heart. It’s a pageturner, it’s well-written, but it’s not an instant favourite or something. My guess that I just didn’t feel the stakes.
Yes, I think that’s it. Throughout the entire book, I wasn’t afraid for Tom Senlin. I wasn’t afraid that anything bad would happen to him, and somehow, I need that bit of angst, I think, which is why this does get only 4.5 stars in the end – but I’m really looking forward to read the sequels, and maybe they’ll give me that special spark this one didn’t have.
Writing Style 4