Senlin Ascends: The Books of Babel #1, Josiah Bancroft; John Banks, narrator (Hachette Audio 978-154916787-4, $24.98, digital download, 14.25 hr., unabridged) January 2018.
There’s been a quiet buzz about this steampunkish series ever since the author self-published the first book in 2012; the Hachette Book Group has picked the books up for wider distribution, and I’m happy to have this chance to review this first audio production, narrated with calm authority by John Banks.
Thomas Senlin, a school headmaster from a small fishing village, has always dreamed of visiting the fabulous Tower of Babel, and persuades his young, vivacious wife Maria to spend their honeymoon there. But their plan for an idyll on the third level known as the Baths is spoiled almost as soon as they step off the train. First, Maria’s luggage disappears in the tumultuous market surrounding the Tower’s base, and then Maria herself vanishes. Senlin is left alone to pursue his missing wife up the various ringdoms of the Tower. Every ringdom is entirely different than what he was led to expect from his curiously inadequate guidebook, equally full of wonders and squalor, and governed by strange rules enforced by a brutal justice when they are violated. Senlin must use his wits and triumph over his sheltered naiveté if he is to find Maria. But is it a mistake to so stubbornly rely on the new friends he makes, despite a multitude of warnings to trust no one?
Although Senlin is clearly a riff on a provincial Englishman in foreign parts, we are not actually in our world, which leaves Banks to develop creative choices with accents for all the characters, which I thought worked quite well. I particularly enjoyed the musical Irish-sounding voice he adopted for Finn Goll (well, I guess Finn is an Irish name), the ruthless shipping magnate/crimelord who manipulates Senlin into working for him.
This story is a classic everyman’s journey, in which our hero gains new insights as he travels to strange places. It has its charm, but the pacing can occasionally be a bit slow, particularly when we wait for Senlin to realize certain obvious truths: The listener will know the traitor in Senlin’s ranks far, far before he will. He does get there eventually, though, and Bancroft’s worldbuilding (towerbuilding?) is richly detailed and intriguing. I will likely continue to accompany Senlin on the later stages of his search.
This review and more like it in the April 2018 issue of Locus.
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