I’ve Been Reading: Josiah Bancroft

“EVERYONE IS TALKING”, says the front cover of the beautiful ARC of Josiah Bancroft’s “Senlin Ascends”. Not just a wry allusion to the Biblical Tower of Babel, but a statement backed up by myriad Goodreads quotes, from writers and readers alike, all expressing huge enthusiasm for the book. Bancroft self-published “Senlin” in 2013, and put in a massive amount of legwork promoting the title. Positive whisperings and mutterings accumulated, but the process was extremely draining (as detailed in his first Reddit AMA last winter).

2016 saw Bancroft entering the book into Mark Lawrence’s Self-Published Fantasy Blog-Off, and although it didn’t make the final, it captured the hearts of the tide of new readers it richly deserved, most notably Mark himself. I first heard of “Senlin” by way of Mark (probably on Reddit, I think…) towards the end of that year, and am amongst a kind of secondary crowd of readers attracted by his banner-waving. By the summer of 2017, all this chat about “Senlin Ascends” had echoed up to lofty enough reaches that Orbit got to hear of it, and snapped up all three of the Books of Babel series (“Arm of the Sphinx” was self-published in 2015, and we anxiously await “The Hod King”.)

Much as the train disgorges passengers to be swallowed up by the Tower at the beginning of the book, an eager new audience will flood to get lost in the story’s heights when Orbit releases it in January 2018. This slightly complicated history has given “Senlin Ascends” a relatively long period in which it has been a ‘shiny new discovery’ for the people who have come to it in stages. And hey, when you’ve just discovered something, and that something is wonderful, you do indeed tend to talk about it.

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‘Senlin’ ARC and art loot

Everyone is talking about the adventure in this book. The premise is set up and executed with perfect economy in the opening chapter. Tom Senlin, uptight and socially awkward headmaster, arrives with his new wife, Marya, at the foot of the Tower of Babel, a phenomenal construction about which he has dreamed and taught his students for many years. Within the space of ten pages, his preconceptions have been shattered, his wife has been lost, and his life-long obsession with decorum, rules, and etiquette have to be cast aside. It’s deliciously written: there’s a playfulness of rhythm and musicality to the way Bancroft pens sentences like, “They descended through shale foothills, which he said reminded him of shattered blackboards, through cypress trees, which she said looked like open parasols, and finally they came upon the arid basin.”

Senlin and Marya’s characters are powerfully conveyed in scant few paragraphs, a witty, sweet, orientating breath in the quiet, and then BOOM, we’re off. Robberies, duels, imprisonments, escapes, chases, torture, heists, hijackings, threats, promises: “Senlin Ascends” packs all of this in, escalating the stakes and excitement levels as Senlin makes his way up the various ‘ringdoms’ that comprise each layer of the tower, clinging to tantalisingly thin traces of Marya’s prior passage. The action really is exhilarating: I don’t want to include spoilers, mindful of the pilgrims yet to make their way into the Tower’s front hall, but I will say that when Senlin needs to leave the Baths, and has a time limit within which to do so, there was absolutely no way I was putting the book down until I’d seen him clear, and that the ‘final showdown’ of the novel, which takes place at an airship port in a blizzard, had me literally gasping. And this was my second reading…

Everyone is talking, too, about setting, because without the wildly imaginative backdrop of the Tower, the adventure wouldn’t be half as gripping. Sure, Senlin has plenty of impetus to move through the Tower at pace, but the Tower has no inclination to let him. Its obscure customs, corrupt systems, and sheer geographical weirdness keep him mired in the gloriously bizarre detail of each ringdom. Not artificially, mind: this is still a very pacy book, and Bancroft hasn’t created the Tower only to force the reader through a boring Cook’s tour of all its various crevices. But the world-building casts a powerful spell, creating an irresistible illusion of a complex, fully-formed world. Who built the Tower? Who controls it? What are the upper reaches like? These mysteries only get more potent as “Senlin” progresses.

The conceit of each floor being a different ringdom, with a different ‘personality’, creates huge page-turning momentum. It’s a similar joy (and terror!) to reading Enid Blyton’s “The Faraway Tree” as a child: if you stick your head up, what new and mind-blowing world will you find? “Senlin Ascends” takes us through four of the Tower’s zones: the gloomy, beer-sodden basement, the absurd Parlour theatre, the outwardly luxurious steam-powered Baths, and the terrifying, electric-skied drudge-pit of the Boudoir. Each one would have been robust enough to serve as the setting for an entire novel.

Everyone is talking about the characters. As mentioned above, the first chapter works super hard to leave us with a clear, graspable first image of both Senlin and Marya. He is quiet, and serious, and clings to the comfort of facts: “a reserved and naturally timid man who took confidence in schedules and regimens and written accounts.” She “read books while she walked to town,” “played the piano beautifully but also brutally,” and threatens to kiss camels. We’re told in this first chapter that Senlin “had married for entirely practical reasons,” and it’s likely that he believes this. But what we are shown is a man whose world has already changed, blown apart by the gentle miracle of love.

He seems cold and stuffy and rigid for about five minutes, but there are two threads running through the novel that prove him to be a character of remarkable depth and realism. One thread shows the book’s present, and in this, we see him desperate to find Marya, carrying out acts in turns brave, reckless, genius, and merciless in her pursuit. Through these acts, which make up a breathless and punishing ‘try-fail’ sequence, Senlin gains self-awareness, realising the limits of his world-view, owning up to and looking to grow from his failings. The other thread shows the past, untangling the story of how Senlin and Marya met, and fell in love. I’d argue there’s at least as much character development there: the scene on the station platform is the only bit of the book that draws tears from me! Bancroft structures his chapters with great cunning, so that these threads interweave thematically, keeping Marya present and relevant even though we hardly glimpse her at all within the Tower’s confines. Both Senlin and Marya are delightfully three-dimensional, and I finish “Senlin Ascends” a little bit in love with them both.

There’s a fantastic secondary cast too, of course. Brooding, conscience-torn Adam; heroic, feminist, realist Edith; powerful but deep Iren; jovial, world-worn Tarrou; rebellious, incorrigible, lovable Voleta; and of course the detestable Commander and genuinely horrifying Red Hand… to expand on any of them would be to ruin the story, so suffice to say they are brilliant, and triumphantly diverse. The Books of Babel explore disability and being neurologically atypical in really interesting ways: “Senlin Ascends” is just the beginning in this regard. As Senlin and Marya reveal their many layers in this first book, so the other characters will unravel and find their voices later on. You’re in for a treat…

Finally, everyone is (or should be) talking about the richness of Bancroft’s prose. His background as a poet shines through on every page, but there’s nothing self-satisfied about his written style. There’s just a fabulously confident deployment of sensory detail and of simile, most especially, that makes “Senlin” a vivid, phantasmagorical read. “I like this because of the similes” might seem like a ridiculous, English teacher comment, so to show you what I mean, here’s a particularly wonderful and figuratively dense paragraph, from the beginning of the first chapter of the middle section of the book:

“The tunnel was so rough and uneven that it appeared to have been chewed out by a monstrous worm. There were no brass rails, or arabesque carpets, or white wainscoting here. The passage was as unglamorous as a mineshaft. Engine steam clung to the stone like fog upon glass, so every step forward ended in a reckless, unsteady skid. A chain of electric bulbs, yellow as egg yolks and hardly more illuminating, hung from the ceiling. Through the gloom, Senlin saw no alcoves to hide in and no intersections to dart down. The only way to escape the amazon at his heels, her chains jangling like a tambourine, was to outrun her.”

Isn’t it gorgeous?

I don’t stumble upon this lovely weight of original, vibrant figurative language very often. The imagery suits the book perfectly, too; as Senlin tries to make sense of all the surreal, fantastic, and frightening scenes before him, trying to relate them to things he’s experienced or learned in the past, so too the reader is forced to approach every description from a weird and wonderful perspective. We learn to decode the incredible.

Speaking of being an English teacher, reading “Senlin Ascends” as an educator adds an extra layer of ironic humour. Bancroft punctures Senlin’s teacherly pride with his flashback depictions of our high-minded hero holding forth while his young charges seek to doodle, or beat each other up, or just loll around daydreaming about fishing. Senlin is so sure of himself, so invested in bringing THE KNOWLEDGE to these young minds, totally heedless of their natural inclinations and enthusiasms, or whether THE KNOWLEDGE is actually of any use to them. We’ve all been there! No earnest, worthy, pure-of-heart lesson plan survives first contact, but much of the job is just pretending that it’s all going precisely as you predicted.

The schoolroom farce is funny because the mockery is edged with affection. When Senlin whitewashes the schoolhouse and hammers down every loose nail during the summer break, I recognise that care and thoroughness. That’s a truth of the job, too, and I appreciate Bancroft’s efforts to make Senlin’s profession a multi-faceted aspect of his personality, rather than just a punchline, or a symbol of his rigidity. Also, I love Senlin’s attachment to his guide book to the Tower of Babel. Like many a teacher, he has a textbook, and his belief in that textbook is unwavering (I have a poetry anthology about which I have very similar feelings…). Bancroft uses extracts from this guidebook as chapter epigrams, to brilliantly comic effect, and it’s as much this unravelling of academic certainty that breaks Senlin as it is the physical and emotional hardships he endures. Teachers! You will love this book…

So what genre is “Senlin Ascends”? It’s an adventure novel. A fantastical, weird adventure. I’ve seen the word ‘steampunk’ floating around, and it makes my nose wrinkle a little bit: yeah, there is literal steam-power in this book. There are also airships, and mechanical body parts, and pistols, and gasmasks, and uncanny creatures, and, er, funny brass wall attachments. I feel like the term carries genre and trope expectations that “Senlin” doesn’t fit, however. It’s too weird, too far out there. It’s too old-fashioned… in a good way. In spirit, it’s much closer to the unwitting progenitors of the genre: I can’t help but think HG Wells (himself a teacher) would have checked it out of the library and gasped happily into a little sherry as the action unfolded. While I’m chucking comparisons around, it tickled the same part of my brain as Mervyn Peake’s writing: a very lean, much faster Gormenghast. It also reminded me of watching Terry Gilliam’s “The Adventures of Baron Munchausen” as a child: the same massively imaginative, topsy-turvy, oh-shit-this-is-actually-scary awe. Other reviews will point you in the direction of more accurate comparative book titles; I don’t think my brain works that way. Also, I wouldn’t want to narrow it down: “Senlin” will appeal to readers in so many of the different corners of the fantasy genre.

To conclude… I love this novel. It has an amazing, attention-grabbing setting, a plot that gallops at a thrilling, headlong pace, language to die for and characters I can believe in and feel for. 2017 has seen some exciting things happen in my life, but has also thrown up a lot of challenges; obviously on a global scale, it has been a total shitshow. I first read “Senlin Ascends” in January, and finished my re-read in November, so it has bracketed my year. Both times, I needed an escape, to burrow into a book and lose myself there, like I used to do with Robert Jordan’s novels when I was a teen. Both times, “Senlin” scooped me up in a sulphur-scented hug. It works like that: it draws you in to something exciting and distracting, but it’s also deep and hopeful and full of the strength of human spirit.

It’s also incredibly inspiring. To experience a book so original and imaginative and beautiful, and to know it took such perseverance and energy to get it out there… it’s a bit awe-inducing, as a baby writer. But there’s a path. He’s many floors above me in the writer’s Tower, but Bancroft is keen to leave muddy footprints on the walkways, so that others can follow. That gives “Senlin Ascends” a very special place in my heart.

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The Tower of Lipstick

You see, Josiah is such a warm and generous human being (he sent me this book just for building him a tower of lipstick: fancy that!), which is icing on the marvellously baroque cake. He always has time for those still daubing literary paint around in the manner of Ogier, and is a great cheerleader for others’ victories. The success of the Books of Babel is so thoroughly deserved, and I wish him all the best for the Orbit releases of “Senlin Ascends” and its sequel “Arm of the Sphinx” next year.

You can read “Senlin” news from Orbit here : the updated covers have just been released and are gorgeous.

Josiah is on Twitter here.

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