Fully in its third wave (hopefully nearing its end), its fair to say steampunk has begun to exhaust itself. We need a break for it to revitalize. Its components and devices have been deployed to the point of achieving stereotype status, and it has been combined in the majority of ways possible with other genres. Gone are the days when steampunk was unaware it was steampunk, and originality along with it. But every once in a while a book will poke its nose from the crowd and say: ‘Hey, novelty is still possible. Steampunk is still viable.’ Welcome to Josiah Bancroft’s wonderful debut Senlin Ascends (2013).
Set in the Silk Age, Senlin Ascends tells of the adventures of Thomas Senlin, a school headmaster from the countryside. Falling in love and marrying the energetic, intelligent but younger Marya, the newlywed couple decide to take their honeymoon in a place Senlin has long studied and taught his students about but never visited: the tower of Babel. Not the tower of biblical fame, the Silk Age’s tower is of a different age, but remains a massive structure rising into the clouds like layers on a cake. The first days of the honeymoon not going as planned, Senlin is separated from Marya almost directly after arrival, forcing him to set out in search of her. Following clues and bits of information provided by people who saw her, Senlins slowly ascends the ringdoms of the tower looking for his lost wife. Its convolutions threatening to derail his quest at every step, Senlin must dig deep within himself to find the fortitude necessary to meet its challenges.
My early notes from Senlin Ascends read ‘strong Jules Verne-esque adventure’. A classic British gentleman out of his element caught up in an escapade beyond his control, Bancroft’s novel possesses the spirit of Around the World in Eighty Days or Journey to the Center of the Earth. But at a certain point, I added the note: ‘… with a splash of Jonathan Swift”. Surreal balanced with steampunk adventure, the situations Senlin finds himself him steer just a hair wider than ‘readily explainable’. Certainly the physical details of Senlin’s daily life, the tower, and the people he meets are exposited in a fashion that is intended to be understood as real. But the connections between the novel’s components and motivations for the scenes are not always so. In an early scene, Senlin follows a crowd of people making their way higher into the tower. They are stopped and forced to participate in a theater production—to be actors—if they want to reach the next ringdom. Rules, neither completely strange nor completely logical, are given them for their performance, costumes are handed out, and the people are ushered onto a closed stage. Unsure whether the play has begun given there is no audience or director, Senlin looks at what the other people are doing, and follows suit. There are several other scenes which have a similar air, but I daresay this single scene sums up the novel’s relationship to its fictional reality.
Another reason I changed my mind on the Jules Verne parallels is how Senlin Ascends balances its light and dark elements. Not wholly a light hearted affair of a British gentleman out of his element where the reader is lead to assume there will be a happy ending, Senlin Ascends has a darker, more uncertain vibe. In one moment Senlin may be overlooking sculpted, florid baths with mechanical hippos spewing water, and in another be forced to watch a woman as she is gruesomely branded for breaking the most trivial of tower laws. There is rarely a sense of real danger or threat hanging over Senlin’s head, but certainly the reader is never lead to trust their gut on the outcome of his quest. Heightening suspense in the search for Marya, the novel is more engaging for its interplay of dark, light, and things between.
Regarding technique, it appears Bancroft is one of those writers with strong natural instinct. For a first novel, the prose is tight and precise, pace is neither too fast or slow, worldbuilding is integrated with dialogue and plot development, and there is a confidence unpacking the story that sustains itself from the outset to the thrilling climax. I have seen some reviewers compare Senlin Ascends to Scott Lynch’s Lies of Locke Lamora. Ignore that. Senlin Ascends is by far the better written, not to mention the more sophisticated text.
In the end, Senlin Ascends is a solid debut novel. It loses a bit of focus as it comes in for a landing, the title is a bit thin, and dialogue could have done with a bit sharper edge to deliver that extra elbow nudge toward the subtle humor it is attempting. But what’s available is wonderfully imaginative, possesses a fine, dynamic lexicon, develops a unique atmosphere, and is ultimately a sincere, page-turning, romantic, steampunk adventure that doesn’t hold the reader by the hand. Looking forward to The Arm of the Sphinx, Bancroft’s follow up to Senlin Ascends.