Newlyweds Thomas and Marya Senlin are off to honeymoon at the awe-inspiring Tower of Babel. Tom, a level-headed, subdued school master quickly loses his wife in the chaotic crowds outside the tower. Thus begins his quest to find his bride. Yet the tower is not the civilized bastion of ease and refinement he has been led to believe. To save his wife, Senlin must navigate a rogues gallery of scoundrels, thugs and liars to ascend the tiers of the tower, each a unique society replete with new perils and allies that fit together into a well-crafted story.
Before I gush too much I should briefly mention the few things I didn’t like, though I will say at the outset that I still greatly enjoyed the book overall. My biggest issues was that a few of the plot points felt a bit contrived, and there were moments that didn’t ring true because one character or another would foolishly believe a cad despite all evidence to the contrary, or conveniently suffer a lapse in their suspicious or greedy natures to allow one of the capers to proceed. A few of the similes that Bancroft used also fell flat for me, feeling more like author intrusions, but in general the writing is very well executed and at times deeply charming in a way that helps to endear the book overall. Finally, I will note that the villains are definitely caricatures. However, in a way, they are more like avatars of the tower’s corruption, and to be perfectly honest, they match the, at times, absurd steampunk ascetic quite well, diminishing what would normally be a major issue for a novel to only a minor quibble.
At first, Senlin’s muted personality is underwhelming. I’ll admit that after the first few chapters, while still very much engaged with the book, I wanted a little more from the main character. Bancroft delivers, using flashbacks of his wife to invest the reader in their relationship, and thus the quest, but also steadily drawing him out of his shell as new dangers force him into action and his determination and experience transform his introversion into stoic nerve and bold resolve. Most importantly his ability to hope and trust, scarce commodities in the tower, gives Senlin real heart. The supporting cast is also memorable: artists, aeronauts, acrobats, con men, and lay abouts, though the overall tone is more quirky and quixotic than deep or emotional. They are not without some nuance, though, and none of them feel false or flat. In general the level of characterization matches the tone of the book, evolving what at first seems a purely light-hearted romp, to give it just enough darkness and conflict to lend the stakes the needed ballast to offset the playful and eccentric atmosphere that pervades the tower.
The ending pulls the disparate threads together into a satisfying conclusion that is made memorable by the unique setting and some cleverly inserted surreal elements that stamp it all with Bancroft’s unique voice.
Do yourself a favor and enjoy this book as soon as possible. I for one will continue on to the sequel, The Arm of the Sphinx, which is set up in the closing chapters of Senlin Ascends.