Senlin Ascends - does it live up to the hype?
Ever since Dante described the rings of Hell authors have delighted in forcing some hapless character to make their way through a series of bazaar settings. I've had mixed results reading books like this but hey, it was on sale and Bancroft's The Books of Babel have gotten rave reviews from both critics and a long list of his fellow authors. In this first installment the hapless Senlin manages to lose his wife when they go to the Tower of Babel for their honeymoon. To find her Senlin must make his way up through an unknown number of levels that each form their own socio-political entity. He has wanted to see the Tower his whole life but the reality is nothing like the cultured and innovative societies described in the guidebooks and he quickly discovers that behind the luxurious facades lurks barbaric cruelty.
No one is sure just how many levels high the Tower is and according to rumor they are still building after hundreds of years. Guidebooks describe the lower levels which are more well known and praise the scientific and artistic marvels found within. This is the perfect framework for Bancroft to showcase the range of his imagination. Senlin isn't the most worldly wise man, but by the third level even he begins to see that there are some common themes. First, you really shouldn't trust anyone because if you're lucky they will just rob you and disappear. Second, even the smallest infractions carry dire consequences with no recourse to a fair hearing.
This is a subtle well written book. Sadly, by level four I was hoping Senlin would get thrown off one of the balconies. Where did Bancroft lose me? In theory each level is unique, but aside from scenery they all had a similar feel. It's definitely possible to be too understated and subtle when writing what amounts to a fantastic travelogue. The characters were rather flat and only stood out from the self delusional crowd if they were unusually cruel. It's a depressing look at human nature without the depth to be thought provoking. Plot? What plot? The plot is incredibly thin even if it is the one point of the human mindset that Bancroft treats with some originality. Senlin's problem is actually quite common at the Tower and few loved ones are reunited for various reasons.