You’re off the edge of the map, mate. Here there be spoilers. Other reviews in this series can be found here.
Holy crap. I don’t read a lot of sci-fi and I definitely don’t read a lot of romance, but this book somehow managed to combine them both. It even managed to convince me that this was a really great idea, and I’m not mad.
Set in the sprawling nation of Ur, Senlin Ascends is a steampunky take on the Tower of Babel, and the first in the Books of Babel series. In this universe, Babel is a nation unto itself, a towering monument in which each level is a self-governed state known as a “ringdom.” The upper ringdoms are more affluent and theoretically more civilized, while the lowest ringdom and the open-air marketplace built around the base of the Tower appear to exist in a state of total anarchy. At the center (or, if you’re in a literal mood, at the very bottom) of it all is Thomas Senlin, an endearingly naive nincompoop of a schoolteacher from a remote fishing village called Isaugh. He is accompanied by his new wife, Marya, but barely makes it two feet before losing her in the Market. Unable to find her anywhere, he ventures into the lowest ringdom – the Basement – in search of her. Just prior to entering the Tower, he hires a local man named Adamos “Adam” Boreas, who theoretically is supposed to lead him to the third ringdom but instead robs him at the first opportunity. From there, his journey unfolds in ways that he never expected, and of which he is not generally fond.
Level 1: The Basement
The Basement is a daunting place, and Senlin is not a dauntless man. He is, in fact, a self-described coward. When he’s not actively running from danger, his first instinct is to deliver a stern lecture rather than fight (those old headmaster habits die hard), and yet he seems continually surprised when these lectures fail to produce results. Despite the earlier romantic intellectual notions that made the Tower seem like a sweet honeymoon destination, he is shocked to find that the Market and the lowest ringdom are a sink for the uglier elements of humanity. His efforts to locate Marya in the Basement lead him nowhere, and, after a regrettable spin on a beer-me-go-round with a dwarf named Finn Goll, he makes his way to the next ringdom.
Level 2: The Parlor
Senlin arrives at the gates to the Parlor and is charged a toll, which automatically doubles when he tries to push back on the amount of the toll. After gaining entrance, he learns that the Parlor is one giant theater, and that everyone who visits is required to participate in a play before advancing to the next ringdom. Senlin is assigned the role of the butler, which seems uneventful until one of his costars murders another in a fit of what might kindly be called extreme dedication to the role. Stern lectures unavailing, Senlin finds himself on the run, along with Edith, the only other surviving member of the cast. After the death of the rampaging actor, Senlin is allowed to proceed to the next ringdom, but Edith is expelled from the Parlor on a technicality. To ensure she can never return, she is branded before being sent back to the Basement.
Level 3: The Baths
Though shaken by Edith’s branding, Senlin continues to the third ringdom, a bustling tourist city filled with restaurants, hotels, and a giant bath house. He is quickly befriended by John Tarrou, a seemingly wealthy socialite who has been living in the Baths for the last sixteen years, and whiles away several weeks dining in restaurants, visiting the baths, and halfheartedly searching for Marya. His idyllic existence is lightly challenged when he learns that bankrupt tourists can be turned into slaves (“hods”) in the blink of an eye, then challenged more severely when he witnesses a brutal execution carried out by the Red Hand, an inhuman enforcer employed by Baths commissioner Emmanuel Pound. Eventually he manages to shake off his Baths-induced inertia and cooks up a new plan to find Marya, assisted by a painter named Philip Ogier. The plan starts with a stolen painting and ends with Senlin fleeing the Baths on an airship packed with prostitutes before the commissioner realizes his painting has been stolen. Meanwhile, Tarrou – whose debts are unsustainable after sixteen years of idle luxury – becomes a hod.
Level 4: New Babel
Senlin encounters a hefty woman named Iren almost immediately upon arrival, and is chased by her into the industrial city of New Babel. His feeble attempt to hide in a drug den ends with him getting stoned out of his mind on a drug called White Chrom, and he is quickly hauled in front of Finn Goll, who owns the port through which Senlin arrived in New Babel. Having spent all his money to get to this point, Senlin reluctantly accepts the job Goll offers him. In his new role as Goll’s latest port master, he finds he is in charge of a bunch of surly dock workers and also Adam, who has been working for Goll all along. His plans to rescue Marya become more complicated when Adam’s sister Voleta is added to the rescue list, and then more complicated still when the Red Hand tracks him down from the Baths. Following a three-way battle that destroys the port, Senlin and Adam manage to escape on an airship run by Edith, who has become a pirate, taking Voleta and Iren with them. Senlin becomes the captain of their tiny crew with Edith as his first mate, and they begin to rob other ships in the hopes of surviving long enough to find a way back into the Tower.
This book is great. It’s fairly predictable in places – Tarrou’s hod-making was not a surprise; neither was Adam’s ultimate betrayal, nor even Edith’s survival during the final battle – but it kept me hooked from start to finish. Senlin’s relationship with Marya, as revealed through flashbacks interspersed with the main narrative, is so sweet. Though he doesn’t seem like a loving husband on first acquaintance, the marriage makes more sense as the book progresses. I love his devotion to Marya, and his unwavering determination to find her. He frequently gets distracted, but he never loses sight of his goal, nor forgets that he’s married. I cannot overstate how much I appreciate the lack of any extramarital romance: Senlin remains a faultlessly faithful husband from beginning to end.
I genuinely was not expecting to fall for Senlin as hard as I have, but he has been a consistently pleasant surprise. I’ve really gotta admire someone who will march right up to a stranger and try to make friends with them despite repeated warnings that there are no friendships in Babel, although this will almost certainly be the death of him. Though he is a card-carrying coward, he is brave in unconventional ways, and he often goes out of his way to help others, even if he initially finds them difficult. I really love his relationship with Marya, which is grounded in dislike but gradually turns to friendship and then love. Despite his initial antipathy towards her, he eventually realizes she is bored in school, and, rather than expelling her or doubling down on his efforts to make her behave, he makes her his teaching assistant. She excels in this role, and their relationship blossoms because of it. And yes, technically she’s barely in the story, but she is present in every breath Senlin takes. It’s wonderful.
Even more wonderful than this relationship are the female characters, who so far have been competent badasses. Edith and Voleta are incredibly cool, and I can’t wait to see more of them. Marya is absent for most of the book, but she still has a story of her own, though admittedly it is relayed through Ogier and we have yet to hear her tell it for herself. I hope we will sooner rather than later, because if this turns into four books of Senlin searching for his wife with no definitive result I’m going to scream. I have a bad feeling that it is, but I suppose time will tell. Yet even though her story is told by a man for the moment, she is still smart, independent, and resourceful. I’m looking forward to seeing how she deals with the wealthy dude who thinks she’s signed up to be his wife, because if she’s half as badass as I think she is he’s in for an unpleasant surprise. I should add that it is completely possible that her entire Tower-related story is a fabrication fed to Senlin by Ogier, who according to the commissioner is not the real Ogier. There’s a larger plot at work in the background, of which the stolen painting is supposed to be a key component, but Ogier’s knowledge of Marya was so precise and so in line with her character that I want to believe his story is true.
In summation, I love Marya. I love Tom. I love Voleta and Edith and even Iren. (Still withholding judgment on Adam and will determine his place in my heart based on how he comports himself in the next book, but I am ready to love him.) I love that we’re on a pirate ship and ready to make all kinds of trouble. I’m crossing my fingers that we at least see Marya in person in the next book, but, again, only time will tell, so I’ll have to be patient. This was, in any case, an excellent first installment, and I am excited to read the rest of the series.
The first chapter of book 2 (Arm of the Sphinx) is included at the end, and it’s amazing. At this point in the story, Senlin – now calling himself Tom Mudd – has been a pirate(ish) captain long enough to garner a bit of a reputation. He and his crew open the book by ambushing the Cairo Hound, a small ship crewed by incompetent nitwits. The nitwits are nominally led by Captain Padraic DeFord, a depressed alcoholic who has become less like a captain and more like an exhausted parent to a bunch of kids he didn’t ask for. Following the capture of the crew, DeFord is dragged out of bed by Iren and brought before Tom, who informs him that he just needs to take a tenth of DeFord’s cargo and then they’ll all be on their way like TOM THAT IS NOT HOW YOU COMMANDEER PEOPLE’S GOODS OMG.
Whether Tom is a good pirate or not, DeFord quickly rows himself up shit creek and then throws away his paddle in quite possibly the funniest sequence I’ve ever read in sci-fi.
Captain Mudd turned to the crew of the Cairo Hound and said, “Gentlemen, the sooner you load my ship, the sooner I’ll be off yours.”
The bear-skinned crew looked to their captain with black expressions.
The amazon pulled her chain from DeFord’s neck, and he gathered the white sheet about his shoulders and raised himself to as dignified a pose as he could muster, though the wind made him shiver, and he was still drunk. He addressed his men. “You wanted to humiliate me? Well, you’ve done it. But I am not humiliated because I stand here in a sheet on a ship given to a mudbug and his harem. No, I am humiliated to stand alongside of you. You will be a laughing stock [sic] if you indulge this man, if you give him one single drop of rum, of my rum!” DeFord beat his half-bare chest. “If there be one atom of self-respect or loyalty left in you, you will not aid this man. You will stand by me, your captain. You will refuse this injustice, or you will look for other work.”
Captain Mudd said nothing in his defense. He smiled at the berated crewmen, awaiting their decision. He hadn’t long to wait.
Now that we’ve been introduced to the cast and the world, I suspect the Babel series – rather than suffering the fabled sophomore slump – is going to get better and better. If chapter 1 of Arm of the Sphinx is any indication, the story is about to go apeshit, and I’m here for it. And on that note, if anybody has a petition going to turn the books of Babel into a TV series, I will sign it.