I’m going to start out by saying I don’t often review books here. I’ll leave reviews on Amazon and Goodreads, but not always on my website/blog. Mostly because I don’t feel that I have the critical chops necessary for stripping a story down to its nuts and bolts and slapping an arbitrary number of stars on it.
Because it would, in many ways, be arbitrary. I’ll give points for good prose, good editing, and all of those other little things (flow, story, dialogue that doesn’t sound rinky-dink awful) but I’ll give points for things beyond the measurable “quality” of a story. I’ve awarded high ratings/reviews to books that simply made me feel good during difficult times, just because.
All of that being disclaimered away, let’s dive in.
First up, what it’s all about:
While honeymooning in the Tower of Babel, Thomas Senlin loses his wife, Marya.
The Tower of Babel is the greatest marvel of the Silk Age. Immense as a mountain, the ancient Tower holds unnumbered ringdoms, warring and peaceful, stacked one on the other like the layers of a cake. It is a world of geniuses and tyrants, of airships and steam engines, of unusual animals and mysterious machines.
Thomas Senlin, the mild-mannered headmaster of a small village school, is drawn to the Tower by scientific curiosity and the grandiose promises of a guidebook. The luxurious Baths of the Tower seem an ideal destination for a honeymoon, but soon after arriving, Senlin loses Marya in the crowd.
Senlin’s search for Marya carries him through madhouses, ballrooms, and burlesque theaters. He must survive betrayal, assassination, and the long guns of a flying fortress. But if he hopes to find his wife, he will have to do more than just survive. This quiet man of letters must become a man of action.
Within the first few pages, the menace of the tower and the areas surrounding it are put on display. Before we’re given more than the briefest of introductions (and yet enough of an introduction to know early on something of the personality of Thomas Senlin and Marya) his wife is swept away from him, a “victim” of the overcrowded market that shifts and bustles near the base of the tower.
And as quick as one can turn away and look back again, Senlin’s almost obsessive love of the Tower and the order depicted in the handbook he carries around with him earns its first, rather large, crack.
Because, as is demonstrated in a few flashback chapters sprinkled throughout the book, Thomas Senlin loves the Tower of Babel. It leaks into his teaching, the wonder of its well-ordered levels – or “ringdoms” – perfectly fits his personality, one that craves order and logic and everything to be just so.
But of course, we wouldn’t have a story if Senlin and Marya had arrived for their honeymoon to find everything just as the guidebook had described.
And so Senlin has to enter the tower and climb if he wants a better chance of finding his wife. Thomas Senlin, this mild-mannered man who wants nothing more than to teach his students and build his kites and enjoy a sedate life with his new bride is now forced to tangle himself with people he’s repeatedly told not to trust, in a whole new world that doesn’t seem to follow any set of rules or instructions, or at least not any set that he’s been given.
Now, I could go into further description of his climb upwards through some of the tower’s levels, but because I fear accidentally spoiling something, I’m going to begin a slow summing up.
The writing itself is glorious. Josiah Bancroft has a gift with words, creating lines that I wanted to pause and read again simply because of how beautifully crafted they were. I read some reviews that said the story started off too slow, but it’s a deliberate, gorgeous build, one that slips under your skin, almost lulling you into comfort until a brief, keen shot of violence or injustice sears as hotly as a brand.
Thomas Senlin himself is an unlikely hero, which is why many of his actions are not textbook heroic at all. Instead, there are moments of cowardice and disbelief and guilt and fear. Instead of weapon-totingly, one-liner-flinglingly heroic, he is human. Which makes his every experience in the tower more visceral for the reader (well, for me, at least.)
The supporting characters are strong enough that I found myself wanting to read each of their own stories from life in the tower. It’s a wonderful thing that we’re given side characters who, instead of existing merely to prop up our protagonist, serve to show how large and rich and fleshed-out this world really is.
I’m honestly trying to think of some. I can say that this book is not for everyone (though neither is any book, really.) There is no great action moment to start us off, very few “DUN-DUN-DUUUUNNNNN!” scenes to take one’s breath away. And yet it succeeds at pulling in the reader, at keeping the pages turning because you really, truly don’t know what might happen next.
And for those who pay attention to such things: There is only mild language in the book, the violence – while quick and shocking – is not described in every moment of bloody gore, and there are no scenes of a sexual nature (so no hanky-panky time, if you were looking for that sort of thing.)