Imagine a tower so old and tall that no one knows how it was built or how far into the heavens it goes. Each floor is a city unto itself, with different power brokers, thieves, gangsters and lost souls. Now, imagine heading there for your honeymoon, only to lose your spouse right away outside the great ziggurat's walls. Senlin Ascends, the first of a series of books about this "Tower of Babel" by poet Josiah Bancroft, begins in just this way. The missing wife incites a journey upward--and into the fantastic.
Humble schoolteacher Thomas Senlin and his new wife, Marya, are separated almost immediately, and Senlin Ascends follows the former as he traverses the first four floors (known as "rings") of the tower. Babel is a sort of Babylonian-steampunk setting, where each ring is entirely different from the last (the second floor, for instance, is one giant theater where guests are obliged to take part, while the third is a sort of gigantic sanatorium). Only one thing is clear as Senlin moves onward and upward: no one can be trusted, and the rich will always profit at the expense of the desperate.
There isn't a much deeper social commentary than one of greed, but Bancroft's universe is so intricately populated it doesn't matter. Readers can enjoy how dense the different rings are, and their interconnectivity is a wonderful puzzle at the heart of Senlin Ascends. The prose can be a bit flowery at times, but that's a small price to pay for such an interesting, well-imagined world. --Noah Cruickshank, adult engagement manager, the Field Museum, Chicago, Ill.