Senlin Ascends and its sequels, the Books of Babel series, deal with the adventures of the schoolteacher Thomas Senlin, who is separated from his wife Marya at the foot of the immense Tower of Babel, and spends the rest of the narrative searching for her. The novel was uncommonly successful for a self-published work, due in large part to notice gained during the 2016 SPFBO competition, praise on social media from author Mark Lawrence, and a positive review by Emily May, a popular reviewer on Goodreads.
H.G. Chambers Review:
Have you ever lost someone in a crowded place? Ever experienced that feeling of despair and worry when you couldn’t immediately spot them? Imagine you encounter others who’ve lost loved ones in that same place—loved ones they haven’t seen in years.
This is the conflict at the heart of Senlin Ascends—a story about a timid school teacher who must transform himself into something entirely new if he ever hopes to see his wife again.
From the very first few pages of this book, one can immediately see the love and care that went into its conception. The story begins with vivid descriptions of a train chuffing through the desert on approach to the mysterious Tower of Babel—a near mythical relic of ‘ringdoms’ (like kingdoms, but round) stacked upon each other like layers of a cake.
The curious world Bancroft created affords a steampunk milieu, though the flavor of the setting rarely takes center stage. The true foci of this story are characters, who are not only believable, but painted with such rich, colorful language one can easily derive their apparent nature along with their visage. The character development is genuine and dramatic, particularly with the main character, Tom Senlin, who is forever changed by a series of strange (and often unsettling) experiences, and shaped by the tower as a potter shapes a lump of unformed clay.
The tower itself is filled with surprises both wondrous and disturbing, where few things are as they seem on the surface. Each new ringdom is vastly different from the one before, though all are connected by a common through-line of ruthless, dogged survival.
Senlin Ascends is a story of perseverance in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds. It’s a story of faith in human decency, despite all evidence to the contrary. It’s a story about trust and forgiveness; about the tug-of-war between self-interested survival, and selfless self-sacrifice.
If you enjoy character driven stories with unlikely heroes, mystery, wonder, and shocking surprises, then this book is for you.
After reading this splendid book, I reached out to the author, Josiah Bancroft, and asked him how he manages such exquisite character descriptions. I was delighted to receive a thoughtful response that same evening! With his permission, I am sharing with you what Mr. Bancroft had to say…
I’m typing this intermittently as my two year old darling girl scurries about the room, so please forgive any typos or terseness.
First off, I’m so glad you enjoyed my book. I’m grateful to you for giving it a look, and I’m appreciative of your kind words.
I hate giving writerly advice. I’ve taught courses, lead creative writing workshops, and labored (in protracted irrelevance) in the broad field of Wording for decades. And still, my gut response to your question is that there is no right way to write, no formula to follow, no process to reveal. Irritatingly enough, writing (in my impoverished opinion) is closer to alchemy than any of the stabler sciences or crafts. Many more accomplished Authors would disagree. They have relevant books and courses, in fact. I would not be at all offended if you chose to listen to their undeniably more expert advice. I have sold barrows of books; they have sold container ships.
So far this response has only been a long disclaimer. And Maddie has protested the existence—the mere concept—of socks.
Now, to the hesitant advice:
I don’t mold my personal aspirations into character golems. Meaning, all my characters emerge from an understanding of my own foibles, flaws, and shortcomings rather than from my Fully-Flexed-Conan-Lizard brain. We’re all disasters smushed into human shapes, and I try to make my characters reflect that fraughtness.
That doesn’t mean they’re all awful and worthless cads. The inclusion of genuine and heartfelt flaws allows for mercy, personal growth, vulnerability, and surprise. Purity is boring, predictable. I try to avoid perfect villains and flawless heroes because both are unbelievable. Empathy is a writer’s most useful and easily-strained muscle.
My last piece of reticent advice is that compelling characters emerge from the unique olio that is your personal experience, not a style guide. The people you know, the pedestrians you bump into, the strangers you observe, the books you study, the media you ingest, the family you go home to (or avoid) each holiday season, they altogether make up your very specific, intimate concept of humanity. Study that. Mine it. Strive for understanding. Be suspicious of conclusions that flatter your personal worldview or personality.
But, again, you are the captain of this creativity rocket ship. You get to pilot it where you want and why you wish. When you land upon your verdant new Earth, I hope you realize that writerly advice was never so essential to your trajectory as personal reflection and empathy.
We’re all winging it. And thank you again for your note.
All the best,
Thank you Mr. Bancroft for giving us a peek into your creative process.