Senlin is the headmaster of a one-room schoolhouse in a small town. He's spent his life teaching children all the basics of the world, without ever really experiencing it himself. When, almost despite himself, he marries the capricious Marya, they agree to expand their horizons with one great big adventure. Senlin calculates his budget, buys the tickets, studies the guidebook and the two head off to the greatest wonder of the world: The Tower of Babel.
Once at the Tower, however, Senlin finds that all his learning is for naught. The guidebook seems, at best, misleading, and the Tower and its outskirts are far more chaotic and more dangerous than he ever expected. And, worst of all, Marya goes missing. One moment she's there, the next, she's gone. Senlin's too disciplined to panic, so he goes about his search in an orderly way - only to discover that the Tower of Babel is not an orderly place.
Senlin's quest takes him up through the Tower, encountering rogues and bureaucrats, petty lords and magically-enhanced assassins. There's a floor that's completely devoted to a single, mediocre one-act play. There's another overrun by giant snails and mechanical beer fountains. Yet another is devoted to Bourgeois leisure - all hot baths, fine wine and poor sea-side art, until you run out of money... Each new region of the Tower is a kingdom unto itself, with new laws, a new culture, new friends, new foes and an infinity of obstacles.
As Senlin pursues Marya, he uncovers secrets about the Tower, and begins to understand the complex system that makes it run - but to what purpose? He also, perhaps more importantly, begins to discover more about himself. No longer a passive observer, Senlin grows from a baffled tourist to an active player in the Tower's cruel and unusual games. Senlin's not a conventional hero, but he's a motivated one, and all the tricks and traps of the Tower of Babel might not be enough to keep him from his goal.
This book is very odd, and also very, very good. So let's stop fussing around and get to the criteria...
Is it entertaining? Yes, very much. In the interests of ruthlessness, however, I'm 'only' giving it a mostly. The early chapters are curious, but slightly distant. It takes a while to warm to the snobbish, provincial Senlin, and it isn't until he stops being overwhelmed by his surroundings and starts taking responsibility for his actions that the reader goes from following him to empathising with him. As a result, some of the early pages are almost too odd: a chilly protagonist plus a (seemingly-)random series of events means Senlin Ascends has some bits that can be hard-going. That said, the occasionally-existential forays of the book's first third pay-off, and as Senlin stumbles upon his sense of purpose, the reader is pulled along as well.
Is it immersive? Absolutely, yes. Some of Senlin's early destinations, especially the Parlour, are so stylised and weird that they hint towards a more impressionistic story - but before long, it all clicks, and the reader, like Senlin, becomes accustomed to the omnipresent strangeness. Everything happens for a reason; everything exists for a reason, and part of the oddness is simply that Senlin is a flustered and passive character at the start. When Senlin, well, ascends (in every sense) - and graduates from tourist to 'native' - that the world goes from being curious to genuinely immersive. All that aside, fundamentally, this is a delicious world, where the Tower of Babel soars into the sky, surrounded by bulbous airships, and populated by giant snails and beer fountains and sinister art collectors and magically-infused fascists and and and and... It is Vornheim-esque in its bizarre, but interlinking, parts. Not just a clever composition of a world, but an inherently fascinating one.
It it emotionally engaging? Senlin's a cold fish - an Ichabod Crane character and a terrible travelling companion. But we're immediately sharing his plight by the end of the first few pages: he's gone from his tiny, disciplined fishbowl into a terrifying, swarming world. Worse, there's the palpable disappointment. Senlin's spent his life studying the Tower and the first thing it does is betray him. These prominent emotional hooks carry us through the first part of the book, and, given the oddness of his adventures, that empathy is important. In the later portions of the book, Senlin has come of age - he's regained his agency, if not his freedom, and is less reactive. Here we identify with a different Senlin, who is clever and quirky, and overcoming incredible obstacles to keep climbing. So, in short: Yes.
Is it different? Yes. Yes. And yes. Senlin Ascends is set up as an iridescent New Wave weirdscape, complete with Central Biblical Metaphor™. It doesn't disappoint - the bonkers, farcical explorations throughout the Tower highlight one Ballardian weirdness after another. Individually, here be metaphors - primarily, as a tower would encourage, of class. (The working classes pedal for beer! Aristocrats dabble in the arts! There's no difference between artist and audience!) It is lyrical and peripatetic and seemingly random.
But, then it coalesces. As Senlin figures the Tower out (in what is a very sneakily muted internal climax), everything does makes sense. There's of network in place that, once perceived, turns the Tower from a series of disconnected events into a still mysterious, but holistic, entity. The book, naturally, is the same way - fragments that grow in size and coherence as Senlin gains in agency and perception. The narrative adapts to suit, beginning as isolated, almost lyrical, encounters, but becoming increasingly linear and prosaic (not in a bad way) as it goes on.
I suppose, to be critical, this sort of thing isn't unique (see 'For readers of...' as well as some obvious comparisons like M. John Harrison and Christopher Priest), but it is certainly unusual, and the fusion of lyrical wrapping and surprisingly swashbuckling adventure makes it all the more unique.
It is also worth noting that Senlin is absolutely and terrifically unexceptional. He's not a Chosen One, nor does he have any secret magic skills that come to the forefront. He is smart, educated (if naive), hard-working and dedicated. He commits to his quest with neither destiny nor prophesy on his side, and faces overwhelming odds without the barest hint of cosmic assistance. As far as the traditions of epic fantasy are concerned, he couldn't be any more of an underdog, making his adventure all the more exciting.
Is it embarrassing? Nope. Weird, yes. Problematic, no.
In a nutshell... A terrific, free-ranging fantasy that ranges from Kafkaesque horror to heist thriller, all tied together by themes of agency and ascension. What begins as a disconnected series of curious vignettes turns into an exciting and cunningly-constructed epic. Senlin is that rare fantasy protagonist that succeeds solely through intelligence and hard work, making his progress (such as it is) all the more impressive. This book is bonkers, entertaining, clever and - quite possibly - unique.
For readers of... Frances Hardinge's Twilight Robbery or A Face Like Glass, Angela Carter, Steph Swainston.