Reviewing this one without letting out squeals of delight might be a bit difficult. Yeah, I loved it.
So Senlin Ascends (Or Niles Crane’s vertical adventure) is about a small town headmaster who falls in love, marries the woman of his dreams, and takes her on a romantic honeymoon to a mythical tower said to hold all the shining light humanity has to offer. Only they get there and two minutes of the train she disappears. Our bookish, prudish headmaster then begins to ascend the tower looking for her. Niles soon realises the tower is a fair bit seedier and more devious than he had imagined, and the shining light is actually a black light illuminating the very worst humanity has to offer. There is betrayal, heartache, touching moments, and rotating list of secondary characters who leap of the page.
As our main character ascends the tower, looking for his lost wife, he quickly has to come to terms with the each level being its own separate kingdom, boasting their own quirks, laws, customs, and despots. There is a strange sense of anticipation as Senlin nears the exit of each level, as we wait to see what the next one up will hold for him. From a giant play within a play, to a tropical paradise inside the tower itself, to a dingy industrial town, the different ringdoms do not disappoint to be weird and wonderful and deadly each in their own way. But then, there also seems to be something else going on within the tower, something between it all.
I’ve called the main protagonist Niles Crane, because he honestly is a bit. He’s a bit posh and very proper, and completely out of his depth in almost all situations. But his character growth throughout the book is a wonderful thing to see as he starts to adapt to his situation and learns to cope with whatever the tower throws at him. He actually seems to come to life throughout the adventure as his values and conduct are tested time and time again, often to breaking point.
The side characters are just as fun to read. Senlin’s wife, Marya, we only really learn about through flashbacks, but its fair impossible not to be a little smitten by the slightly awkward relationship they share.
Senlin cleared his throat and furrowed his brow. “Marya, I… I have a difficult time expressing certain… genuinely held feelings. I…” he swallowed and shook his head. This was not how he wanted the speech to go. She waited patiently, and he gathered his thoughts. “You’ve made it impossible for me to read a book in peace. When you’re not here, I just gaze at the words until they tumble off the page into a puddle in my lap. Instead of reading, I sit there and review the hours of the day I spent in your company, and I am more charmed by that story than anything the author has scribbled down. I have never been lonely in my life, but you have made me lonely. When you are gone, I am a moping ruin. I thought I understood the world fairly well. But you have made it all mysterious again. And it’s unnerving and frightening and wonderful, and I want it to continue. I want all your mysteries. And if I could, I would give you a hundred pianos. I would…”
Yes, I just quoted the book and no, I’ve never done that in a review before… But it’s beautiful and romantic and charming, and I’m fairly certain this was the point I fell in love with the book. The prose is often poetic, and Senlin’s awkwardness is charming and fun. Without even meaning to I found myself reading it like I was narrating it in my own head, and that worked brilliantly because I’m quite good at a slightly posh voice when I want to do one.
The world is mysterious and familiar all at once. It’s fantasy, without a doubt, but also a bit steampunk with electricity and automobiles and airships. There’s enough different to keep you wondering, but never so much that it becomes a chore to read. The pace zips along, even in the slower moments, and yet the passage of time makes the character arcs believable
Senlins Ascends is quirky, quaint, charming, and (at times) brutal. The book has bittersweet heartache written all over it. It drags you into Senlin’s world and keeps you drowning in the same revelations he is subject to, and just when you think you’ve got it figured out… you haven’t.
I give Senlin Ascends a 5 out of 5. Loved it from cover to cover.