If you’re not on the fantasy subreddit, or if you’re not a follower of the Self-Published Fantasy Blog-Off, you may not know the story of Senlin Ascends, a book that languished in obscurity for years before a last-ditch entry in SPFBO sparked a chain of events that turned it into something of a cult classic and ultimately led to Josiah Bancroft accepting a four-book deal with Orbit. The story of how the world came to know about The Books of Babel is pretty compelling on its own. But after a nearly two-year journey through the recently-completed tetralogy, I’m comfortable saying that the origin story has nothing on the series itself.
The plot of the first book is hard to describe, and the late-arriving series plot is not something to spoil before starting. So I’ll retreat to the premise: stuffy schoolteacher Thomas Senlin takes his young wife on a honeymoon at the wondrous Tower of Babel. But then become separated at the Market outside the Tower itself, and the quest to reunite sets off a series of events that easily fills four novels and probably could’ve managed five. It seems a bit thin, as premises go, but I assure you that what follows is anything but.
What makes the first book more than an overgrown quest story is the mysterious, breathtaking, mad, kafkaesque, steampunk Tower of Babel. We’ve already seen ordinary men forced into action to save damsels in distress. But we haven’t seen the Tower, with its wildly different, semi-autonomous societies on every level (ringdom), its mist-shrouded spire prompting questions about whether it even has a top, and its dangers that push far beyond what was advertised in the guidebook. Just as the Tower’s wonders are without peer, its cultures are so far outside the expectation that it leaves the reader truly at a loss to predict what’s coming next, with the realm of possibilities thrown wide open and anything you can imagine feeling like a live option.
Accompanying the stunning setting is a timeless prose style that feels classic without feeling dated and that never falters, from the character flashbacks to the scenic descriptions to the action sequences to the truly delightful epigraphs at the head of every chapter. This may not satisfy a reader looking for snappy, contemporary prose, but if you’re looking for a series where the storytelling is as wondrous as the story, look no further.
So about the story then. In many ways, it begins as a classic adventure fantasy, with the Everyman lead forced to rise to the occasion as increasingly difficult obstacles are placed in his path to completing his quest. And as adventure fantasy, it’s well-done, with strong character development and some tense action scenes supplementing the stunning setting and impeccable prose. The opening novel, Senlin Ascends, is extremely enjoyable as nothing more than an adventure story—I would rate it five stars on nothing more than its own merits.
But if The Books of Babel constitute a series where it’s difficult to see any but the barest hints of overarching plot in the first book, it’s the sequels that provide the necessary context to take it from a fun adventure story to a series that will stick in my mind for years to come. The series maintains the adventure throughout, but it expands the cast, providing perspective from some excellent side characters that ultimately turn this from Senlin’s story alone to a true ensemble tale. It also provides context that fit the mysteries of the Tower into an epic overarching story, while maintaining the strangeness and wonder that made the first book so compelling. And finally, the series as a whole simply has more to say than the opener in isolation, with extensive examination of power and complacency and the difficulty of setting things right, all of which fits so seamlessly into the story that it never ceases the things that made it special to begin.
The slow development of the overarching plot does require some patience on the part of the reader looking for something bigger, but Bancroft tells the initial pieces in such a compelling way that the wait is nearly as much fun as the payoff. The opening book can take a while to sink its hooks (it did not for me, but I’ve heard plenty of readers have trouble in the early going), but it has plenty of wonder and adventure to offer in its own right, and I can’t imagine a reader enjoying the series as a whole without having a whole lot of fun with Senlin Ascends.
The expansion in scope does create some structural challenges with the last two books, which really feel like two-and-a-half novels awkwardly cut into two pieces. I certainly understand why the publishers didn’t want to release a 200-page book between a pair of 450-page installments, but the structure as presented does mean the story develops a little more slowly in the last two books than it ought to. And there was one section of book three where I really felt the slowdown, but by the fourth book, I was back to enjoying the story being told too much to worry about the pace at which the overarching story developed. And even with my pacing complaints, the third book was still a five-star read—everything else is that good.
All told, the combination of storytelling chops and wild creativity make The Books of Babel one of the most memorable series of the decade, and a progression that adds quality secondary perspectives and digs beyond the surface adventure without losing that initial wonder has thrust it onto my all-time favorites list. While I’m thrilled that the series gained a broader audience after being picked up by Orbit, I still think it deserves a bigger audience than it has. I’m not sure whether it will gain enough momentum to gain a nomination for Best Series at the 2022 Hugo Awards, but it’s hard for me to imagine another series that would be a serious contender for my vote. The Books of Babel is tremendous, and I hope it’s remembered for a long time. I plan to be first in line for Bancroft’s next work.
Recommended if you like: adventure fantasy, creative worldbuilding, classic/literary-leaning prose.
Can I use it for Bingo? It’s hard mode for Found Family (although perhaps not in the first book), and the last book is also a 2021 Release and 500+ Pages. The first book is hard mode for Debut.
Overall rating: as a series, 19 of Tar Vol’s 20. Five stars on Goodreads. As individual books, the first three are probably 18/20, with the fourth at 19–it really does pull things together. All four are five stars.