I do almost all my reading on the bus. Thus, my go-to indicator of a great read is how surprised I am that I’ve reached my destination.
With Senlin Ascends, by Josiah Bancroft, I’ve been oblivious to my journey altogether. Our protagonist, Thomas Senlin, is a newly-wed on his honeymoon to a fictional Tower of Babel, his world’s greatest most awe-inspiring edifice. It is a tower where each level is the size of a city, its heights unknown and seemingly unknowable.
Bancroft’s self-published debut does the important things right. Senlin, at the outset, is naive, more than a little pleased with himself and yet pure of heart. It is quickly and wonderfully clear that Bancroft is going to make a hero of this timid man, and he wastes no time on poor Senlin, who loses his smart and vivacious wife, and pretty much everything else, at the outset.
Senlin is thus our guide to this immense structure, and this first volume of his ascent of the Tower draws both him and the reader into its brutal ecosystems. It is a beautifully imagined school of hard knocks, peopled with a vivid cast of villains and victims, all of whom begin shaping and changing Senlin as he is forced to find hidden depths of resolve to overcome those standing in his way of ascending the Tower’s ‘rings’ in search of his one true love.
With deceptive simplicity Bancroft brings this gothic place and its denizens to a colourful life, the simplicity extending to prose that is clear, effective and on occasion beautiful. This is mature writing, and Bancroft is so damnably young!
While the milieu is steampunk, the novel feels far from ‘steampunk-y’.
The plot thickens nicely and Senlin grows; his good nature and his ever present peril drive us along with him as he begins to make his mark. We learn that Senlin is on the fringe of some great and ancient game afoot between great powers in the Tower, and in a wonderful, swasbuckling finale, Bancroft sets us up for an exciting sequel.
Claire North’s The Sudden Appearance of Hope is a similarly hard to put down book. Hope Arden is possessed of a unique nature. She is forgotten by everyone she meets. North takes this simple premise and uses both it and the first person perspective to tell a story that is on one level a modern thriller and on another a desparate and often sad monologue of a woman who considers herself cursed yet is considered by others in the novel to be truly free. With Hope’s condition, she tells us by way of flashback how she became an internationally renowned thief. The ‘job’ that we are introduced to in the book’s opening sets up her antagonists, the purveyors of an app called Perfection, that increasing numbers of the very wealthy become slavishly addicted to, though there is a sinister side to the company that made it. North clearly enjoys the many opportunities this gives to take swipes at social media, scientology(I think), consumerism, the perennial underestimation and denigration of women and a whole lot more with the pleasing subtlety of a wrecking ball.
While these are easy targets, North isn’t satisfied with anything so straightforward. Hope rails against these selfish, vacuous people and the hugely powerful and sinister cult that is emerging among the world’s mega rich. But she is a tortured and lonely figure, battling to maintain a consistent sense of purpose, a meaning, to her life and actions when it is clear that such things are more dependent on our friendships and relationships than we would care to think.
Thankfully, North has thought it about, deeply, and it informs Hope’s memoir in a very rewarding way, for her voice, the things she writes, veer off at times from a straightforward telling. Throughout the book we find Hope almost automatically writing out lists, as though cribbed from an encyclopedia or dictionary. She also counts, almost obsessively. These are tics, and work well to create this sense of a person who feels, without anyone else in the world to know her, that she might disappear if she does not continue to exert a fearsome control over her mind and body.
North reminds us of the ramifications of Hope’s “gift” throughout, in particular its dangers. Injured in hospital, a doctor sees she needs help, but because the doctor leaves her, when he returns he wonders who the woman is that’s in the bed before him, and can’t remember what he left the room for, meaning she would die without the medication he could otherwise provide, unless she can get it for herself.
Thus her allies and enemies all end up keeping notes to remind themselves that there is a woman they should be helping or hindering.
Hope Arden is a focused and successful professional thief, but her isolation, loneliness and fragile sense of self are a constant threat to all her plans. North’s interest in the latter greatly lifts the story that’s driven by the former.