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The Tower of Babel is the greatest marvel in the world. Immense as a mountain, the ancient Tower holds unnumbered ringdoms, warring and peaceful, stacked one on the other like the layers of a cake. It is a world of geniuses and tyrants, of airships and steam engines, of unusual animals and mysterious machines.
Soon after arriving for his honeymoon at the Tower, the mild-mannered headmaster of a small village school, Thomas Senlin, gets separated from his wife, Marya, in the overwhelming swarm of tourists, residents, and miscreants.
Senlin is determined to find Marya, but to do so he'll have to navigate madhouses, ballrooms, and burlesque theaters. He must survive betrayal, assassins, and the long guns of a flying fortress. But if he hopes to find his wife, he will have to do more than just endure.
This quiet man of letters must become a man of action.
The Books of Babel
Arm of the Sphinx
Customer ReviewsMost Helpful
By Joe Kraus on 01-24-18
Two Worthwhile Books in One
This turns out to be, in effect, two books: one is interesting without quite being that much fun, and the other is a lot of fun while being less interesting. Either way, this weird novel seems to me worth a good bit of the hype it seems suddenly to be getting.
This starts out as a 21st Century Kafka-esque fantasy. An unprepared scholarly newlywed loses his wife on his honeymoon in a fantastically imagined construct. The tower of Babel is so vast that no one seems to know its boundaries let along its details. He’s overwhelmed by his every encounter, and we get a variety of implied questions: what does it mean to be an individual in a world where life is so cheap? How can we establish friendships when all life is a contested negotiation? And What does it mean to have an identity in a place where we’re all defined transactionally?
As I read the first half of this, I felt as if I were reading a fantasy that reflected the world of the internet. I don’t mean that the tower represents the internet; rather, I feel as if this is the kind of twisting and endless world that the internet might be if it were made physical. No one knows who built the tower, yet it goes on forever. It gives us the capacity to perform as others, and it gives us opportunity to interact on intimate terms with strangers, but it seems never to change anything. It’s a book that makes us ask questions about our changed world.
Bancroft does a great job of setting all that up, but things move pretty slowly to start. The teeming market scenes are striking, but there are a lot them. And the extended sequence where Senlin falls into a living-theater experience, where he has to perform an ad-libbed role alongside others doing the same, is largely brilliant. It just doesn’t seem to end with the clarity I expected; I can’t tell whether it’s all a performance within a performance or whether it’s a genuine accident within the well-oiled mechanism of the theater.
But then [SPOILER] this becomes a very different novel. The clearest sign of that change comes in Bancroft’s switch from his default epigraphs to start each chapter – instead of quotes from a goofy and ignorant guidebook, they come from Senlin’s future autobiography. That change reflects a reversal of the narrative position we began with: what was a confused and ill-suited protagonist becomes very quickly a canny leader. He goes, in other words, from Joseph K in The Trial to Spartacus in the Kirk Douglas film.
With that change, the slow-developed philosophical challenge of the beginning fades away. We learn, for instance, [DOUBLE SPOILER] that everything Senlin experienced on the lower levels was part of a test to determine whether he’d be a good employee on the fourth level. Rather than giving the bewildering and beguiling experience of the internet, of happenstance informing so much of the avatar-defining choices we make, we get a more conventional fantasy. There are good guys and bad guys. Senlin’s wife didn’t just happen to take a step away from him; she’s now the object of desire by a powerful figure of the tower. The young man who helped and then betrayed him didn’t happen along; he was a plant, part of the test.
I’m sorry to see that fallen ambition because I do believe the original effect of the novel (which may have been Bancroft’s original intent) had the chance to be deeply memorable…especially if it could be tightened and shortened.
At the same time, I confess that this becomes, by the end, a rollicking adventure. [MORE SPOILER] By the very end, Senlin has declared all-out war on the tower. He’s stolen an airship, acquired a crew of dangerous and effective fighters, and set out to take his wife back by force.
I can’t help feeling that Bancroft changed horses halfway through here, and I think this would be a stronger book and a stronger series if he’d gone back and made things more consistent. Still, there’s a lot to like about each half. I’m curious about where this is going next, and – especially now that this seems to have found its adventurous tone – I may just buy in for volume two.
7 of 7 people found this review helpful
By joan on 02-14-18
magical brutal and well narrated
I found the tower and its inhabitants a metaphor for life. the second half is more exciting than the first, and all of it challenged my expectations and world view. I can't wait to read the second book. the narrator did an amazing job - can't believe I haven't run across him yet - and I hope to hear from him again!
4 of 4 people found this review helpful