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***** Everything below is a SPOILER *****
What happened in Senlin Ascends?
Thomas Senlin is a bookish, awkward schoolmaster who’s been a bachelor for quite a while. He surprises everyone in his small village by marrying Marya, a vibrant soul ten years his junior. They decide to honeymoon at the Tower of Babel, which Thomas has studied obsessively.
When they arrive, Thomas breaks one of the cardinal rules in the Babel guidebook: he loses sight of his new wife for just a second. After unsuccessfully searching for her in the village surrounding the tower for several days, he figures Marya must’ve gone into the tower.
Thomas enters at the rough basement level as all travelers must do. A young man named Adam agrees to show Thomas the ropes a bit but then robs Thomas. Thomas still has his money, which was in hidden pockets in his coat, but all his luggage is gone.
Thomas buys a change of clothes since he’s looking dirty and rough. In the store, he runs into a peddler trying to sell one of Thomas’s stolen bags. The man returns it to him. The two go to drink together at the pedal fountain. Thomas asks this man to escort him for a while. This man says each man has to go it alone in the tower.
Thomas ascends the stairs to the second level. It’s a play in which everyone is both audience member and cast member. Thomas is cast as a butler and must play this role for a week with no mistakes before he can ascend to the third floor. He finds the first unlocked door, signifying an acting troupe still needing someone to play the butler, and enters.
The butler is in a household where the wife has been having an affair with her husband’s co-worker. The play Thomas is in takes a violent turn quickly as both men are in the house. The husband appears to use real weapons to kill his wife’s lover. Senlin and the wife make a run for it together, locking the various doors behind them as they run through the set.
They end up escaping but get in trouble for breaking the play rules. They meet an arbitrator to describe what happened. While he considers the matter, Senlin and the wife (Edith) are put in a metal cage that hangs on the outside of the tower overnight. The two of them get to know each other as they spend a cold night huddled together. The next morning, a man arrives to announce Senlin is cleared but Edith must leave the tower. She asks Senlin to go with her to her branding. He obliges. A nurse burns a circular mark on Edith’s arm so she’ll never be able to ascend past the tower’s basement again. Edith passes out from the pain. Senlin leaves before she wakes up.
As Senlin leaves, there’s one sign that this whole thing was an act even though Senlin got so caught up in it that it felt real: A man assumes Senlin is complimenting his acting talents when Senlin is doing something quite different.
Senlin ascends to the third floor of the tower, which contains baths, spas, and hotels. This is finally like he imagined the tower wound be. It’s ornate and occupied by fancy-looking people. Following the advice of the peddler from the basement level, Senlin is subtle in his inquiries about his wife. He goes from hotel to hotel to see if she has checked in to one. He has no luck in locating her.
The hotel keepers see through his ruse pretty quickly and just shake their heads each morning when he comes to check for Marya. He only briefly checks the more unseemly district behind the main thoroughfare before deducing Marya would never stay here. He lays by the fountains with his new friend Taru by day and wines and dines with the man each night.
Senlin soon realizes his limited funds will quickly run out and gives himself a deadline to conclude his search. He then sees two disturbing things: (1) a man publicly executed and (2) a a postal clerk reading rules for hoarding women to make them mail order brides of sorts.
Senlin was in the post office to mail a letter to his cousin to let her know he and Marya will be delayed. He asks her to find a sub for him at school for the beginning of the term but promises to return soon. He wants to retain his beloved job.
One night, Taru gets particularly drunk and makes a scene. He finally admits it’s time for him to go home and asks Senlin to see him off at the train station the next morning. As he’s leaving the restaurant, Taru bumps into some of the painter’s work.
When Senlin goes over to help him set it back up, he notices the man recently painted a lady with a red hat on. It looks like Marya. Senlin asks the man about it and ends up accompanying him back to his apartment. Senlin finally admits the full story to Ogire (the painter) in hopes of discovering Marya’s whereabouts. Ogire tells how he painted her into one of his landscapes after she sat at the park all afternoon. She asked him to use her as a subject and pay her. Senlin is shocked to see the topless portrait of his wife.
Ogire will only reveal what else he knows if Senlin will steal back his prized possession—a painting—from the Commissioner, who stole it from him. Senlin agrees to. He convinces Taru to accompany him to a ball at the Commissioner’s house. Things don’t go quite as Senlin hoped, but he nevertheless convinces the sickly Commissioner that the painting is emitting fumes that might aggravate his allergies. The Commissioner is skeptical at first but eventually agrees to let Senlin fumigate it and write an essay about it as an art critic.
Senlin is allowed to work on the painting in the Commissioner’s private solarium guarded by only one older guard. After several days, Senlin makes his move. He brings a copy wrapped around a bottle of alcohol, gets the guard drunk/drugged (as they have been eating and drinking together each day at lunch), and makes the switch.
While the guard’s passed out, he takes the original painting out of the frame, replaces it with the copy, and wraps the original around the alcohol bottle as a fake label. He thinks he’s in the clear, but the guard wakes up and reveals he knows Senlin’s up to no good. But the Commissioner has never treated him right, so he allows Senlin a head start before he turns him in in exchange for any money he has on him.
Senlin sees the Commissioner turning someone else into a hod in the town square again. It’s Taru. He’s in trouble for his debts. Senlin wants to help him, but Taru acts like their friendship was always a farce to save Senlin. The Commissioner sees Senlin and makes a meeting for 8:00 that night so Senlin can interview him for the art essay.
Senlin finally makes it to Ogire. Once he confirms Senlin made it away with the real painting, he tells Senlin everything. Marya made it into the tower a couple days before Senlin and ran into all kinds of bad luck. She ended up sitting for nude portraits with the painter to earn back the money that was stolen from her. She thinks she’s found a man who has colleagues who can help her locate Thomas. But as the story progresses, Senlin becomes afraid she ran into a man mentioned in the book Senlin snatched from the postal clerk: someone who preps unwitting women to be mail order brides.
Ogire’s best guess is that Marya is engaged or married to the man who took the most interest in her after she played the piano at one of the parties. His initials are JWP. He thinks that he’s a member of one of the elite families in the city of Babel and lives on elite level of the tower. The whole time he’s telling Senlin this, Ogire’s walking him to the port to ferry him up on an airship to this level of the tower.
Senlin thanks him and leaves on the ship that’s filled with women who will be sold to men at this level. When Senlin arrives and signs his name, and Amazon-like a lady recognizes the name. She chases him through the city. She catches him just when he thinks he’s free. He enters what he believes to be a nice hotel or restaurant. It’s actually a drug den. He gets high off a bowl of crumb.
When Senlin awakes from his dream like state, the Amazon lady (Iren) and a man (Finn Goll) are there. Senlin encountered Finn before; he was the man in the basement who commiserated with Senlin when Adam robbed him. Finn wants to hire Senlin to be his port master. His job would be to manage the books as well as the dock workers who handle the imports to the City of Babel. Senlin accepts the position because he needs the money but tells himself he’s only biding his time until he can find Marya.
Senlin soon runs into Adam, another of Finn’s employees. He forgives Adam because he knows he only robbed him out of desperation. The two become friends. Adam is one of the few educated men among the workers, so Senlin soon begins reading the workers’ mail to them each night. One evening Senlin reads about a performing girl named Volita. He can tell something about the ad bothers Adam and remembers that Volita is the sister he said he was searching for when they first met.
Senlin finds a model of the tower hidden under his desk. He and Adam peruse this piece together. Adam calls it an aero model. Senlin notes that at least three different people have written on it over the years, yet only some of the levels are labeled. But the one he’s hoping for is there: Pellham City, where he believes Marya resides.
Senlin sees how illiteracy hampers these people, so he decides he wants to teach Iren to read. He thinks part of her brutishness is to make up for her illiteracy. Adam thinks it’s a silly idea, but Senlin is going to try anyway.
Adam tells Senlin what brought him to the tower. His father was killed in a freak accident at work, and soon after his mother took ill. She was a very practical woman and told Adam to go pursue his dreams. She and Volita would move in with her well-to-do sister and brother-in-law. Adam’s dream was the Tower, so he follows his mother’s advice and leaves. But he can’t go without his beloved sister. The two have just enough for their train tickets, so Adam immediately looks for work.
His first job is a clerk on the parlor level. He basically spies on the actors through peepholes and takes notes on it. When it comes time for his first paycheck, he realizes he was duped. The contract he signed said he would owe money each month instead of being paid. He and his sister try to run. After other mishaps, Adam ends up with a brand and a missing eye. His sister is tied to a whoremonger. She’s the star of his show, performing as an acrobat every single night. She’s the only lady of Rodion’s who doesn’t have to perform duties after the show. Adam has worked hard to earn enough to buy her freedom, but it’s never going to happen.
Senlin comes up with an escape plan. Unbeknownst to Finn, he increases all his workers’ wages to get in their good graces. He’s made the port so much more efficient that this won’t cut into Finn’s profits at all, so no one will notice it. He wants to find a ship, recruit several of the workers to man it, and escape.
The Red Hand, the Commissioner’s executioner, somehow finds Senlin. He arrives in his room in the middle of the night demanding the painting. Senlin says it’s hidden in a locked cabinet. He pulls out the key-gun that Ogire gave him and shoots at the Red Hand. The Red Hand escapes.
Senlin pulled out the painting that was the only one he had, the nude Ogire did of Marya. The Red Hand damaged the frame in the scuffle before he left. When Senlin examines it more closely, he realizes Ogire’s original prized painting of the girl is tucked behind it with a note. Ogire asks Senlin to keep this painting safe as it is the key to the Tower and to happiness.
Adam hears the commotion, arrives, and fires shots. But the Red Hand already got away. Senlin investigates the next day and sees he climbed up a rope from a lower tower level and then quickly slid down it for his exit. Someone on Senlin’s level had to be an accomplice. Senlin snips the rope.
Senlin’s lessons with Iren begin.
Senlin tests the air currents with a kite and finally finds the best place to attempt their escape.
Adam is irate because Volita is starting to get marriage proposals. He keeps having to pay Rodion off to keep the suitors at bay.
Finn Goll finds Senlin to chew him out for teaching Iren to read. He didn’t want to have to trust that his courier wouldn’t read everything he sends her off with. Iren has to read a note from Finn, asking her to strike Senlin three times to prove her loyalty. She hits him five times for good measure. Senlin’s glad she didn’t hesitate.
Senlin looks for a ship as he’s pretty sure both Finn’s and Adam’s patience with him is nearing an end. He decides which one to try to steal when Edith appears. She’s the first mate on a pirate airship, the Stone Cloud. She has a brass arm. Gangrene set in after her branding, and she lost it. The arm is a mechanical marvel. Senlin quickly decides hers is the ship he must steal. Edith can complete his crew.
Senlin tells Adam about his new plan. Adam questions whether they can trust Edith. Senlin says there’s no way to know for sure, but he thinks they can. He sends Adam off to do his part of the plan. Senlin goes to visit Edith. She can tell something is up and calls him on it. He pours out his heart, telling her the entire plan: try to bring both Finn and Rodion to the dock to try to turn them against each other and then take off while they’re arguing. She thinks his plan is crazy but agrees to it.
It’s time for Senlin’s last 8:00 report to Iren, part of his daily job as port master. She tells Senlin he’s supposed to come with her. She lets him put on his coat, asking him to empty his pockets first. He asks if he can keep the key. She obliges. He can feel the rolled up painting sewed into the back of his coat.
As they ride along in the carriage, Senlin tells Iren his theory about what each level of the tower is actually doing. He believes the tourists are being asked to do things that actually are powering something huge. When people ride the bikes for the beer-me, he thinks they’re actually pulling up water from underground. On the parlor level, when people are stoking the fires, he thinks they are producing heat energy that’s going somewhere. He thinks that the baths are used to dispel steam and maybe something else, too. But what does this all add up to?
They arrive at their destination, Finn’s house, a picturesque stone cottage. His wife and many children are there with him. Iren told Senlin to let Finn do the talking, so that’s exactly what he does. Finn invited him over to ask him to reduce the employees’ wages. He’s going to take it out of Senlin’s check until he’s fully reimbursed. Senlin thinks about shooting Finn with the key gun but decides against it because his children are in the house.
Before he leaves, Senlin mentions that he’s going to go check a ship’s manifest. He wants to see if Adam was able to pull off his part of the plan. Apparently Adam has because Finn looks immediately interested. Senlin wonders what Rodion thinks is aboard this ship.
How did Senlin Ascends end?
When Senlin makes it to the ship, things deteriorate quickly. Rodion shoots the ship’s captain, Billy Lee, and a huge fight ensues. Edith ends up sliding over the edge of the ship. The fight continues until Finn Goll shows up.
Senlin discovers that Adam is the one who betrayed him to the Commissioner and even the one who put the rope out, intending to send the painting down to the lower level when he found it. Senlin feels betrayed by his friend but realizes he has been using his friends and putting them in danger, too. When Rodion pulls a gun on Adam, Senlin raises his key gun in a killing shot at Rodion.
The Commissioner and his cronies appear and disembark their ship. The Commissioner tells Senlin the truth about the painting. Ogire was a fraud; someone else painted it over 100 years ago. Ogire tried to mimic that artist’s style, right down to choosing a studio over a perfume shop so his canvases would smell like the other man’s.
The Commissioner has the Red Hand open the crate, releasing the crumb Senlin packed in the straw around the fake painting. Everyone gets high on the hallucinogen in the drug, including Senlin, who knew what was happening and tried to avoid it. He hallucinates about Marya playing the piano in a white nightgown.
A crazy fight erupts. Iren and the Red Hand fight, and Iren is seriously injured or killed. Senlin, Edith, Adam, and Volita escape on the Stone Cloud with Iren’s body. They are headed to the Pell level of the Tower to try to locate and rescue Marya. Senlin is afraid of what state they will find her in. Will she be maimed like Edith, will she have been subjected to horrible things by men like Volita, or will she be married to Mr. Pell?
There you go! That’s what happened in Senlin Ascends, the first book in The Books of Babel series!
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