Without a doubt, 2018 is the year of Josiah Bancroft’s twisting, spiraling, ever-climbing Books of Babel series. Originally a self-published work, Senlin Ascends dropped anew in January with Orbit Books—and a whole lot of mainstream publishing buzz—behind it. The second book, Arm of the Sphinx, arrived this week, continuing the many misadventures of Thomas Senlin, former schoolmaster and husband to a wife gone missing in the Tower of Babel. Through his journey up the Tower’s treacherous ringdoms, Senlin has picked up an irresistible supporting cast, which look to make an even bigger mark when the third novel, The Hod King, is released in December.
From self-published up-and-comer to having three books out from a major publisher in a 12-month span: we recently caught up with Bancroft to talk about his big year and poke at the Tower of Babel’s biggest secrets.
What was the germ of the idea for the Tower of Babel series? Some aspect of the Tower itself?
The idea for the Tower was inspired by several sources, but primarily by the book Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino, which is a gorgeously written travelogue for unreal destinations. I wanted to write a similar guide, but I wanted it to be unreliable and contradictory. I started writing unconnected snippets which would later become the basis for the Everyman’s Guide to the Tower of Babel, the guidebook that entices Senlin to come to the Tower and very quickly leads him astray. It was an odd way to start building a world. I would write a grandiose passage for the Everyman describing, for example, the Tower’s restive Baths, and then I’d write in parentheses underneath it, “All lies.” The story grew out of those conflicting accounts.
By design, the Tower’s ringdoms have their own distinct flavors, with their own rules and codes of conduct and various seedy characters. Have any of the ringdoms been more fun to conceive of or to play with than others?
I really enjoyed designing the Silk Gardens in Arm of the Sphinx, because it gave me a chance to explore my dislike for both amusement parks and spiders. Most of the ringdoms are inspired by one of my many anxieties or irrational fears. This goes some way towards explaining why the Tower is so big. Somewhere in the Tower, there must exist a ringdom where doors unlock themselves in the night and gas stoves switch themselves on. I’ve been asked whether there are any happy ringdoms in the Tower. The nearest I can imagine is a ringdom full of burbling chocolate fountains. I’m told that some people actually enjoy eating wilted strawberries dipped in recycled gutter chocolate.
“Most of the ringdoms are inspired by one of my many anxieties or irrational fears. This goes some way towards explaining why the Tower is so big.”
But the Tower’s not the only thing of wonder in the story. Let’s talk about Senlin, who’s a pretty remarkable protagonist—in that he’s not necessarily remarkable. He starts out as this straight-laced, priggish schoolmaster and has since grown substantially, even just in the second novel. Did you have his personality pegged from the get-go?
I think I had him pretty well pegged from the start. I wanted a character who would be susceptible to the guidebook’s bad advice. Senlin comes to the Tower feeling self-possessed and well-prepared, and despite his good education and his love of the natural world, he is entirely unprepared for what lies before him. The Tower breaks him down; it exposes and exploits his faults. The wonderful thing about a deeply flawed protagonist is that they have plenty of room to grow and change. Senlin is a very different person at the start of Arm of the Sphinx, and he has changed again by the start of The Hod King. But I think that’s how people truly are: sometimes progressing, sometimes backsliding, but always evolving.
Senlin Ascends was very much about its namesake. It focused on Tom’s journey and Tom’s growth. With Arm of the Sphinx, that shifts a little, as side characters like Edith and Adam and Iren get much more “screen” time. It feels more like an ensemble story. Is that something you wanted specifically for this second novel? Might we expect each subsequent book in the series, like each ringdom, to have its own style?
It’s fair to say each book is going to have its own tone, structure, and focus. The first book is very much Senlin’s story, which I had a wonderful time telling, but which I didn’t feel the need to reproduce. With Arm of the Sphinx, I wanted Tom to begin to share the stage, because not only would stronger secondary characters reveal more about him, it would ultimately reveal more about the Tower. If we only ever see the Tower through Tom’s eyes, it will end up seeming pretty small, I think. In The Hod King, Edith, Voleta, and Iren get much more of the limelight. That’s partly a result of the scope of the story I want to tell, and partly because I wanted to dedicate more time to these characters individually, whom I’ve come to love.
This series developed a following as a self-published work. How does it feel now that the books have publishing firepower behind them and tons of buzz?
It’s been a wonderful, humbling, sometimes overwhelming experience. But I’m very grateful for all the attention and support. I owe a lot of gratitude to many people, my agent, my editors at Orbit, and [author] Mark Lawrence, of course, who gave my books a second shot at success [by promoting them via his contest to find outstanding self-published fantasy]. I’ve been given so much encouragement. I love interacting with the bustling community on r/fantasy and with readers on social media. Early on, I was lucky enough to meet a group of independent writers—Phil Tucker, Timandra Whitecastle, David Benem, and Benedict Patrick—who are all delightful and immensely talented people. We’ve been playing Dungeons and Dragons via video chat every month for more than a year now. I had never played D&D before, and it’s been so much fun having them teach me the ropes. I feel very fortunate.
The Books of Babel series itself would make an excellent board game. Maybe a dismal, never-ending version of Candy Land.
I would love to see the Tower made into a board game: an infinite Candy Land melded with Snakes and Ladders, with a touch of Risk, and perhaps mumblety-peg. I regularly get together with some neighborhood friends to play a variety of board games. I’m terrible at most of them, but it’s a lot of fun. I have a reader who asked if he could use the Tower as source material for a tabletop role playing game he wanted to play with his friends. Just last week, he sent me an update on the campaign and a map he’d drawn by hand. I was very impressed. I love being able to serve as a point of inspiration for other people’s creativity and imagination.
Can you tell us anything about The Hod King (out later this year)?
I don’t want to spoil anything, but I can say it’s a different sort of book. If you’re a fan of Edith, Iren, and Voleta, there will be something for you to look forward to. There aren’t any spiders or chocolate fountains, but there are more baddies and battles. The Hod King is less episodic in its structure, more focused in its setting, but I think it has some very dramatic turns. There are one or two twists that I suspect will inspire some spirited debate among readers. I look forward to hearing what everyone thinks.