Senlin Ascends by Josiah Bancroft is unexpected in many ways, and at least some of them are charming. It takes place in the Tower of Babel, so that’s one. We are definitely in a fantastic world, because we have trains, and airships, and guns, so that’s another. The book never really discusses the world outside the tower too much, except as a character backdrop, which worked extremely well.
Our protagonist, a village teacher, is an uptight and dour little man who has spent most of his life learning and thinking about the Tower, as his pupils can attest. When he finds himself married, he decides on a honeymoon in the place of his dreams. Only it turns out that the Tower is a kafkaesque abyss of human nature, and our protagonist is wholly unprepared to ascend into its steampunk hell.
As you may gather, I disliked this character from the beginning, even though I noticed that this was intended. He was just too uptight, too little-minded, too cringe. A disaster waiting to happen. The transformation he undergoes starts off slow, but once it starts – oh boy! We get some real character growth, borne out of a lot of suffering, and a bit of intellect. I was very impressed how plausible and at the same time absurd the story developed. The kafkaesque depressive elements felt a bit much sometimes, but I’ve always been a bit sensitive with those, so that may be just me. Looking forward to further books on this front! Also, one of the best uses of steampunk I’ve ever seen in a book: just over-the-top enough to be fun, but not without inner logic.