Author: Yaroslav Barsukov
Publisher: Metaphorosis Publishing
Release Date: February 21st, 2021
eBook: 155 pages
Paperback: 212 pages
THE QUEEN RUINED HIS LIFE. HE WOULD DO ANYTHING TO RECLAIM IT… OR SO HE THOUGHT.
Minister Shea Ashcroft refuses the queen’s order to gas a crowd of protesters. After riots cripple the capital, he’s banished to the border to oversee the construction of the biggest anti-airship tower in history. The use of otherworldly technology makes the tower volatile and dangerous; Shea has to fight the local hierarchy to ensure the construction succeeds—and to reclaim his own life.
He must survive an assassination attempt, find love, confront the place in his memory he’d rather erase, encounter an ancient legend, travel to the origin of a species—and through it all, stay true to his own principles.
Climbing back to the top is a slippery slope, and somewhere along the way, one is bound to fall.
David W’s Review
Thanks to the author for an advance reading/listening copy of Tower of Mud and Straw for review consideration. This did not influence my thoughts or opinions.
Tower of Mud and Straw is a near-perfect example of how a novella should be written. An immersive story with intriguing characters and a plot that leaves just enough threads open to let your imagination soar. The writing feels polished and this novella reads like that of a seasoned author. Barsukov is a name to watch out for in the coming years.
We can’t start talking about this novella without mentioning the cover, which is stunning. It provides a glimpse into the world the reader is about to be dropped into and gives an idea of just how tall this tower really is – very Tower of Babel (more Bancroft than Genesis).
The characters are what really shine here, though the tower itself stands as the main gauntlet. Barsukov breathes life into each and every one we come across, which is really something that I believe most novellas lack. You get a real sense of all their motivations for wanting the tower built or destroyed, even going so far as receiving a little backstory here and there for more of the main POVs. Shea Ashcroft is a wonderful protagonist and I wouldn’t mind seeing more of him in the future. While he has the chops to make it as a careerist, his complete refusal to obey his queen gives him what you can only describe as the ultimate demotion (there really are some interesting goings on surrounding this tower).
Assassination attempts, a love interest, political machinations, and alien technology all come to a head here and I was there for it at each and every turn. My only quibbles were with some of the flashbacks. While I understand their importance to furthering the plot, the pacing sort of dipped a bit and took me somewhat out of the story at times. What balanced that out was Barsukov’s prose. MY GOODNESS, THE PROSE. He has a knack for the written word (which again, is super rare for a debut) and I believe he is up there with some of my favs like Mark Lawrence and Anna Smith Spark. The words just drip off the pages like a fine wine. Probably helps that Miltos Yerolemou (best known for his role as Syrio Forel in Game of Thrones) performed the narration – he has one of the best voices in the world IMO.
Review copy provided by the author in exchange for an honest review.
“I hope you don’t suffer from vertigo.”
“No, but I do suffer from this stupid wish to live.”
Tower of Mud and Straw is a novella that wears it influences on its sleeve and in many ways that is exactly what makes it work so well for me. The obvious influences include the USSR and the Cold War era Iron Curtain that Barsukov himself was born behind. There are parallels that can be drawn between the Communist Party of the Soviet Union and the politicians of Red Hill and Owenbeg and the race to build the biggest building in history and man it with anti-aircraft weapons to defend against an attack that they are certain will one day come sounds an awful lot like our own worlds’ arms race. All of these things serve to make Tower of Mud and Straw feel real, as if this is not just a fantasy, but something torn from the pages of our own history (or maybe our future).
Barsukov’s prose is simply beautiful. It is clever, darkly evocative, and oftentimes reminiscent of some of the genre greats, like Mervyn Peake or Roger Zelazny. In fact, it reads so much like Zelazny that once I nailed down who his writing reminded me of, I had to go to my shelf and take down Nine Princes in Amber just to make sure. I also really enjoyed the way in which Barsukov played with repetition. There are certain threads that are interwoven throughout the whole novella, popping up only a handful of times, that hearken back to similar moments in the story. It was extremely satisfying to come upon these instances of repetition and search back through the text to see how it tied together.
The hound ran to the middle of the street. It barked and leaped in place, snapping its jaws at something it couldn’t quite reach.
For me, the worldbuilding was one area of the novel that left me feeling polarized. On the one hand, Barsukov plays with several really interesting and cleverly written ideas. For instance, the way in which he blends the fantastical elements with those of the mundane. The Drakiri technology is the one major fantastical construct in the story outside of the Drakiri people themselves. It is in many ways the linchpin of the whole story, being the only way in which the tower can be built to the great height they envision for it. However, it is used so sparingly throughout the narrative that when it does pop up, a Drakiri woman leaping from the tower to escape unscathed for instance, it is used to great effect. I really enjoyed this aspect. On the other hand, there was so much left begging to be explored, such as the Drakiri diaspora and culture, or simply the way in which they are discriminated against. And, maybe that is more a failing of the format in which it is presented than the author himself, because when Barsukov gets a chance to stretch his legs and reach his full stride, he is capable of really stirring exploration.
Tower of Mud and Straw feels like a step forward for the genre, while also firmly acknowledging its roots. Like our hero Shea, we all feel at times like we’re constantly reaching for something just out of reach. That promotion, the recognition we feel we deserve, justice. Buried within a gaslamp fantasy story with superhuman beings and anti-gravity technology, Barsukov has written a meditation on what it means to be free, to challenge one’s fate, and what the cost of reaching too high can be.
I’m like a cart on a track, he thought, I’ve got no choice. The only thing I can do is press forward.
After leaving his ball and chain at the workplace, Yaroslav Barsukov goes on to write stories that deal with things he himself, thankfully, doesn’t have to deal with. He’s a software engineer and a connoisseur of stone alcholic beverages—but also, surprisingly, a member of SFWA and Codex (how did that happen?). His stories have appeared in Galaxy’s Edge, Nature: Futures, and StarShipSofa, among others. At some point in his life, he’s left one former empire only to settle in another. Tower of Mud and Straw is his first novel.