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Sunday, October 11, 2020

Tower of Mud and Straw by Yaroslav Barsukov


Official author info: 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 strong alcoholic beverages—but also, surprisingly, a member of SFWA and Codex (how did that happen?). At some point in his life, he’s left one former empire only to settle in another. 

Format: Tower of Mud and Straw is a serialized novella published by Metaphorosis (read or listen to part 1 here, for free). The book will be available in e-book and paperback editions in February 2021.

Overview: Minister Shea Ashcroft had a good, successful life. If only he were a spineless careerist, he could enjoy it for a long time. And we wouldn’t read about his adventures. Refusing his queen’s order to gas a crowd of protesters got him banished to oversee the construction of the biggest anti-airship tower in history. 

To make the progress and keep the tower stable, its builders use mysterious Drakiri technology. Some have no issue with it, others are afraid of it. Shea’s queen sees the tower as her legacy while Drakiri believe it’ll end the world. Shea’s assignment gets dangerous and emotionally taxing. Someone wants him dead. His love life gets complicated. Everyone around has secrets. Memories he’d rather erase hunt him. He has to travel to the origin of the species. All of that in four acts.

The characterization here is superb, with all the players distinct and well-written. The story, divided into four acts, feels complete and well thought out. Sure, fans of detailed world-building will crave more context, but we get more than enough to enjoy the story, anyway. Barsukov finds a good balance of plot and subplot and weaves a few storylines in the narrative. We learn a lot about Shea’s past, his current situation, and motivations of secondary characters without having to get through their excessive backstories. I found relationships between characters engaging, although I also found the romance lacking in the build-up and emotional truth.

The story tackles themes of discrimination, cultural differences, and destructive politics and does it with sensitivity. The narrative alternates between introspective moments, revelatory of character and place, and dramatic action and intrigue. It doesn’t strike a perfect balance, but it’s close to it. Barsukov’s prose is elegant and restrained without being fussy or lifeless. I found his action sequences suspenseful, and Shea’s introspection deep and convincing. 

Tower of Mud and Straw is a fine example of a novella format - it tells a complete, well thought out story, in less than 200 pages. I wouldn’t mind learning more about Drakiri and their technology or getting more insight into cultural differences, but I’m satisfied with what I got.

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