Novella review: Tower of Mud and Straw by Yaroslav Barsukov

How completely different.

That is my overwhelming thought on reading this beautiful novella.

I’ve been enjoying my fantasy lately; lands full of assassins, mages, female warriors, and cold-hearted kings.

This isn’t that book. However, it’s no bad thing.

This is still fantasy, but much more grounded, and yet, somehow more fantastical. Imagine the visuals of Oxford from His Dark Materials – a world with airships and government ministers, but set in Cold War Russia, only one where the Russian revolution hadn’t happened.

The world is modern, yet bleak. Dogs hunt the streets for food in the rubble. People stay inside. The palaces are beautiful, the dukes are arrogant. The queen’s power is absolute.

Now add in some magic. A huge tower is being built at the border of the kingdom to protect the citizens from potential attack. To build it to such a height, engineers are using a type of magical technology that renders objects weightless. It is a spectacle, a display of power. However, not everyone wants this building to succeed. Some want it to succeed too much.

Enter our protagonist, Shae.

He is not the typical fantasy protagonist. He’s not a warrior, not a genius, not a man who has a cause.

Yet, he disobeyed the Queen by refusing to gas a rioting crowd and as a punishment has been sent to supervise the construction of this great tower and see it is completed. To fail in this task means life imprisonment.

So, what can he do when he realises the magical technology is dangerous and the tower will soon crumble?

Shae is timid and naive, lost in grief. When he goes to visit a Drakiri settlement he even feels a little childish, suddenly free of the constraints of his normal life. He speaks (by way of inner monologues) to his dead sister which reveals his true feelings; his fragility. And he is fragile.

Yaroslav Barsukov has written a novella that is very immersive, though it does require concentration from the outset. The books starts after the inciting incident (the riot) and I had to read the prologue twice to fully understand what was going on. Going forward the story unfolds quickly. We learn, along with Shae, the mysteries of the tower and the conflicts that torment him. These revelations are captivating.

My only quibble with the novella was the romantic thread – or rather the build up to it. It was too quick and thus lacked the emotional impact I wanted. Perhaps a fault of the novella medium? The story must progress. Or perhaps more world building was required? Anna Karenina fell in love with Vronsky in the space of one evening after all and this novel had a decidedly Russian tinge.

That being said, perhaps the whys and wherefores doesn’t matter. The world at times is surreal. Maybe love shouldn’t need to be explained. Shae isn’t always in control, he acts impulsively and instinctively, and that is part of his charm.

The prose is the masterpiece of the novella. Beautiful. Especially when Shae is speaking in his head to his sister. I did feel a touch of Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita in the story, the way the real world and the fantastical collide. This was masterfully done.

Since reading, I have discovered that this novella is a Nebula finalist. Huge congratulations to Yaroslav Barsukov. This is such a unique and well written piece of work. I can’t wait to see what he comes up with next.

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