Tower of Mud and Straw, by Yaroslav Barsukov

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Publication date – February 21, 2021

Summary: 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.

Thoughts: I’ve really been into novellas lately. I used to note enjoy them so much, finding them less to my taste than a longer, meatier novel, but these days, I see a lot more appeal in them. They have the ability to give a person a complete and engaging story while not requiring a huge time sink, and don’t tend to come with the caveat that there’ll be so much story that you’re going to need to invest in a notebook to keep track of character dynamics and event implications. I appreciate their brevity far more than I ever used to.

That being said, Tower of Mud and Straw is a story that I think was poorly served by being a novella instead of a novel.

Novellas can certain feel like a snapshot of moments within a larger world, and Tower of Mud and Straw definitely fits that bill, but through much of the story, it felt like there was too much going on to be properly supported by the format. The events in the very first line of the summary, “Minister Shea Ashcroft refuses the queen’s order to gas a crowd of protesters,” we really only see as brief memories and mentions, a moment from huge and potentially fascinating event that happens before this story even begins. Thus, we don’t really get to see how that event influenced Shea, so much as we’re told that it did, and that there were consequences, and one of those consequences was essentially the catalyst for Tower of Mud and Straw. There are the Drakiri, a people who are far more technologically advanced than humans for some unexplained reason, and that technology is dangerous to use but only sometimes, and even by the end of the story, I didn’t feel like I quite had a handle on what the tipping point for danger really was. Shea develops a complicated romantic relationship after a time, another character ends up as his friend or at least in a decent working relationship, and the fact that I can’t quite tell how to describe it is due partly to the fact that so little time was given over to developing how the characters behaved around each other, how their interactions and relationships changed along the way.

There’s a lot crammed in here, and I feel like it could have been done greater service by taking the time to expand it all into a novella. Characters say things and their words are taken as truth without evidence, and sometimes it wasn’t exactly a convenient situation in which to demand said evidence, but there was no reason to just accept anything then either. Part of the conflict of the story involves a Drakiri legend about the Mimic Tower, a sort of hellish building that appears when a building of equal or greater height is constructed, which will bring with it great destruction, and this all ties in to Drakiri identity, and the concept of a demonic Tower of Babel analogue is fascinating enough on its own, and was a driving factor in the story, but again, too much crammed into too little. The end result was that the story felt smothered, trapped, while anything not critical was stripped away to save space. And unfortunately, that included a lot of potential character development and worldbuilding.

Don’t get me wrong, there is a lot to like here, and Barsukov’s work has a lot of potential. If this had been fleshed out and presented as a full-length novel, the vast majority of my issues with it would likely vanish, as they would at that point not be issues. I have no problem with the story’s premise, with the individual events as they unfolded, with the characters and the roles they played. They were just all done a disservice, I feel, by trying to slim them down and make them fit into a format that couldn’t show them off in their full glory.

(Book received in exchange for an honest review.)

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