I was a big fan of Lawrence M. Schoen’s first entry in this series, Barsk: The Elephant’s Graveyard, and therefore was excited to pick up its sequel, The Moons of Barsk (2018). I have to admit to being somewhat disappointed, but despite suffering from a bit of a second-book slump, The Moons of Barsk does move the big story arcs along while broadening/deepening some characterization, and so hasn’t lessened my interest in seeing where both story and character go moving forward.
For convenience’s sake (mine, not yours) I’m going to simply reuse my description of Barsk’s universe from my review of book one. And I’ll avoid spoilers for book one, save for references to characters that appear in both (thus letting you know they survive the events of the first book).
The setting is a federation of 4000+ worlds (the Alliance) made up of nearly a hundred different anthropomorphic and highly advanced mammal species known by either their common or Latinate scientific name (often shortened): Sloths (“Brady’s”), Dogs (“Cans”), Pandas (“Ailuros”), and Yaks (“Bos”) are just a few of the species we see. The major species in the novel are elephants (shortened to “Fants”), which are separated into two races: Eleph and Lox. Eight hundred years ago the Fants, which nearly all the other species despise for their lack of fur, were resettled on the planet Barsk, and both sides agreed via The Compact to a sort of benign non-involvement, barring the Fants’ export of pharmaceuticals. The most important of these is koph, a drug that allows particularly gifted users, known as Speakers, to converse with the dead.
The main character of Barsk, the Fant Historian-Speaker (and now Alliance Senator) Jorl, is back, continuing his crusade to reintegrate the Fant into the Alliance as respected, equal members despite the bigotry and planetary isolation they’ve endured for centuries. As one might imagine, it’s a tough slog, though he does find some surprising allies among the other Alliance species. Even more surprising, though, is Jorl’s discovery of a secret Fant society that has its own views about how the Fant should deal with the Alliance’s hostility and contempt. Much of The Moons of Barsk deals with the careful, often suspicious dance between this group and Jorl as they learn more about each other’s goals and methods.
Meanwhile, we’re also reintroduced to Jorl’s young friend Pizlo, still shunned by Fant society as an “abomination” thanks to his parentage. Pizlo’s story interacts now and then with Jorl’s, especially toward the end where he has a huge impact, but early on he’s very much his own story as he, due to his interaction with an ancient AI built as a repository of human stories, decides he needs to go on a Quest to complete his own Hero’s Journey.
To begin with the positives, I continue to be intrigued by Schoen’s universe, which is utterly fascinating in its originality and execution. We don’t see quite as many species here as we did in book one, but we do get to meet a racoon close up and also get more details of the Alliance filled in, regarding both its current structure and its attitudes — historical and current day — toward the Fant.
Another strength held over from the first book is characterization. Pizlo, especially, is a deeply poignant creation and his growth over the time period of Barsk to The Moons of Barsk is both inspiring and oh-so-painful, with many emotionally fraught scenes and monologues (including an absolutely crushing one). Jorl’s curiosity, warm-heartedness, and determination to help his people gain their rightful place all combine to make him a character to root for. Meanwhile a new character (Klarce), a high-ranking member of the Fant secret society, is just as driven toward the same goal, though via different methodology and with a sense of ruthlessness Jorl lacks. That ruthlessness doesn’t come without a sense of inner conflict, however, and it is this that makes her a vividly compelling character.
What drives these characters is their response to bigotry, whether on the galactic scale in the way the Alliance races banished the Fant to their own single planet and speak of them with both contempt and fear (they raise their kids on tales of Fant “monsters”) or on a smaller societal scale in how the Fant themselves display bigotry via their cultural designation of Pizlo as “abomination.” This reaction of a hated group — to find some other group they can in turn feel contemptuous toward — is all too familiar in our own world, as are all the other aspects of bigotry we see in The Moons of Barsk. When one listens to another Alliance senator counsel Jorl that of course he — the senator — thinks bigotry is bad but one can’t expect to just turn around years of it quickly … it’s impossible not to hear echoes of our own societal debate on the same issue. The same is true of objections regarding potential social unrest (“schools will be disrupted!”, “the morale of the military will suffer!”) or the more intimate impact on individuals (“Do you really want your daughter to be the only fill-in-the-blank at her school/workplace and suffer what you know she’ll suffer?”) Generally, this theme is another of the novel’s strengths, adding a level of depth and seriousness and providing lots of room for conflicts between people with worthy intentions as opposed to the far less interesting good people vs. villains.
I say the theme is “generally” a strength because at times the execution can be a little too on the nose or overly didactic. A lighter touch in this area would improve the book, I’d say. I’m a bit similarly conflicted on Schoen’s use of the AI storyteller and the meta-fictional aspect of bringing so overtly into the discussion the Hero’s Journey and Quest Narratives. I like some of the subtler ways this is used and didn’t much care for Pizlo’s direct dialogues/monologues on the topic. The same held true for the theme of free will, which is an important one throughout. Your mileage may vary on these.
Plot-wise there were a few times where things seemed a bit contrived or things were resolved too easily, and one major plot arc emanated from a decision that just seemed highly implausible to me. And it’s slowed at times by some heavy/overt exposition, especially in the first third or so of the novel.
Like book one, The Moons of Barsk resolves the major issue in the novel while leaving room for further exploration of the universe and its characters. Unlike that first book though, The Moons of Barsk points ahead via a hell of a last line, one of those that the reader is well prepared for and might even predict in general terms but is still walloped by the line itself. That, combined with the expansion of setting and the clear move toward potential conflict between the Alliance and the Fant, means that while The Moons of Barsk is a bit of a disappointment compared to book one, it still ratchets up excitement for book three. Here’s hoping the wait isn’t too long.