Tower of Mud and Straw by Yaroslav Barsukov
Lord Shea Ashcroft, a government minister, faced with a rioting crowd of protestors in the capital city, makes the call to have the military fall back rather than killing the protestors — and innocent bystanders —with poisonous gas. Some people praise his mercy, but half the city now lies in ruins from the mob’s violence, and the queen is not so appreciative of his decision. Shea is shipped off to the border city of Owenbeg as punishment, charged with overseeing the finishing of construction of a colossal tower to protect the border against enemy airships. The tower is already a thousand feet high, with plans to add another thousand feet on top.
Things get complicated for Shea in Owenbeg, on both a personal and a political level. The duke of Owenbeg, his military commander, and the chief engineer of the tower all resent Shea, especially when Shea makes it clear that he won’t just rubberstamp others’ decisions regarding the tower. The builders are using Drakiri antigravity devices, a foreign technology, to help stabilize the immense tower, but Shea is convinced that no one in charge fully appreciates how dangerous these devices are. Shea’s seen that danger himself, when he and his dead sister Lena experimented with the devices years ago.
The Drakiri people seem to understand the danger, but they are immigrants in the kingdom with little power or influence. The duke’s half-Drakiri lover Lena, who shares his beloved sister’s name and reminds Shea strongly of his sister in her appearance and spirit, tells Shea that the tower is more dangerous than he realizes. He’s dubious about the old Drakiri legends of a “Mimic Tower” that she shares with him, but as Shea’s personal interest in Lena grows, the stakes with the tower and its Drakiri devices grow too, along with the conflicting agendas of the different characters.
Tower of Mud and Straw (2020) by Yaroslav Barsukov, recently nominated for the Nebula award in the novella category, tells the poignant story of a man haunted by his past and what (and more importantly who) he has lost, which resurfaces and finds echoes in his present relationships and concerns. Shea Ashcroft is a man of conscience and courage, doing his best to make the right decisions. But right and wrong aren’t always clear, and his choices, even if they were the best ones he was able to make with the knowledge he had at the time, often come back to bite him.
Shea frequently talks to his sister in his mind, shedding light on his motivations and the pain of his memories.
Something has broken in me, I think. Or maybe was broken. Maybe I broke it myself, to steady myself against disappointment. We go to great lengths to avoid pain, Lena, and we lose important things in the process.
Tower of Mud and Straw is primarily a gaslamp fantasy, but there’s a dollop of science fiction here, along with a dash of surrealism and even a snippet of horror. The surrealistic element didn’t meld all that well for me with the rest of the tale, or perhaps it simply needed more development than Barsukov was able to give it in the novella format. Similarly, the Mimic Tower makes for an intriguing symbol of Shea’s echoing and reechoing troubles, but then it’s never explained in the end. But other than these fairly minor quibbles, I was fully on board with this tale.
This is a frequently dark, or at least bittersweet, novella: there are good and well-intentioned characters here (not all, but enough), but people hurt each other and tragic events happen. It’s a morally complex story, and Barsukov tells it well, even poetically at times, with a nuanced take on the characters and the events of the plot. Tower of Mud and Straw is a thought-provoking novella that doesn’t stop with the easy answers. It’s well worth reading.
I’m in agreement with Tadiana. Tower of Mud and Straw is a beautifully written story that packs a surprising amount of drama and emotions into its short length. In order to achieve this, Barsukov skimps bit on the back story, sketching it only briefly, or merely alluding to past events to give us some context. Thus, I recommend reading Tadiana’s review above, or at least the publisher’s blurb, before beginning. That will save you the small amount of disorientation I felt as I tried to get up to speed.
I listen to an audio version of Tower of Mud and Straw which was performed Miltos Yerolemou who plays Syrio Forel in Game of Thrones. This was a wonderful way to hear Barsukov’s story!
I’m looking forward to reading whatever Barsukov writes next.