Review | Tower of Mud and Straw – Yaroslav Barsukov

About the Book


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.

Expected publication: February 21, 2021
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This book was provided by the author in exchange for an honest review. 

There are a few literary hills I am prepared to die on. Novellas being an under-appreciated form is absolutely one of them. I get a handful of novellas each year to edit, and I read a whole bunch of them, and I’m always blown away. A really good novella can pack a punch every bit as walloping as a full-length novel. The shorter form also means that the author has to be really clever about plot development, world building, and character development as well as everything else that goes into a story. 

When it’s all said and done, the novella really blows me away. And a really well done novella quickly veers from something fantastic, into something unforgettable. Some of my favorite authors excel at novellas. K.J. Parker, for example. One of the authors I edit for on the regular throws novellas at me constantly, and each one has me sitting back to admire what he’s managed to do in so few pages. 

So, yes. Novellas are amazing, and if you are not reading them, you really should. 

Tower of Mud and Straw is one good example as to why. 

When Barsukov reached out to me about this novella, he told me it’s based on a bit of Russian and Austro-Hungarian Empire history, and be still, my heart. I have an unhealthy obsession with Russian history, and I recently read a book about the Austro-Hungarian Empire and have discovered a healthy fascination there as well. So it really didn’t take much to get me interested in reading this novella. 

Shae, our protagonist, is set to oversee the creation of this gigantic tower which will be used as the biggest anti-airship tower in history. Perhaps this sounds like a good career for a man of his status, but he refused to gas a bunch of protestors, and thus ends up banished to this edge-of-the-empire outpost to oversee the construction of this tower. It’s a demotion.

The tower itself is pretty fascinating and will likely remind some readers of Josiah Bancroft’s series in some ways. The technology used to build it (Drakiri) is accepted and feared by those who use it in equal measure. The tower itself is an interesting linchpin that holds the book together. The queen believes it will provide her a lasting legacy. The Drakiri believe it will end their race. There’s a lot of subtext involved in it as well, which I truly enjoyed. I’ll touch on that a bit later, though. 

As one can imagine, Shae’s job isn’t straightforward. He’s a man with a spine. If he’d just done his job and didn’t question anything, he wouldn’t end up in this situation, but as it is with people who have a conscience, things go belly up pretty fast. Soon, he realizes the job isn’t what he thought it was going to be. There are secrets and mystery all around him. There’s an assassination attempt, and mixed into this is love, which is neither easily attained, nor smoothly won. And underpinning it all is a drive for vengeance, for the desire to retain some of what he’s lost and make those who hurt him pay for the pleasure of doing so. 

There’s a lot here, and it is, by and large, magnificently done.

First off, I loved the prose. Liquid and flowing, poetry with an edge. The writing of this novel is clean, crisp, and yet has a flare that allows the author to fill it with imagination, and emotion all at once. And Barsukov does not shy away from emotion. His story is full of layers of genuine moments of deep feelings, and it’s all viscerally felt, from Shae’s frustrations, fears, passions, and even his love. It truly shines bright.

The book flips between inner dialogue and external action. In this way, Barsukov keeps the plot moving forward, while cunningly developing his characters in ways that are quite awe-inspiring, when you consider the shorter form of this novella. Some of the characters might feel a little flat. I found the romance, while overly well-crafted, to be lacking in a bit of something that made it feel completely real in my mind.

Tower of Mud and Straw does tackle a lot of uncomfortable topics, like discrimination, politics, and legacy. Legacy is an interesting theme that I enjoy playing with a lot in my own writing. How decisions one person make are felt, not only immediately, but how they can potentially be felt in generations to come, spanning multiple groups of peoples and cultures. There’s a lot here to chew on, and a lot of subtext that underscores almost everything, which I absolutely loved. 

So knowing all this, you might wonder why I am giving the book four stars, rather than five, and honestly, my complaint is likely going to be one that will flatter the author rather than upset him. 

I wanted more. I wanted more depth, more introspection, more moments where we could explore all the nuances of this world fully. There’s so much here to grab hold of a reader’s attention, and yet I felt like I was truly only skimming the surface of what I wanted to know, and what was available to me. This is a good entry point, but I really hope the author explores more of what he’s written in greater depth at some future point. 

All in all, this was a great novella and I’m overjoyed I was given the chance to read and review it. It’s different, and eye-catching, with stunning prose and a shocking amount of depth and story packed in a few short pages. I think Barsukov has a great future as a writer ahead of him, and I, for one, look forward to what he writes next. 

4/5 stars


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