They say it’s never a good idea to judge a book by it’s cover. After a while, when it comes to actual books, that advice gets harder and harder to follow. It’s not easy with all these amazing artists out there, providing color and form to black and white text. Some of my favorite covers are striking juxtapositions between the title and the actual picture. However, the cover for this book felt oppressive and mysterious and it just lured me in. A dark tower invades the page, punctuating the cover’s foggy negative space. Even though the perspective is from above the gargantuan feat of engineering, it still towers over you, begging you to throw stones at it while it cackles at your powerlessness. The owner of this cover, Tower of Mud and Straw, by Yaroslav Barsukov, is a flurry of a novella, and delivers its meticulously planned punches with style and heart.
The book follows one minister Shea Ashcroft after he has been banished to the border for defying the queen’s orders to gas a crowd of protestors. His task is to aid in the construction of the largest anti-air defense tower in history. Having no other choice, Ashcroft heads to the bordertown of Owenbeg and begins to learn about the construction and the hazards that plague it. Upon discovering that risky Drakiri technology is being used to prop up the giant tower, Ashcroft is pulled into conspiracy after conspiracy. Some want the tower finished to aid in the coming war with their neighbor, others want it destroyed as it will fulfill an apocalyptic prophecy. Ashcroft just wants his life back and will do what he must to make sure the construction succeeds.
One of the most standout aspects of this book is Barsukov’s writing. It’s flowery, but in the way that kudzu is flowery. It’s dense and tangled, and obscured much of my understanding beyond the surface. Barsukov doesn’t hold the reader’s hand. Sometimes it’s easy to get a little lost, but I think that’s partially the point. Interesting things are clearly afoot, but at the same time they are clouded by Ashcroft’s perspective. It’s often manic, jumping between past memories, present events, and futures imagined. Barsukov sometimes highlights these different mental spaces within the writing. Other times it blends together, allowing Ashcroft’s guilt and pain to come to the forefront, blurring his current reality. It’s clever, even if sometimes confusing. My advice, take it slow to fully appreciate the whirlwind.
I also had a blast with Barsukov’s worldbuilding. It’s minimal, and forces you to ask questions and pay attention to everything. Often my curiosity on a subject was answered by the character’s own ignorance. It creates this neat little push forward that compels the reader to keep digging in the hopes they might discover the answer to the mysteries themselves. A lot of these answers remain ambiguous, but in a way that feels thematically fulfilling. Barsukov plays it tight to the chest, only giving the reader what the flawed narrator discovers, allowing Owenbeg to slowly flesh itself out as needed. It doesn’t hurt that Ashcroft is not a great investigator, but he does know a thing or two about the technology from the secretive race of Drakiri that is being used to cut corners. It makes the world feel exciting, and casts Ashcroft as a bull-fish in a chinashop out of water.
However, I will say I was lukewarm on Ashcroft himself. I think there are aspects to him that are compelling, but I wasn’t entirely sure of his drive. The book starts out with his refusal to follow the queen’s orders, and while I admire his moral standing on not gassing protestors, I never got the sense it was part of who he was. He has a past, but it’s never satisfactorily explained how he gets from his history to the place we meet him in the opening pages. Normally I wouldn’t mind so much, but the gap in Ashcroft’s development is disappointing when the book seems to explore the desire for power and the atrocities one has to carry out in order to achieve and secure it. I didn’t feel his own lust for power that propelled him to the capitol, and in the queen’s graces, he just happened to be there. Everyone around Ashcroft has their own agenda, pushing him to complete or destroy the tower for intangible and tangible reasons. It leaves him bewildered as there is just not enough time to inform himself before committing to one side or another. Yet, Ashcroft feels like a dog chasing cars. There wasn’t enough of a foundation to make me feel this was who he was leading up to defying the queen. It’s not a deal breaker, and if you read the book as some fever dream, that is packed with innuendo and metaphor, it works really well. It’s just something that stuck out to me, and kind of hampered some of the introspective tension in the climax.
All in all, Tower of Mud and Straw is worth the couple of hours it takes to read it. In the ever growing market for novellas, Barsukov’s story is a contender for the top brackets. It’s clever, it’s feverish, and he leaves much up for interpretation. There aren’t any real answers to the myriad of questions, and the whip crack transitions between plot points cover Barsukov’s tracks even better. Some people might want explanations, but I was quite satisfied by the end of the book. It’s a real treat, and I implore you to check it out.
Rating: Tower of Mud and Straw – 8.0/10