When a book is said to be “buzzworthy,” there is a combination of curiosity and skepticism that comes with it. Readers and critics ask themselves, “should I read this book?” or “does the book live up to all of the attention it’s getting?” Even when free copies of the book are offered, there are questions about whether or not the book is worth reading. Then, we read the book in order to quench our curiosity, and that is when we determine for ourselves whether or not the book lives up to all of the attention it’s received. Tower of Mud and Straw, the debut novella by Yaroslav Barsukov, deserves all of the hype it continues to garner. 

The protagonist in the story, Shea Ashcroft, is in a lot of trouble. After refusing a direct order from Queen Daelyn, Shea has been stripped of his position as the Minister of Internal Affairs and councilor to the queen. In addition, Shea is sent to Owenbeg—the kingdom’s border—to oversee the construction of a massive tower, as a chance either to redeem or to condemn himself. Shea’s first trip to the construction site triggers a series of traumatic events from his past, in which he knows the Tower should NOT be completed. Unfortunately, this knowledge puts Shea in a position between performing his expectations based on his role and his status, and doing what is right according to his role and his status. Shea must decide on which decision will benefit everyone best in the long run.

Other characters in this story are involved with the Tower’s construction, too. Those who want to see the Tower completed are: Brielle, the Chief Engineer; Patrick, the Duke’s Military Counselor; and, Aiden, a man who is obsessed with the Tower’s completion no matter the cost. Those who believe the construction of the Tower should be stopped include: Lena, the Duke’s Counselor of Arts (and lover)—not to be confused with Lena—Shea’s sister—and, whoever is sabotaging the Tower’s progress so it can never be completed. The opposing sides must convince both Shea and the Duke of their motivations and reasons for the Tower’s construction or halt.

This story stands out because of the plot device written into the narrative. The Drakiri are a group of individuals with mysterious origins, and a piece of technology—Shea and his sister called them “tulips”—which allows for the Tower to be built ahead of schedule to the amazement of the Duke and Queen Daelyn, and to the horror of Shea, Lena, and the Drakiri. There is a story surrounding the tulips, which the majority of the denizens of Owenbeg believe it to be “just a story.” However, the Drakiri believe there is truth to the folktales they’ve passed down to posterity, and they believe the tulips should not be used for the Tower’s construction. Meanwhile, Shea’s traumatic experience with the Drakiri devices adds some truth to these horrific tales. What happens when stories are no longer stories, but warnings about what will happen? Shea Ashcroft knows what will happen and he is the one who must make the decision knowing what the outcomes will entail.

One of the many reasons I enjoyed this story is the author’s style. Barsukov wrote a fantasy story with a steampunk setting and elements of folklore, that is part political thriller and part cautionary tale. The combination of the story’s pace, the characters, and the genre blending will keep you entranced in the narrative until the end. And, the story’s ending is one that will leave readers shocked and satisfied.

As I mentioned before, the folklore in this story emphasizes the truth within the fiction. The stories we tell ourselves and share with others mean more to us than we realize. Even if we don’t know it, such tales survive for a reason. And yet, what happens when “stories” are no longer “just stories”? Do we accept the warnings contained within them, or do we dismiss the story’s contents and carry on with the inkling that something tragic could happen? This is the story the author presented to us and he wants his readers to think about after they finished reading it.

This novella is a brilliant work of speculative fiction that pays homage to familiar tropes while presenting its twists to the readers. Tower of Mud and Straw lives up to all of the attention it’s been getting to the point where it’s been nominated for a Nebula Award for Best Novella! You won’t be able to skip over anything while reading this story, and you don’t want to miss out on reading it! The fact that this novella is an indie author’s debut work makes all of the attention worthwhile. Anyone who doesn’t mind reading stories with a bit of vertigo in them will definitely enjoy this one.


By L. A. Young

L. A. Young is never without a book in her hands. Growing up, she never denied being a fan of the SFF genre. As an adult, she studied literature, folklore, education and communications. She enjoys reading magical realism, metaphysical fiction and manga, too. Two of her favorite movies are Spirited Away and Pan’s Labyrinth. She spends her free-time writing both fiction and non-fiction, watching movies and TV shows and anime, playing video games, and (of course) reading. You can follow her on Twitter @AquaVenatus.

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