Why You Need to Read: “Tower of Mud and Straw”

Tower of Mud and Straw

By: Yaroslav Barsukov

Published: February 21, 2021

Genre: Fantasy

            The tower took the length of the world—only it was an alien world, replicating itself over and over as it climbed to a distinct, ghostly gap into the clouds. Or did he stare down a well? (Part I. The Duchy. 5).

            Critics have an interesting job. They review a genre of media—books, films, video games, etc.—and they offer their thoughts and opinions on each one for the public to have a perceived notion before experiencing it for themselves. While it sounds like an ideal job, many do not know critics are expected to review the “poor” and/or the “bad” works as well. Not to mention, the amount to review never seems to decrease. And yet, critics continue to do it because they enjoy it. So, what happens when a request is sent to them from the creator directly? One of two things: either the request is granted, or it gets shuffled into the pile until further notice. In the case of Yaroslav Barsukov, the former happened and I read his novella, Tower of Mud and Straw, a fantasy story that pays homage to familiar tropes while presenting his twists to his readers.

            The protagonist in this story is Shea Ashcroft, the former Minister of Internal Affairs and the former councilor to Queen Daelyn. Shea was stripped of his position after he refused a direct order and is sent to Owenbeg—the kingdom’s border—as the new “intendant” to oversee the construction of a massive tower. Shea, who knows this is a combination of a test and a punishment, arrives to learn about the tower’s construction or lack thereof. Once Shea observes the tower, he learns a truth which triggers a series of traumatic events from his past. Suddenly, Shea is torn between his role and his status, and his knowledge about the potential consequences surrounding the Tower’s completion. Shea demands that the Duke halts the Tower’s construction, which goes against Brielle’s—the Chief Engineer—goals of seeing the Tower completed in record time. Patrick is the Duke’s Military Counselor who is searching for whoever is sabotaging the Tower’s construction. Then, there is Aidan, a man who is obsessed with the Tower’s completion no matter what the cost is so that he can see it through. And, there are 2 women named Lena. The first Lena is the Duke’s Counselor of Arts, and the Duke’s lover. The second Lena is Shea’s (twin?) sister whose been dead for several years. All of these characters forces Shea to confront both his traumas and his fears as he chooses to do what is right instead of his duty.

            The plot in this story revolves around the construction of the Tower. The queen has ordered the airship tower to be built for society and for her legacy. However, Shea discovers that the Tower is being built faster than possible. This is because Brielle has been using Drakiri devices—which Shea’s sister called “tulips”—in order to build the Tower to massive size and expectations. As he processes this information, Shea learns from Patrick that there have been sabotage attempts on the Tower. Shea believes it is the Drakiri devices and demands to have them removed. But, Patrick believes there is a more “primitive” attempt to stop the Tower’s construction. There are 3 subplots in this story. The first subplot focuses on Shea’s new responsibilities and the consequences of not seeing them through—2 men attempt to assassinate him for opposing reasons. The second subplot surrounds the legends of the “Mimic” Tower, which are told to him by Lena—the Duke’s lover—who is part Drakiri and is familiar with the culture and the technology of her ancestors. The third subplot delves into Shea’s past, especially his sister, Lena, what led to her death, and why he ignored all of the signs which led him to make a decision with lethal consequences. Not only do all of these subplots connect to the plot related to the Tower’s construction, but also as to why Shea Ashcroft makes the choices he does throughout the story knowing the outcome won’t change. 

            The narrative is told from Shea’ point-of-view. However, the sequences are presented using different narrations. Most of the narrative is told in 3rd-person limited narrative, meaning readers know what is happening to Shea, but any inner monologues or thoughts are presented in 1st-person narrative. This change in narration illustrates the inner conflicts Shea deals with throughout the story, and these moments of streams-of-consciousness not only present Shea as a reliable narrator, but also presents the conflicts and the protagonist as relatable. What does it take to make a “good” decision? The protagonist’s flashbacks throughout the narrative are written so that they are easy to follow along as well. 

            The style Yaroslav Barsukov uses in Tower of Mud and Straw is a fantasy story with a steampunk setting and elements of folklore which is part political thriller and part cautionary tale. The language used by the author focuses on the “political” aspects found within the world-building as well as the culture of the “immigrants” and their “contribution” to the society they reside in. What happens when more emphasis is placed on the benefits of an unknown technology instead of its origins? And, what happens when “stories” are no longer “just stories”? And, when every side wants you dead, how will you “go out”? The mood in this novella is eerie. There is an unnatural state in the atmosphere, which is brought on by the Tower, but it seems most of the denizens decide to ignore it and say that it’s people and NOT the Unknown who are bringing this change in the atmosphere. The tone in this story is revelation. What happens when there is truth to legends, and they are linked to a personal tragedy? What would you do?

            The appeal for Tower of Mud and Straw have been and will be positive. I received an eARC from the author, and I strongly recommend it. This book will be released through an independent publisher, so it won’t receive the same marketing as books from larger publishers, but I’m a bookblogger who is recommending that you read it. And, it seems that other early readers have enjoyed it as well. This story is a great addition to the fantasy canon, and its lasting appeal will be due to its cult following. This story can and will be re-read because of the story’s structure and format. Each part of the story and the protagonist’s backstory are essential to the story—you can’t skip over anything! And, while one of the final scenes in the story seems “overdone,” it works with the question readers will have by the time they read the last sentence.

            Tower of Mud and Straw is a story full of themes and tropes presented in a way that makes for an incredible story. Yaroslav Barsukov is an author who seems to have more stories ready to give to readers than he is letting on. Until we get those stories, we’ll have to settle for this one about politics, unknown technology, folklore and vertigo. Anyone who is looking for an intriguing story written by an indie author should read this one.

My Rating: Enjoy It (4.5 out of 5). 

Factions in Technology that Made a Difference: e-Readers and Self-Publishing Companies

            Last Christmas, I received an e-reader and I found myself to be both excited and anxious. I say this because I was happy someone (I won’t say who) knew me well enough as a reader to get me such a gift. At the same time, I was not sure what I would read that I did not already have in hardcopy. And yet, for sometime I was annoyed that some electronic books were cheaper than their other formats. Suddenly, I wanted to see what was available for me to read on my new e-reader.

            After purchasing some classics, some bestsellers, and some short stories (I really, really wanted to read Rick Riordan’s crossover tales), I went searching for novels available under $5 on Amazon and BarnesandNoble.com, and I was amazed at the selection. Of course, I already knew about “Smashwords” and “Draft2Digital,” but I never realized how many texts those sites made available for anyone who was interested in reading them. As many of you know, I enjoy reading fantasy, but some of what I started reading on my e-reader I probably would never have looked at once inside a bookstore. These writers were emerging as authors thanks to those self-publishing companies. A lot of their novels, which I bought and read, were creative and engaging with well-developed characters. Also, I was enjoying these stories to the point where I was staying up late reading chapter after chapter wanting to know what happens next.

            After I had read the fourth book in a series—within 3 days—I began to wonder if, whether or not, any of these authors would have had the chance to publish at all if it were not for the self-publishing companies. I am not saying that it is because of e-readers that such writers have had the chance to publish their works. Actually, e-readers have made reading more compatible and more accessible. It is due to these self-publishing companies online that we are able to read such stories. And, thanks to Amazon, iBooks, and BarnesandNoble.com, the ratings and the comments let others who are interested in the novels to be aware of whether or not each book was worth our time and our money. Seriously, what are the other publishing companies looking to publish? However, thinking back, none of the larger companies originally wanted to publish J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series. A smaller company decided to take a chance on the series (in the U.K.). Yes, there have been a few online authors—most notably Amanda Hocking—who eventually earned a publishing contract due to the success of their stories, but those are the large publishing companies who move to make these offers. Are any of the ‘independent’ publishers interested at all? These e-book writers should be admired for their determination and their productions (no, I am NOT an independent author, yet).

            I have always tried to read books from every genre of fiction, but now I am definitely paying more attention to what I read because my e-reader can only hold so many books. The authors I have been reading are some emerging fantasy and paranormal authors: Heather Killough-Walden, Lisa Kumar, B.C. Burgess, and James Maxwell (he is one of the rumored who is to receive a publisher’s contract). Some of the bestsellers I purchased at a reduced price include: Room, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, Plain Truth, Still Missing, and Looking for Alaska. Then there are the recommended books such as: Ready Player One, Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China, A Lesson Before Dying, and Kindred. I believe I am reading more across genres now than I was before I received my e-reader. However, I still have no interest in reading 50 Shades of Grey so do NOT ask me about it.

            Does this mean I am suggesting that everyone buy e-readers and/or we should pay more attention to what ‘everyday writers’ put out? —No, to the former, and yes, to the latter. When Winds of Winter and The Blood of Olympus are released, I plan on purchasing the hardcopy formats. Sometimes there is nothing like reading a (hardcopy formatted) book on your couch. Books cannot and should not fade out the way most newspapers and magazines have because of e-readers and the Internet. The emergence of popular print books by popular authors proves that as long as the books are good and contain what people want to read, there is no fear of either e-readers or independent authors. It is definitely more convenient to carry an e-reader, especially when one is traveling. Sometimes, it is better to travel lighter, but exceptions can always be made.

            Who, or what, do you read on your e-reader?