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). 

Speculative Fiction: A Label for the Growing Spectrum of the Genres: Fantasy, Science Fiction & Horror

*My 100th Blog Post!*

For the past year in which I have devoted more time to working on my blog, I have gained a larger audience—followers, readers and other supporters—than I thought possible. Remember, even the most successful bloggers and vloggers start out as “small channels” and are thankful for those who support them. I feel the same way. Knowing that you all have taken the time to read, to comment, to subscribe/follow, and to share my content is a great feeling. I’m extremely grateful for all of you, and it’s because of you all I know what I’m doing is being appreciated by the macrocosm. 

            One of several topics I’ve been discussing with other fans, readers, bloggers and vloggers is the concept of genre and the limitations its definition bestows upon it. The notion that genres can and should be placed within “fixed” classifications is similar to the concept that gender is binary—which, it isn’t! Over the last 100 years, the genres have become more ubiquitous and more successful due to books written by L. Frank Baum, J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, T.H. White, J.K. Rowling, Frank Herbert, Arthur C. Clarke, Octavia Butler, Samuel R. Delany, Ursula K. LeGuin, Shirley Jackson, Isabel Allende, Haruki Murakami, Alan Moore, Stephen King, Anne Rice, etc. And, due to movies such as: The Invasion of the Body Snatchers, E.T., the Extraterrestrial, Star Wars, Star Trek, Pan’s Labyrinth, Akira, etc. Toward the end of the 20th century, other formats of literature and visual entertainment such as comics, graphic novels, manga, video games and music were becoming more popular and expansive. Imports from around the world—i.e. Japan, India, Spain, etc.—have presented popular works of these genres to fans as well. 

            Before the 2000s—I want to say around the 1970s—an emergence of works were presented and released to the public. Besides the Harry Potter Phenomenon and The Lord of the Rings movies, there was Buffy, the Vampire Slayer, The Matrix, and the continued book releases by Stephen King, Anne Rice and Robert Jordan. In addition, video games were growing in popularity and in addition to Mario, Sonic and Zelda there were Final Fantasy, Resident Evil and Shin Megami Tensei. Even those who weren’t reading the books, watching the TV shows or movies, or playing the video games were exposed to fantasy, science fiction and horror. Yet, why did some people prefer Harry Potter over The Lord of the Rings? What was it about Laurell K. Hamilton’s books that had some readers prefer her books over Anne Rice’s? What is it about Shin Megami Tensei, which has several spinoffs—including Persona—that has more of a cult fan base that players find appealing? 

            What I’m getting at is: how would you describe a book like The Northern Lights/The Golden Compass, the Dragon Quest video game series (besides Japanese role-playing games, or JRPGs), or even the Batman comics? Yes, one is a Young Adult novel, one is a JRPG, and the last is a superhero comic book series; but, aren’t there other genres to classify these works besides their marketing ones? Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials Trilogy is a blend of fantasy, science (fiction), religion and philosophy—what did you expect from an Oxford professor? Dragon Quest is a JRPG with elements from the fantasy and adventure genres. Batman—one of the oldest and greatest superhero series of all-time—is a gritty and dark story about a traumatized man who uses his wealth and his wits to go up against the most dangerous criminals in his city. Nowadays, we would consider Batman to be a psychological thriller superhero series with elements of grimdark. Then again, with the recent success of the TV shows Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead, there were many non-readers and fans who said things like, “I don’t like fantasy, but I love Game of Thrones,” or “I don’t like zombies, but The Walking Dead is a great show,” etc. Yes, those shows were media adaptations, which are examples of fantasy and dystopia books that “divert” from “traditional” or “familiar” tropes. However, there are fans of those tropes who are not interested in neither the TV show nor the books. So, why are those the exceptions? They are NOT!

            Speculative fiction is a term that is being used more and more in order to describe literature and media that fall under the “traditional” genres of science fiction, fantasy, horror and comics. According to Marek Oziewicz, speculative fiction, “includes fantasy, science fiction, and horror, but also their derivatives, hybrids, and cognate genres like the gothic, dystopia, weird fiction, post-apocalyptic fiction, ghost stories, superhero tales, alternate history, steampunk, slipstream, magic realism, fractured fairy tales and more,” (3). In other words, speculative fiction includes: urban fantasy, mythological fantasy, zombies, paranormal, space operas, metaphysical, silkpunk, occult, military, historical, romance, etc., etc. Any and all of the genres and subgenres makeup this term.

            So why do some people—authors, writers, readers, critics, academics, fans—use this term? It’s because there are times when a medium either has more than two genres associated within it or displays aspects of speculative fiction that doesn’t fall under any of the “fixed” genres. For example, the Super Mario Bros. franchise is a video game series classified under both “action/adventure” and “platformer,” but could it be categorized in the fantasy genre due to the levels being in an imaginary world, or could it fall under horror or paranormal due to the ghosts and the skeletons, or even science fiction, especially in the context of the Super Mario Galaxy games? In this case, the term speculative fiction would fit best for this gaming franchise. I should mention that I’m not the one who should be recategorizing video games. Then again, this is proof that the term speculative fiction is becoming both recognizable and interchangeable. 

            Speculative fiction seems to become the more acceptable them to use when explaining works and forms of non-mimetic fiction without listing all of the many subgenres associated with it. Recent examples include The Broken Earth Trilogy by N.K. Jemisin and Gods of Jade and Shadow by Silvia Moreno-Garcia. The first has been categorized under fantasy, science fiction, dystopian literature and magic realism (the last one was on Amazon); and, the second has been categorized under fantasy, mythology, magic realism and historical fiction. Which is easier: listing all of those genres and subgenres in a description, or saying speculative fiction containing elements of certain genres and subgenres such as: a story about the end of the world and Mayan Gods during the Jazz Age? While speculative fiction is an umbrella term, many of us have been using it as a shortcut to explain a collection of books, films and video games. 

            Another factor surrounding speculative fiction concerns education and academia. How many of you remember reading Edgar Allan Poe and/or Turn of the Screw by Henry James in school and in college? How many of you remember reading The House of the Spirits, One Hundred Years of Solitude, or Haroun and the Sea of Stories in school or in college? And, how many of you remember reading one of the many dystopian books: Lord of the Flies, A Handmaiden’s Tale, 1984, Fahrenheit 451, The Giver, Brave New World, etc., in school and in college? Now, how many fantasy, fairy tales, and myths and legends were assigned to you after primary/elementary school? Keep in mind, there are courses and electives about these genres in college, but not everyone gets to take those classes (I was lucky enough to do so). Without going into too much detail, I’ve had disputes about fantasy literature with a few academic professors. Some of them believe that fantasy has no place in higher education except for in Children’s and Adolescent Literature (i.e. teaching, library science). However, scholars are responsible for some of the most recognized works in fantasy. Lewis Carroll, J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis and Philip Pullman were Oxford professors. In addition, there are academic scholars who study and write books and articles about fantasy, science fiction and horror such as: Edward James, Farah Mendlesohn, John Grant, Nnedi Okorafor, John Clute, Jack Zipes and Tzvetan Todorov. This history and the study of these genres are just as essential as reading the fiction. I hate to say it, but speculative fiction seems to be the “safer” and the “more acceptable” term to use when it comes to discussing these genres. 

            So, why do I use the term speculative fiction? My simplest answer is because it signifies all of the genres I enjoy to read, to watch, to write and to game the most. Saying speculative fiction instead of the longlist of genres and subgenres is the easiest and the quickest way to describe certain works of media. If a book can be categorized in more than one genre or subgenre, then why not save the breakdown for a discussion with others in a fandom, or with authors and publishers? Most important, using the term speculative fiction does not limit the story of any medium to one genre. It allows a fan of a metaphysical book to say that “there’s elements of fantasy in this story,” or “the religion in this book is based on the myths and the history of this ancient civilization.” Speculative fiction is a term that allows an audience to observe the broader spectrum of a medium with similar beginnings and interconnecting styles of storytelling. However, there will continue to be moments where a book is categorized as “hard sci-fi,” a video game is of the “horror” genre, and Disney continues to fracture fairy tales. This is the new Golden Age of Speculative Fiction so we might as well enjoy everything that is presented to us while opening the doors for an open interpretation. 

            Thank you for reading my post(s), following my blog and my social media pages! Here’s to many more posts in the future and to several open discussions! Please like and comment here or on my other posts; and, be sure to check out the following references about our favorite genre(s). 

                                                                        References

James, Edward and Farah Mendlesohn, editors. The Cambridge Companion to Fantasy. Cambridge University Press, 2012.  

James, Edward and Farah Mendlesohn, editors. The Cambridge Companion to Science Fiction. Cambridge University Press, 2003. 

Martin, Philip. A Guide to Fantasy Literature: Thoughts on Stories of Wonder & Enchantment. Crickhollow Books, 2009.

Oziewicz, Marek. “Speculative Fiction.” Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Literature, March 2017, p.1-22. doi: 10.1093/acrefore/9780190201098.013.78

Stableford, Brian. The A to Z of Fantasy Literature. The Scarecrow Press, Inc., 2009.