The Midpoint of 2021: Favorite Speculative Fiction Books…So Far

Well, we’ve made it to the halfway point of 2021. I won’t begin this post with the usual current events, but I will mention that I’ve been enjoying ALL of the sporting events that are taking place (i.e. Euro Cup, Copa America, NBA & NHL Playoffs, Summer 2020/21 Olympic Trials, etc.). More attention has been given to both books and video games as those who’ve been at home continue to remember that they’re both entertaining and artistic.

As for me, I’ve been recovering from an exhausted winter and spring. This is because, as a few of you know, I went back to graduate school in order to earn a MA degree in Library and Information Science. For the last 2 years, I’ve been taking classes on an accelerated pace in order to complete the program sooner rather than later. No, COVID-19 wasn’t an “imminent” threat when I started back in Fall 2019; and yes, it was an interesting experience completing the program throughout the majority of the pandemic, work my part-time job outside of my residence, and continue working on my blog. In addition, I’ve only told my closest friends and acquaintances (including you) about this, meaning I’ve managed to work on a degree without my ENTIRE family knowing about it. And, unless they read this post, then it will stay that way until I am ready to make an announcement, which will be sometime after I get a job within my field (whenever that may be).

Why am I mentioning this now? Simple, it’s because during my last semester, I had to work on graduating on time and in order to do that I had to cutback on SOME of my reading. Those of you who follow me on Goodreads will notice that I’m behind on my Reading Goal and I’m lagging on completing the books I’m reading currently. I won’t get into my TBR piles both from Netgalley and Edelweiss! It’s NOT that the books are bad in anyway, I’m still mentally exhausted from all of the work I had to do in order to graduate on time; not to mention all of the other events called life.

I am starting to feel better and I started to catch up on both my reading and my writing (including reviews). You’ve noticed that I started posting reviews again, but remember I read faster than I write. Which brings me to another announcement: I realized that my 200th post is upcoming and I plan on writing another “special” piece in order to commemorate the milestone. What will it be? You just have to wait.

Now, for what you’ve been waiting for:

Books I’ve Finished Reading:

Across the Green Grass Fields

First, Become Ashes

Tower of Mud and Straw (It was nominated for a Nebula Award for “Best Novella”!)

The Bone Shard Daughter (Yes, it was released in 2020, but the sequel comes out later this year!)

The Light of the Midnight Stars

Chaos Vector (Just in time to read the final book in the trilogy!)

Fugitive Telemetry

Over the Woodward Wall (Along the Saltwise Sea comes out this fall!)

Shards of Earth (My 1st Book Tour!)

And, A LOT of Paranormal & Fantasy Romance Books by Indie Authors (That’s for a future post!)

Books I’m Reading Currently:

The Empire’s Ruin

The House of Always

She Who Became the Sun

The Unbroken

The Jasmine Throne

The Gilded Ones

Books I Want to Read by the End of 2021:

The Broken God

Firebreak

The Fire Keeper’s Daughter

House of Hollow

The Unspoken Name

The Witch’s Heart

For the Wolf

The Two-Faced Queen

The Next 2 Books in The First Argentines Series

The sequels of the upcoming books mentioned; more paranormal & fantasy romance books; and, several MORE books I can’t list here because otherwise, this post would be never-ending.

I don’t know whether or not I will be able to read the books mentioned by the end of this year. I’m still trying to catch up from last year’s TBR! So right now, I want to thank the authors, the other bloggers, Fantasy-Faction, all of the publishers and the agents for being both supportive and understanding as I continue to work my way through the last 6 months, and for encouraging me to continue working on my other writings.

Speaking of “other” writings, please keep an eye out for any upcoming essays and lists I will continue to share here. Any and all feedback are welcome.

We’re halfway through 2021. What are your plans for the rest of the year?

Also, if you haven’t already, then please read the essay I wrote that was published on the SFWA website! Click here to access it.

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).