Tower of Mud and Straw • 2020 • Gaslamp Fantasy novella by Yaroslav Barsukov

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Synopsis: Former minister of internal affairs Shea Ashcroft was banned from the capitol to see to the completion of an anti-airship tower just at the border to the nation of Duma. The paranoid duke doesn’t like to have someone placed before his nose. He is looking for some saboteurs of the building. The duke’s counselor of arts, a stunning Drakiri woman called Lena, is far more welcoming, and Shea instantly falls in love with her.

After some investigation, Shea finds that the building of the tower involves dangerous Drakiri technology in the form of tulips. They provide anti-gravity in a magical or far advanced technical way. Shea’s sister died when they imploded caused by improper handling. He ordered the devices to be removed.

But Chief Engineer Brielle intervenes. There’s a secret involved with the tulips.

Review: This novelette has been nominated for Nebula Award (check out the list with references to online available stories and my reviews). The author is completely new to me, but I instantly liked his elaborative, elegant prose. 

There is much to be found in the setting, and it clearly calls for more stories to dig deeper into all the mysteries of the Drakiri, the political tensions with the Duma, and of course the workings of the Austria-Hungary like imperial court. One might classify the novella as Steampunk, but it is missing the punk part and much of the involved mechanical gadgets. 

The novella’s heavy atmosphere is very engaging, often mythic, sometimes technical. There is the cyborg character using an autonomous protheses as hand “branched off in metal and purple veins”. One occasion feels like a surreal dream sequence but is a part of the world. 

The story’s plot is rather straightforward where the naive main protagonist Shea trims his sails to every wind. He has too much agency without understanding enough and is played like a pawn in chess. Tension comes from the ticking clock. First the maximum amount of time until the tower needs to be finished. Then the flaws in the building risking it to collapse soon. 

Other balls in the juggle are the complicated love story and political relationships around Shea. 

One flaw were the time jumps in the novella’s second part which looked into Shea’s history which were often confusing because it wasn’t clear from the start that the chapter was yet another retrospective. Another the uneven pacing.

In summary, I really enjoyed reading it and look forward to further work from Barsukov.

Meta: isfdb. Available online at Metaphorosis (the link leads to the first of four parts). Nominated for the Nebula Award.

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6 Responses to Tower of Mud and Straw • 2020 • Gaslamp Fantasy novella by Yaroslav Barsukov

  1. cathepsut says:

    I wasn‘t a big fan of the time jumps with the backstory in the second part either. I just thought the placement was odd, they disrupted the main story too much for me.

    Liked by 1 person

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