Damn, this book has such a heavy atmosphere. I’m not all that familiar with gaslamp fantasy but with TOWER OF MUD AND STRAW I almost felt like all that gas was filling the air around me as I read, weighing down on me as I got sucked further and further into this dark and at times nightmarish world.
This is a very good story folks. Our main character is Shea Ashcroft, a government official who is exiled to the hinterlands of Owenbeg for his refusal to gas and kill a group of rioters in the capital city. There he’s tasked with overseeing the construction of a colossal anti-airship tower that’s encountered its fair share of problems. Not surprising given the obstinance of the local duke and his bureaucrats as well as their use of a little-understood otherworldly technology in the tower’s construction, making it extremely volatile and dangerous. Shea quickly finds himself at odds with the local rulers, as well as dangerously infatuated with Lena, the Counselor of Arts, who Shea deduces is also likely the duke’s lover and bears more than a passing resemblance to Shea’s dead sister (yeah, the guy has issues). This doesn’t make him particularly welcome in Owenbeg and when discovers the true extent of the tower’s instability and what’s causing it, it sets him on a course that will uncover ancient secrets and unlock memories of his own that Shea would rather not confront.
I was proper gripped to this book man. I read it in a single sitting, just couldn’t tear myself out of this sinister world. Right from the first few lines of the prologue I could tell what kind of world this was. Suffocating and gloomy and dangerous, full of discontent and malaise. Everyone in it seems to suffer from varying degrees of despondency, bogged down in their own thoughts, problems, memories and regrets. And Shea exemplifies this. Shea is the kind of weirdly flawed character I love; he has some pretty major hangups (he fancies a woman who reminds him of his dead sister for god’s sake) and he messes up in his relationships from time to time, but ultimately he’s trying to do what he thinks is right. I don’t necessarily need a character to be trying to do right to be invested in their story, or sometimes even to root for them, but Yaroslav Barsukov clearly knows how to make you root for his characters.
The old ticking clock is a great narrative technique that’s easier to talk about than execute well, but Barsukov uses it very well in Tower of Mud and Straw to inject a lot of tension into a story that’s juggling lots of plates. There’s the impending danger of the tower’s collapse; Shea’s complicated relationship with Lena; his suppressed memories of childhood trauma and loss; the origins of the technology being used to shore up the tower’s foundations and the ancient legend surrounding it (which scared the shit out of me when revealed by the way); and there’s loads more, from shady assassination attempts and airships to hinterland politics and betrayal. So Shea is trying to deal with all of this knowing full well he’s got limited time before everything goes to hell in a handbasket and I think that’s what make him so endearing as a character. And this is really clever writing too, cos it means the tension of the story also feeds into character development and vice versa. It’s a common thread I find in a lot of the books I really enjoy – when separate aspects of the writing form a sort of feedback loop that bolster each other and make them better than they otherwise would be had they been left to stand alone.
And given this is a novella and there’s so much going on you might expect a very fast-paced book, but I didn’t find that to be the case; au contraire mon frère, this story unfolded very gradually for me and that chimed so well with the heavy atmosphere of the world. In some ways it reminded me of Jeannette Ng’s Under the Pendulum Sun which, despite being a very different kind of book, married up a slow burn unfurling of creepiness with a deeply disturbing story and intense, gloomy atmosphere. The two go very well together and hats off to you Mr Barsukov for pulling it off.
I enjoyed this book a lot. It’s very well-written, I loved the characters and the oppressive atmosphere, there’s elements of cosmic horror that reveal themselves as the story progresses that add so much to the story and freaked me the fuck out. And if you’re still not convinced, the audiobook is read by Miltos Yerolemou, none other than Syrio Forel from Game of Thrones, which is pretty darn cool. Tower of Mud and Straw just released this week bookwyrms (February 21st 2021) so I definitely recommend grabbing yourself a copy and losing yourself for a few hours in Owenbeg and its bloody troublesome tower.
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