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Tower of Mud and Straw

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Minister Shea Ashcroft refuses the queen's order to gas a crowd of protesters. After riots cripple the capital, he's banished to the border to oversee the construction of the biggest anti-airship tower in history. The use of otherworldly technology makes the tower volatile and dangerous; Shea has to fight the local hierarchy to ensure the construction succeeds—and to reclaim his own life.

He must survive an assassination attempt, find love, confront the place in his memory he'd rather erase, encounter an ancient legend, travel to the origin of a species—and through it all, stay true to his own principles.

Climbing back to the top is a slippery slope, and somewhere along the way, one is bound to fall.

„Poetry in prose... I love a story that is huge, but also incredibly intimate, and this novella managed to encompass both of these things.“ — Miltos Yerolemou (Syrio Forel in Game of Thrones)

"Tower of Mud and Straw" is a Tower of Babel story with a hero haunted by his fate. Shea Ashcroft is an Aeneas in an airship set in a world that gives homage to Dune. Once immersed it is hard to stop reading: like a play or a good painting, you won't be able to look away until you've discovered everything. — Rebecca DeVendra, writer, artist, former reviewer at Tangent Online.


First published February 21, 2021

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About the author

Yaroslav Barsukov

15 books65 followers
#NoToWar #НетВойне
Nebula Finalist. Member of SF&F Writers of America.
Left one former empire only to settle in another.
Speaks German by day, Russian by night.
Writes in English.

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5 stars
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Displaying 1 - 30 of 108 reviews
Profile Image for Tadiana ✩Night Owl☽.
1,880 reviews22.7k followers
April 8, 2021
4 strong stars for this Nebula award-nominated novella! It's currently on a Kindle sale for 99c, or you can (at least for now) read it online for free, starting here: https://magazine.metaphorosis.com/sto...

Final review, first posted on FantasyLiterature.com:

Lord Shea Ashcroft, a government minister, faced with a rioting crowd of protestors in the capital city, makes the call to have the military fall back rather than killing the protestors — and innocent bystanders —with poisonous gas. Some people praise his mercy, but half the city now lies in ruins from the mob’s violence, and the queen is not so appreciative of his decision. Shea is shipped off to the border city of Owenbeg as punishment, charged with overseeing the finishing of construction of a colossal tower to protect the border against enemy airships. The tower is already a thousand feet high, with plans to add another thousand feet on top.

Things get complicated for Shea in Owenbeg, on both a personal and a political level. The duke of Owenbeg, his military commander, and the chief engineer of the tower all resent Shea, especially when Shea makes it clear that he won’t just rubberstamp others’ decisions regarding the tower. The builders are using Drakiri antigravity devices, a foreign technology, to help stabilize the immense tower, but Shea is convinced that no one in charge fully appreciates how dangerous these devices are. Shea’s seen that danger himself, when he and his dead sister Lena experimented with the devices years ago.

The Drakiri people seem to understand the danger, but they are immigrants in the kingdom with little power or influence. The duke’s half-Drakiri lover Lena, who shares his beloved sister’s name and reminds Shea strongly of his sister in her appearance and spirit, tells Shea that the tower is more dangerous than he realizes. He’s dubious about the old Drakiri legends of a “Mimic Tower” that she shares with him, but as Shea’s personal interest in Lena grows, the stakes with the tower and its Drakiri devices grow too, along with the conflicting agendas of the different characters.

Tower of Mud and Straw, recently nominated for the Nebula award in the novella category, tells the poignant story of a man haunted by his past and what (and more importantly who) he has lost, which resurfaces and finds echoes in his present relationships and concerns. Shea Ashcroft is a man of conscience and courage, doing his best to make the right decisions. But right and wrong aren’t always clear, and his choices, even if they were the best ones he was able to make with the knowledge he had at the time, often come back to bite him.

Shea frequently talks to his sister in his mind, shedding light on his motivations and the pain of his memories.
Something has broken in me, I think. Or maybe was broken. Maybe I broke it myself, to steady myself against disappointment. We go to great lengths to avoid pain, Lena, and we lose important things in the process.
Tower of Mud and Straw is primarily a gaslamp fantasy, but there’s a dollop of science fiction here, along with a dash of surrealism and even a snippet of horror. The surrealistic element didn’t meld all that well for me with the rest of the tale, or perhaps it simply needed more development than Barsukov was able to give it in the novella format. Similarly, the Mimic Tower makes for an intriguing symbol of Shea’s echoing and reechoing troubles, but then it’s never explained in the end. But other than these fairly minor quibbles, I was fully on board with this tale.

This is a frequently dark, or at least bittersweet, novella: there are good and well-intentioned characters here (not all, but enough), but people hurt each other and tragic events happen. It’s a morally complex story, and Barsukov tells it well, even poetically at times, with a nuanced take on the characters and the events of the plot. Tower of Mud and Straw is a thought-provoking novella that doesn’t stop with the easy answers. It’s well worth reading.

Thanks to the author for the review copy!
Profile Image for Nataliya.
743 reviews11.8k followers
June 6, 2021
Rarely do I complain about too much plot and too snappy of a pace, but this novella needed more room to breathe. Because I really feel that I just read an abridged version of a full novel — and did it at twice the speed.

As I repeat ad nauseam — novellas *are* tricky. A proper amount of plot for the length is not easy to get right. Many writers seem to underpack; Barsukov brings enough plot for a novella, a few short stories and a novel and then some — all in a very compact space.

Good things first, why not? The tone is done right — that poignant and wistful and at times dreamlike tone that sets perfect stage for a bittersweet story full of regrets and emotional scars and decisions between rights and wrongs. And I’m not just throwing the writer a bone here — tone is important and actually not easy to do right. The plot never lags even for a second (how can it, with everything that is crammed in!). The language flowed easily and quite a few descriptions made me nod appreciatively. And it’s simply interesting, let’s not forget that.

But... of course there’s always a “but”. I really think this is the case of too much crammed into a tight novella length. It has enough material for a novel, and most things would have benefited from being fleshed out more. First, the worldbuilding — too perfunctory, too vague, making it hard to envision what this place is and how it can work. Second, the characters — even by the end I felt that I had little sense of who Shea Ashcroft is as a person, his character and beliefs and motivations, not to mention important side characters Lena (both of them) and Aidan and Brielle. With little space to develop them, they seemed thin sketches, lacking depth and layers. And as a result the relationships - love, friendship, rivalry - felt a bit abrupt.

Due to rapid pace it feels that we are flying through events of the story without taking a breath to stop and smell the roses tulips. We dash between all these: from political fallout - to journey to the tower and its construction - to assassination attempts - to a hint of international tensions - to another human(-oid?) culture with apocalyptic beliefs and remnants of developed technology - to xenophobia - to love story - to more politics - to eldritch monstrosities - to traumatic flashbacks and tragic backstory — and none of it is developed enough to the potential it could have had. Too much plot, too little space. Either the page count needed to be twice as long or the focus should have been narrower.
I can’t help but think of more focused novellas dealing with colossal structures: Kij Johnson’s A Man Who Bridged the Mist and Tower of Babylon by Ted Chiang. Those are absolutely wonderful — and I am pretty certain that Barsukov has all that potential as well and will get there soon. I’m curious to see what he writes next.

(And one thing that bugged me from the beginning: this tower would not work as defense against airships. All those ships would have had to do would be taking a detour by a few dozen miles. Now as an immense vanity project I get it, and will assume that that’s it, the actual reason, with defense as a secondary excuse. Queen’s equivalent of red sports car for middle-age crisis.)

3.5 stars.

Can be read online free in 4 parts on Metaphoros Magazine site:

Part I: The Duchy
Part II: The Adversary
Part III: The Tulips
Part IV: The Tower


My Hugo and Nebula Awards Reading Project 2021: https://www.goodreads.com/review/show...
Profile Image for Shannara.
436 reviews81 followers
March 30, 2021
This was simply outstanding!! It took me a minute to get into it, but once I did, it was absolutely wild! Shea was a great character to follow. I was wholly sympathetic to his situation and found that I was rooting for him verbally. Seriously, I was literally yelling, NO!, while reading this. Trust me, it was totally warranted.

The world building is really fantastic, which is saying something for a novella. Usually with a work this short the setting suffers, but that is not the case here. Everything is so easy to imagine and being that the imagery is so vibrant, you’re literally sucked into the story. Sorry, I just can’t help myself with the puns sometimes. If you read this, you’ll know what I mean! 😂🤣

I also almost cried! There is such emotion that I couldn’t help myself! There are no cliffhangers, but I find myself wishing there was a whole series of books for me to delve into. That being the case, I’ll have to just wait and see what the author comes up with next. And of course, I recommend this all the way!! Lovers of fantasy and science fiction will be into this one. Just remember to savor this because it’s a novella! It’ll go too quickly if you let it and will be much more thought provoking if you take your time! Enjoy!!

I was so psyched I forgot to also say thank you so much to NetGalley, Metaphorosis Publishing, and the author for the opportunity to read this novella for my honest and unbiased opinion!!

Check out this review and others on my blog @ https://shannarareads.com/?p=172
Profile Image for Lukasz.
1,307 reviews209 followers
October 11, 2020
Minister Shea Ashcroft had a good, successful life. If only he were a spineless careerist, he could enjoy it for a long time. And we wouldn’t read about his adventures. Refusing his queen’s order to gas a crowd of protesters got him banished to oversee the construction of the biggest anti-airship tower in history.

To make the progress and keep the tower stable, its builders use mysterious Drakiri technology. Some have no issue with it, others are afraid of it. Shea’s queen sees the tower as her legacy while Drakiri believe it’ll end the world. Shea’s assignment gets dangerous and emotionally taxing. Someone wants him dead. His love life gets complicated. Everyone around has secrets. Memories he’d rather erase hunt him. He has to travel to the origin of the species. All of that in four acts.

The characterization here is superb, with all the players distinct and well-written. The story, divided into four acts, feels complete and well thought out. Sure, fans of detailed world-building will crave more context, but we get more than enough to enjoy the story, anyway. Barsukov finds a good balance of plot and subplot and weaves a few storylines in the narrative. We learn a lot about Shea’s past, his current situation, and motivations of secondary characters without having to get through their excessive backstories. I found relationships between characters engaging, although I also found the romance lacking in the build-up and emotional truth.

The story tackles themes of discrimination, cultural differences, and destructive politics and does it with sensitivity. The narrative alternates between introspective moments, revelatory of character and place, and dramatic action and intrigue. It doesn’t strike a perfect balance, but it’s close to it. Barsukov’s prose is elegant and restrained without being fussy or lifeless. I found his action sequences suspenseful, and Shea’s introspection deep and convincing.

Tower of Mud and Straw is a fine example of a novella format - it tells a complete, well thought out story, in less than 200 pages. I wouldn’t mind learning more about Drakiri and their technology or getting more insight into cultural differences, but I’m satisfied with what I got.
Profile Image for Майя Ставитская.
1,324 reviews133 followers
February 11, 2022
I began to dream about this book as soon as I read in Galina Yuzefovich's Facebook post that, for the first time in the history of the award, the book of our compatriot was on Nebula's nomination list. And no, he didn't win: not a woman, not a black man, there is no love between same-sex characters in the book, and everything is not so clear with racial relations - the local drakiri do not look particularly oppressed. But yes, Yaroslav Barsukov, wrote a novel in English, which came to the attention of one of the most prestigious world awards in the field of science fiction-fantasy.

So, what is the "Tower of Mud and Straw" about? Disgraced Minister Shay is exiled by the queen to the backyards of the empire in the Duchy of Owenbeg, bordering on the eternally hostile Duma ("no good wife from the neighbors, no good wind"). Our valiant forces are building a tower here. No, it's not like that - the TOWER, in the sense of "we will threaten to move out." It is unclear why such a huge one is, but when the powers are measured, in general, by potential combat power, the arguments of reason give way to something else.

The tower has already risen to three hundred meters, and it is expected to catch up to six hundred. Shay, who did not keep in mind to be in this bear corner, but quite quickly climbed the career ladder, until he refused to comply with the queen's order to use poison gas against demonstrators - Shay perceives the new appointment as a fiasco. However, if in the role of quartermaster he manages to complete the construction on schedule, there is a chance that the royal grace will return.

Здесь мой город, мой Вавилон
Курить охота, боже. как курить охота, но нужно выбрать деревянные костюмы. Высоцкий
Я начала мечтать о ней тотчас, как прочла в фейсбучном посте Галины Юзефович о том, что в номинационном списке Небьюлы, впервые за историю премии, книга нашего соотечественника. И нет, он не стал победителем: не женщина, не чернокожий, в книге нет любви между однополыми персонажами, да и с расовыми отношениями вс�� не так однозначно, - здешние дракири не выглядят особенно угнетенными. Но да, Ярослав Барсуков, написал на английском языке повесть, которая попала в поле зрения одной из самых престижных мировых премий в области фантастики-фэнтези.

Итак, о чем "Башня из грязи и веток"? Опальный министр Шей сослан королевой на задворки империи в герцогство Оуэнбег, граничное с вечно враждебной Думой ("от соседей ни доброй жены, ни доброго ветра"). Нашими доблестными силами тут возводится башня. Нет, не так - БАШНЯ, в смысле "отсель грозить мы будем". За каким такая огромная, непонятно, но когда державы меряются, в общем, потенциальной боевой мощью, доводы рассудка уступают место чему-то иному.

Башня уже поднялась до трехсот метров, а догнать предполагается до шестисот. Шей, который в мыслях не держал оказаться в этом медвежьем углу, а вполне себе прытко взбирался по карьерной лестнице, до тех пор, пока отказался выполнить приказ королевы применить против демонстрантов отравляющий газ - Шей воспринимает новое назначение как фиаско. Впрочем, если на роли интенданта ему удастся завершить строительство в намеченные сроки, есть шанс, что королевская милость вернется.

Надежда тает ровно в тот момент, когда он понимает, что при строительстве применяются устройства дракири. Иная раса, ближе всего к описанию которой в привычных фэнтези-понятиях темные эльфы: красивые, высокие, нечеловечески-сильные, сторонясь людей, вынужденно делят с ними это пограничное пространство. И Шей не понаслышке знает, как опасны могут быть их соблазнительно легкие в применении инструменты. Вот "тюльпан", например, локальный антиграв, в случае неосторожного обращения может "схлопываться" - процесс, обратный взрыву, пространство в радиусе пятнадцати метров сжимается, перемалывая все, что оказывается рядом. Герой потерял любимую сестру, которая применяла такой в их мебельном производстве.

То есть, понимаете, это не просто опасно в смысле охраны труда, но фактически обесценивает результат уже сделанного. Мы не можем сказать определенно, держится башня потому, что инженерные расчеты верны или потому что на разных уровнях искусственно снижена сила тяжести. Башня уже теперь не лучшим образом влияет на воздушные потоки, значит и на мелиорацию региона (такая дура торчит на ровном месте), а еще строить и строить.

И предчувствия его не обманули, под давлением обстоятельств архитектор признается, что в проект, который нужно было выполнить срочно, изначально вкралась ошибка. И без устройств дракири все очень скоро, рухнет само. Как человек чести, герой распоряжается удалить со стройки "тюльпаны", тем более, что Лена, девушка-дракири, в которую он влюблен, поддерживает это решение. Дракири ненавидят башню, у них есть поверье о том, что когда строительство будет завершено, появится... а впрочем, не буду пересказывать.

Да и не суть в пересказе. Главное не внешняя событийная канва, в равной степени затейливая и предсказуемая. Важнее моральная дилемма, красной нитью проходящая через творчество автора: собственное благополучие , построенное на страданиях и боли других, сможешь ли ты им наслаждаться? Примерно как у Высоцкого в той песне, где "все мы веселы бываем и угрюмы, но вот приходит время сделать выбор трудный, мы выбираем деревянные костюмы. Люди. Люди"

На самом деле "Башня из грязи и веток" плотно ввязана в корпус современной литературы, в ней слышны отголоски кинговой "Темной башни" и "Вавилонской башни" Тэда Чана, "Солдат Вавилона" и "Моста Ватерлоо" Лазарчука, "Чудного оленя вечной охоты" Алексиевич, Да подлинной истории башен-близнецов, в конце-то концов.

Прозрачно-ясная проза с внятным сюжетом, и высоким уровнем эмоциональной вовлеченности, умная и интересная. Рассказы тоже хороши, особенно про газетного человека.

Profile Image for Amanda at Bookish Brews.
290 reviews168 followers
March 23, 2021
Editing to say congrats to Yaroslav Barsukov for being a NEBULA FINALIST!!!! That is so amazing!! Congrats!!!!

Tower of Mud and Straw was an excellent story. I really loved the idea of a mysterious tower, and the even more mysterious Mimic Tower. The story manages to build complex characters, give you the right amount of detail for a little bit of a mysterious world building (that fits with the tone), and create a sense of wonder that makes you keep reading.

Throughout reading this novella I, along with Shae, I felt myself having trust issues with the characters, not knowing who was hiding something and who was telling the truth. What was real and what was a superstition/legend? It builds up the world to be believable enough that when the fantastical starts to happen, you almost wonder if this could really be happening (which is in contrast to many fantasy novels that are so fantastical, you can't forget that it's an entirely different world).

I also loved the connection between Lena, Shae's sister, and Lena at the tower. How they blended together to the readerr and to Shae, just as the reader is also questioning what/who to believe. It was definitely interesting, and added to Shae's depth.

Overall, It was a fun novella with a perfect amount of mystery. I do wonder why this tower is being built in the first place, and what the Duke's motivations are. They never seem to be entirely clear, but perhaps that is part of the magic.

(Also, this heartbeat section felt like a movie, which is why I replicated it here. I could SEE the cinematography in action. Definitely a fun moment!)

*I received an advance review copy for free, and I am leaving this review voluntarily.*
Profile Image for Gautam Bhatia.
Author 12 books813 followers
February 22, 2021
Yaroslav Barsukov's novella, Tower of Mud and Straw, tells the story of Shea Ashcroft, who is assigned to supervise the construction of a two-kilometre high tower at his kingdom's borderland, ostensibly as a defensive measure. But when Ashcroft arrives at the scene, not all is as is seems: soon, he is surviving an assassination attempt, dealing with concerns over sabotage, falling in love, and discovering a terrible secret about the anti-gravity machines that are being used to keep the tower standing, as it reaches towards the sky.

I read this novella in two sittings, in a single evening. The pacing is tight and taut, the story unfolds wonderfully, and there are moments of great lyrical beauty. Barsukov tackles some age-old questions - about free will, choice, power - in an original and moving way, and the central device of the tower as a symbol of human hubris and human tragedy (a la the tower of Babel) works excellently as an organising theme. Some of the passages - in particular, descriptions of landscape - were so breathtakingly beautiful, that I had to pause, simply to soak the language in. All in all, this is an excellent and memorable read, and well worth your time.

The short length of the novella form inevitably means that when the novella is well-done, the reader is always left wanting more; in particular, I wanted for a couple of the reveals to unfold a little *more*, in order to give the reader a full sense of the characters' arcs, and for a couple of themes to be fleshed out in more detail (such as the origin story). The novella's ending may have foreclosed that option, but I would love to see Barsukov write a full-length novel set in this same world - he'd have at least one guaranteed reader!
Profile Image for Banshee.
489 reviews48 followers
March 16, 2021
The novella plunges the reader straight into a dark, yet vibrant, world that's not easy to define. It was a blend of the old and the new, magical fantasy and science. It gave me the same vibe as steampunk novels, even if it doesn't sensu stricto fit the definition of the genre. The futile attempt at categorisation aside, it was definitely a fun ride.

The world-building was a gem and all the information about it just fed my curiosity to read on and learn more. There's only so much that can fit into a novella-sized story and therefore the reader is presented with but a sliver of a bigger whole. But this sliver was just enough to fit the size of the story. We get hints about the history of relations between two neighbouring countries, the tangled reality of political struggles and the connections between the capital and the province as well as the mysterious Drakiri with their technology. It was also fun to try to guess whether the stories behind the Mimic Tower were a truth or a superstition.

What made the story come alive on the pages was also the language used to describe the world. It was vivid and precise. It painted the picture that the reader was supposed to see just right.

The only weakness, for me personally, were the characters. They were slightly wooden and the relations between them somewhat awkward. This prevented me from experiencing emotional impact of anything that happened to them. Fortunately, the story was so good from the beginning to the very last page, that it didn't detract from the book much.

I definitely would enjoy exploring this unique world more.

*I received an advance review copy for free from BookSirens, and I am leaving this review voluntarily.
Profile Image for Sarah.
Author 18 books431 followers
December 14, 2020

There are a few literary hills I am prepared to die on. Novellas being an under-appreciated form is absolutely one of them. I get a handful of novellas each year to edit, and I read a whole bunch of them, and I’m always blown away. A really good novella can pack a punch every bit as walloping as a full-length novel. The shorter form also means that the author has to be really clever about plot development, world building, and character development as well as everything else that goes into a story.

When it’s all said and done, the novella really blows me away. And a really well done novella quickly veers from something fantastic, into something unforgettable. Some of my favorite authors excel at novellas. K.J. Parker, for example. One of the authors I edit for on the regular throws novellas at me constantly, and each one has me sitting back to admire what he’s managed to do in so few pages.

So, yes. Novellas are amazing, and if you are not reading them, you really should.

Tower of Mud and Straw is one good example as to why.

When Barsukov reached out to me about this novella, he told me it’s based on a bit of Russian and Austro-Hungarian Empire history, and be still, my heart. I have an unhealthy obsession with Russian history, and I recently read a book about the Austro-Hungarian Empire and have discovered a healthy fascination there as well. So it really didn’t take much to get me interested in reading this novella.

Shae, our protagonist, is set to oversee the creation of this gigantic tower which will be used as the biggest anti-airship tower in history. Perhaps this sounds like a good career for a man of his status, but he refused to gas a bunch of protestors, and thus ends up banished to this edge-of-the-empire outpost to oversee the construction of this tower. It’s a demotion.

The tower itself is pretty fascinating and will likely remind some readers of Josiah Bancroft’s series in some ways. The technology used to build it (Drakiri) is accepted and feared by those who use it in equal measure. The tower itself is an interesting linchpin that holds the book together. The queen believes it will provide her a lasting legacy. The Drakiri believe it will end their race. There’s a lot of subtext involved in it as well, which I truly enjoyed. I’ll touch on that a bit later, though.

As one can imagine, Shae’s job isn’t straightforward. He’s a man with a spine. If he’d just done his job and didn’t question anything, he wouldn’t end up in this situation, but as it is with people who have a conscience, things go belly up pretty fast. Soon, he realizes the job isn’t what he thought it was going to be. There are secrets and mystery all around him. There’s an assassination attempt, and mixed into this is love, which is neither easily attained, nor smoothly won. And underpinning it all is a drive for vengeance, for the desire to retain some of what he’s lost and make those who hurt him pay for the pleasure of doing so.

There’s a lot here, and it is, by and large, magnificently done.

First off, I loved the prose. Liquid and flowing, poetry with an edge. The writing of this novel is clean, crisp, and yet has a flare that allows the author to fill it with imagination, and emotion all at once. And Barsukov does not shy away from emotion. His story is full of layers of genuine moments of deep feelings, and it’s all viscerally felt, from Shae’s frustrations, fears, passions, and even his love. It truly shines bright.

The book flips between inner dialogue and external action. In this way, Barsukov keeps the plot moving forward, while cunningly developing his characters in ways that are quite awe-inspiring, when you consider the shorter form of this novella. Some of the characters might feel a little flat. I found the romance, while overly well-crafted, to be lacking in a bit of something that made it feel completely real in my mind.

Tower of Mud and Straw does tackle a lot of uncomfortable topics, like discrimination, politics, and legacy. Legacy is an interesting theme that I enjoy playing with a lot in my own writing. How decisions one person make are felt, not only immediately, but how they can potentially be felt in generations to come, spanning multiple groups of peoples and cultures. There’s a lot here to chew on, and a lot of subtext that underscores almost everything, which I absolutely loved.

So knowing all this, you might wonder why I am giving the book four stars, rather than five, and honestly, my complaint is likely going to be one that will flatter the author rather than upset him.

I wanted more. I wanted more depth, more introspection, more moments where we could explore all the nuances of this world fully. There’s so much here to grab hold of a reader’s attention, and yet I felt like I was truly only skimming the surface of what I wanted to know, and what was available to me. This is a good entry point, but I really hope the author explores more of what he’s written in greater depth at some future point.

All in all, this was a great novella and I’m overjoyed I was given the chance to read and review it. It’s different, and eye-catching, with stunning prose and a shocking amount of depth and story packed in a few short pages. I think Barsukov has a great future as a writer ahead of him, and I, for one, look forward to what he writes next.
Profile Image for Cathy.
1,621 reviews239 followers
January 13, 2021
“Minister Shea Ashcroft refuses the queen’s order to gas a crowd of protesters. After riots cripple the capital, he’s exiled to Owenbeg, a duchy bordering the kingdom of Duma, to oversee the construction of the biggest anti-airship tower in history. Shea doesn’t want the task, but sees it as the only way to reclaim his life.“

We start our trip on an airship. And we come in contact with advanced, „other“ technology. It doesn‘t really fit the bill for Steampunk, but is reminiscent of it at first.

The prologue was very clunky and hard to get into, heavy on adverbs. Luckily, once the main narrative started, the story telling got a lot smoother. However, part two started just as clunky as part one.

I had a hard time picturing the settings. The prose was very flowery, but not as descriptive as I would’ve liked. The language was very modern despite the fantasy setting, which is unusual and did not sit particularly well with me. I also felt as if I was missing part of the story or a prequel.

The author packed a lot into 200 pages. I didn‘t mind that so much. I actually think he could have done a more thorough job with the world building, even in such a short book / novella. The pacing felt off for me as well. Telling so much of the backstory in paragraphs alternating with the present storyline so far towards the ending did not flow well.

The idea was intriguing, but I never really got immersed in the storytelling or connected with the characters. I did not like the style and skimmed the last part of the story. Sorry, this wasn‘t for me. Pretty cover though! Maybe I have to try and re-read this another time, when I am more in the mood for such a meandering style.

I received this free e-copy from the publisher/author via NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review, thank you!

Can be found and read online and for free here:

Tower of Mud and Straw I: The Duchy

Tower of Mud and Straw II: The Adversary

Tower of Mud and Straw III: The Tulips

Tower of Mud and Straw IV: The Tower
Profile Image for Beth Cato.
Author 109 books530 followers
October 11, 2020
I was fortunate enough to get an advanced copy for the purpose of blurbing and reviewing.

Tower of Mud and Straw is a poetic tale of love, loss, and otherworldly powers. The luscious bittersweet feel of this novella will haunt readers in the best sort of way.

Minister Shea Ashcroft is a rare conscientious politician. Disgraced after refusing the Queen's order to gas protestors, he is sent to an outlying border to supervise an incredible tower constructed to defend the realm against an encroaching neighbor. Upon arriving, he is disturbed to find the innovation is being powered by dangerous, oft-misunderstood technology from a mysterious minority group—and to complicate matters more, he is soon falling for a woman from said group.

Thanks to the novella length, this is a fast read. The present tension is balanced with reveals about Shea's tragic past. He is a great character to follow, a man who cannot heal from the loss of his sister; he wants to lead and to do what is right, and is crushed by the inner conflict those desires create. There is an eloquence to the prose that made me want to read some bits aloud.
Profile Image for Lauren Stoolfire.
3,557 reviews259 followers
January 10, 2021
I received an ARC from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Tower of Mud and Straw by Yaroslav Barsukov is a short fantasy novella with outstanding world-building. I wasn't already familiar with Barsukov's writing, but I'm glad I decided to take a chance on this. All of the characters had quite unique voices and I found myself very invested in Shea's story. I enjoyed exploring the world with him. It's so vivid and vibrantly described that it felt incredibly real which was such a pleasant surprise for such a short and quick read. Overall, I'm looking forward to reading more from this author in this future. Thanks for introducing me, NetGalley.
Profile Image for Celeste.
904 reviews2,339 followers
November 2, 2020
Actual rating: 3.5 stars, rounded up.

I received a galley of this book from the author via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

There’s something about the novella as an art form that is so different from its bookend siblings, the novel and the short story. Not as sharp and snappy as a short story, but without as much room for deep dives into development as novels, it can be a difficult and strangely unwieldy medium, for both author and audience. That being said, novellas can also pack an incredible amount of power into a scant few pages when done correctly. It’s a medium full of both promise and pitfalls. In the case of Tower of Mud and Straw, I think that the promise is that Barsukov himself shows a lot of promise as an author, and the main pitfall is the lack of development that would have deepened the story he penned.

Tower of Mud and Straw is Barsukov’s debut solo work. He’s had multiple short stories published in genre magazines, and it’s obvious that these publications gave him a great place to practice his craft before setting out on his own. The writing is impressively tight and polished for a debut. There were places where the tone felt a bit dissonant, such as within the main character’s inner conversations with his deceased sister. But for the most part, the prose was concise without being terse, smart if not exactly snappy.

Shea Ashcroft is being sent by the Queen to oversee the construction of the gargantuan Tower she has commanded be built. He’s not sure if this is punishment or reward but, either way, he’s not happy about it. When he discovers how unstable the Tower is, and that dangerous alien tech is being used in the construction, his job becomes a lot more complicated than he anticipated. I found Shea to be an interesting character who could have been far more compelling had he been given more time to develop, but this lack made his motivations ephemeral and seemingly ever-changing to the point that he wasn’t relatable, which was a bit frustrating. As it stands with this novella, I found both characters and world building promising but ultimately unsatisfying because of the lack of any deep, meaningful development. There’s a lot of promise that could be explored, but that exploration didn’t take place within the pages of this particular book.

Barsukov’s debut novella is a very intriguing look into a world that I hope will be further explored. I couldn’t help being reminded of Josiah Bancroft’s Books of Babel series to begin with, as both books involve the Tower of Babel in a somewhat steampunk setting, but Barsukov was able to infuse a lot of originality into a short page count, and the two works eventually diverged in my mind. I’ll definitely be interested to see what Barsukov does next.

Expected publication date for Tower of Mud and Straw: February 21, 2021

Tower of Mud and Straw is not available for preorder, but you can find a link to part on on the author’s website here, as well as any upcoming news about publication.

You can find this review and more at Novel Notions.
Profile Image for Andreas Jenko.
10 reviews
October 26, 2020
An enjoyable novella, the characters were great and I really enjoyed the plot. The writing is beautiful as many reviewers have already noted. Looking forward to the author's next book.
Comes highly recommended.

I received an advance review copy of this book for free and I am posting this review voluntarily.
Profile Image for Sibil.
1,290 reviews62 followers
January 17, 2021
3.5 stars
Thanks to NetGalley and to the Editor. I received a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review

To be honest, I don't really know what to say about this book. I think that I wasn't the right reader for this one, because the general atmosphere of it all was the thing that didn't work for me. It is not a bad story, at all, and at the beginning, I was hooked. I really liked the MC, he is an interesting character, and I'd love to meet him again, but not in this world. And it is not that the world is bad, or not well developed. We have an interesting world-building here, even if it is a short book, and it is original but... but it didn't work for me. I was interested in the story, but again, the atmosphere of it wasn't the right one for me. And this ruined a bit of the reading experience for me. It was almost dreamlike, in some ways, but the dreamlike things aren't for me and so... here we are.
But it was an interesting reading, and even if I didn't love it, I enjoyed some parts of it quite a lot.
Profile Image for Moraye Potgieter.
48 reviews2 followers
March 30, 2021
I enjoyed this one immensely. It was a quick read that invokes one’s imagination. What the author can accomplish in a few words is amazing.

The author has written something new and refreshing, that takes you on a colourful journey, into the past, and how it shapes the future.

The characters are interesting and develop into themselves through the story. Most unexpected was the ending that you think is going one way and then curves another.

Looking forward to more.
Profile Image for Henry Lien.
Author 13 books55 followers
November 28, 2020
A confident and graceful novella. I echo many of the comments praising the prose and the worldbuilding. I particularly enjoyed how the story was centered on themes of work, endeavor, will, and ambition and how it anchored all of that striving visually with the image of the tower itself, which seemed emotionally if not literally visible and present at all times. Also, the audio version is terrific and full of personality.
Profile Image for Eva.
185 reviews102 followers
June 5, 2021
This is a very well-written novella - poetic, deep, and creative. I loved it even though it has a very melancholy feel (something I personally dislike), simply because it's done so well. It does leave you with a few intriguing questions, which I've heard will be answered in the sequel/novelization.

Longer review to follow when I have more time. :-)
Profile Image for -ˏˋclaraˊˎ-.
144 reviews29 followers
October 18, 2020
"But there was something noble, romantic even, in accepting an unjust punishment. There, I made a decision. I bear the consequences (...). And I'll find a way to return, to get back what they've taken from me."


Tower of Mud and Straw tells us the story of Shea Ashcroft, a man who, after refusing an order from queen Daelyn, is sent to the Owenbeg tower to oversee its construction as punishment. Shea will soon find out that there's more to his task than meets the eye, and that the completion of the tower might actually lead the world to its imminent doom.

I have mixed feelings about this book. I really liked it overall, but because it was so short, I was left wanting a lot more from it. Nevertheless, I really liked the way the author managed to create such an interesting world in just a small number of pages. The complexity of the "tulips" and their dangerous powers were something I found to be very unique, and I really liked that we got to learn more about them little by little, along with Shea. The Drakiri are still a mystery to me in many ways, and I wish we got more information about them. In the end, the answer to their origins was somewhat explained, but since it was almost reaching the end of the book, some of my questions were left unanswered.

What I enjoyed the most was definitely Shea himself. I liked his personality from page one, and I loved how the writing —which, by the way, was PHENOMENAL— matched his character in some way. My favourite parts were the flashbacks in which we got to see his relationship with his sister (we know how much I love family dynamics).
The rest of the characters, although not as developed, were also interesting and varied, but I did have trouble at times to tell them apart —I got confused with Patrick and the duke a lot for some reason—. Also, the romance was just... irrelevant to me. It felt too insta-lovey, again, probably due to the length of the novella, and it sort of came out of nowhere.

I had a lot of fun with this book, and I would totally recommend it if you're into fantasy and looking for something short but still intricate, with amazing writing and a compelling protagonist.

Thank you to NetGalley and the publisher for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.
Profile Image for FanFiAddict.
548 reviews133 followers
February 25, 2021
Rating: 8.5/10

Thanks to the author for an advance reading/listening copy of Tower of Mud and Straw for review consideration. This did not influence my thoughts or opinions.

Tower of Mud and Straw is a near-perfect example of how a novella should be written. An immersive story with intriguing characters and a plot that leaves just enough threads open to let your imagination soar. The writing feels polished and this novella reads like that of a seasoned author. Barsukov is a name to watch out for in the coming years.

We can’t start talking about this novella without mentioning the cover, which is stunning. It provides a glimpse into the world the reader is about to be dropped into and gives an idea of just how tall this tower really is – very Tower of Babel (more Bancroft than Genesis).

The characters are what really shine here, though the tower itself stands as the main gauntlet. Barsukov breathes life into each and every one we come across, which is really something that I believe most novellas lack. You get a real sense of all their motivations for wanting the tower built or destroyed, even going so far as receiving a little backstory here and there for more of the main POVs. Shea Ashcroft is a wonderful protagonist and I wouldn’t mind seeing more of him in the future. While he has the chops to make it as a careerist, his complete refusal to obey his queen gives him what you can only describe as the ultimate demotion (there really are some interesting goings on surrounding this tower).

Assassination attempts, a love interest, political machinations, and alien technology all come to a head here and I was there for it at each and every turn. My only quibbles were with some of the flashbacks. While I understand their importance to furthering the plot, the pacing sort of dipped a bit and took me somewhat out of the story at times. What balanced that out was Barsukov’s prose. MY GOODNESS, THE PROSE. He has a knack for the written word (which again, is super rare for a debut) and I believe he is up there with some of my favs like Mark Lawrence and Anna Smith Spark. The words just drip off the pages like a fine wine. Probably helps that Miltos Yerolemou (best known for his role as Syrio Forel in Game of Thrones) performed the narration – he has one of the best voices in the world IMO.
Profile Image for Leanne.
271 reviews54 followers
October 13, 2020
3.5 stars

This was an action-packed novella. For such a short story, there was great world building. The author succeeded in creating a vivid world where Minister Shea, the protagonist, tries to defend a tower against a mysterious group. As the story progresses, he struggles with his loyalty to the crown and his own personal sense of morality.

Despite the good world-building and plot, I didn’t really like the romance that developed between Shea and a member of the mysterious group. It felt abrupt, and because this is a novella, there wasn’t enough time to fully develop it. This is probably my biggest qualm about this story. Otherwise, I thought that this was a good, well-written novella, full of tension and moral ambiguity, and would certainly recommend it to fellow fantasy fans.
Profile Image for Oleksandr Zholud.
1,078 reviews108 followers
June 6, 2021
This is a steampunk debut novella. The book was nominated for Nebula (so it is a quite strong debut!) in 2021, but lost to Ring Shout. I read is as a part of monthly reading for June 2021 at SFF Hot from Printers: New Releases group.

The story starts with former Minister Shea Ashcroft sent to exile/sinecure (more details are later in the book) after he refused to gas protesters. He flies airship to a border town to oversee the construction of the extremely long (over 1000 feet already) tower that should protect the border from air strikes. With just such short an intro we get to know the world – the expected tech level, political structure, etc. – this is done quite well. As the story continues, we find out that Ashcroft has tragically lost his sister, tries to find solace in wine and that the tower is possibly dangerous. In this world there is another race, which possesses ancient tech (including anti-grav) and which has dire predictions what tower’s construction may cause.

The story is a part of planned series, according to the author, but can be read as a standalone.
Profile Image for Seregil of Rhiminee.
590 reviews40 followers
October 22, 2020
Originally published at Risingshadow.

Yaroslav Barsukov's Tower of Mud and Straw is an enjoyable and well written fantasy novella. I was impressed by this novella and found it elegant, entertaining and compelling. It's a tale about prejudice, political intrigue, cultural conflict and personal issues with a bittersweet atmosphere.

There's something about this novella that reminds me a bit of Anthony Huso and Rjurik Davidson, but it's clearly different from their stories. The author combines elements of epic fantasy and science fiction in an original way, and he has even included a few elements that are reminiscent of steampunk and New Weird elements. He uses these elements with care and precision to create a story that is something different and original.

Here are a few words about the story: This novella tells of Minister Shea Ashcroft who, after refusing to gas the crowd of protestors, is banished by the Queen Daelyn to oversee the construction of the Owenbeg tower, which will be the most radical defensive structure ever built by man. The tower is being built with the use of mysterious Drakiri technology. Others have no issues with using this otherworldly technology, but some are worried about what it might do to the world...

Shea is a well-created protagonist, because he's a man who is haunted by his past: the loss of his sister Lena weighs heavily on his mind. When he is banished to oversee the contruction of the tower, he has to adjust to the new circumstances, and despite the changes in his life, he has to stay true to his own principles.

I was positively surprised by how fluently the author wrote about the characters and how they interacted with each other. The dialogues are good, because the author has created sufficient dynamics between the characters. I was also impressed by the author's prose and writing style, because he writes elegant and fluent prose (some of the sentences have an almost poetic feel to them).

The author has created an interesting fantasy world that is slightly different from the worlds that can be found in most fantasy novellas. I found the world sufficiently complex and diverse, because the author blends medieval elements with industrialisation and late 19th century, and also incorporates Russian and Austro-Hungarian influences to the whole.

Reading about the Drakiri legend was fascinating for me, because I've always been captivated by dark and ancient legends in fantasy stories. This legend adds a distinct dark fantasy flavour to the story. I also enjoyed reading about the Drakiri devices, "tulips", and how they were used to build the tower.

This novella is an enjoyable reading experience, because the story is fascinating and satisfyingly intimate. I would've liked to see more worldbuilding and a bit more attention to details, but I'm pleased with what I read, because the story is very good. I sincerely hope that the author will write more stories that take place in the same world, because this novella left me wanting more.

Based on this novella I can say that Yaroslav Barsukov is an author to watch, because he has a talent for engaging storytelling. If you want to read something fascinating, this novella is an excellent choice, because it's one of the best and most compelling fantasy novellas of the year.
Profile Image for Anna Kelly.
47 reviews9 followers
October 24, 2020
I received an ARC of this book from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

The plot centers on our main character Shea Ashcroft, who after refusing to gas a group of protestors, is being sent to the farthest reaches of the empire to oversee the construction of an anti-airship tower. This engineering marvel is a matter of pride for the nation, and one the Queen sees as part of her lasting legacy. Shea arrives to find a mysterious (and potentially dangerous) foreign technology being used in the construction, and as a result, he must build up his own set of moral principles which will determine the fate of his career, the tower, and possibly even his life.

This book just showed me that I have been being continuously gaslit for years into believing that a novella will inevitably feel underdeveloped or lacking in some way. I was initially hesitant to pick this up BECAUSE it was classed as a novella and I was afraid I would be left wanting at the end. This was a more developed story, with an interesting plot, and great world-building than I have seen in many fully fleshed out (often 500+ page) novels.

First, as I'm sure others will mention, Barsukov is a fantastic writer. I often found myself rereading sentences simply because I liked the way they sounded. The author has a very fluid writing style without being overly wordy, giving the novella an easy, engaging flow. Some of the most beautiful sections were when Ashcroft would speak to his sister Lena in his mind. Just gorgeous prose all the way through!

As the main protagonist, Shea had an understandable moral dilemma, and it was interesting to watch his resolve waver and ultimately harden over the course of the story. His tragic backstory slowly unwinds for the reader, giving his character added depth and complexity.

The romance in the story jarred me a bit. Not because it didn't fit into the plot, but because I genuinely didn't see it coming and felt like it happened very quickly. While it felt abrupt to me, I wonder upon a reread if I would feel the same way. There are quite a few plot points in these short 200 pages so the hints leading to a romance may have slipped my notice until I was slapped in the face with it!

Overall, great story with fantastic writing that SF/F readers will enjoy. I for one will now be following the author in the hope that he writes a full on novel soon because I loved his writing style that much.
6,154 reviews69 followers
April 9, 2021
Before I started, I was over this book by the author himself in exchange for a review. My review will be true to myself no matter what and will not be affected by this gift. Even if exchanging with Yaroslav, I find him to be a nice guy, I don't review the author, I review book!

That being said, the book was good! An impressive debut novella for a young author. The writing is one of the tow elements that impress me the most. I had some problem finding my pace with it in the 10-15 first pages, but then I was good and find it really beautiful, the prose, but also the thinking behind it, the way it describes environment, the metaphor and all, it was pretty good! The background to the story was the second best thing in my opinion. The tower and the mythology or superstition behind it was really interesting.

The others elements were also good, nothing was bad in this novella honestly and I find it to be a good self contain story, even if the universe could be explore some more eventually. I often find novella to be overstretch short story or the sketch of a to lazy to do novel, but none of that was the case here. Nonetheless the book isn't perfect and the lack of experience show up a bit in some parts or elements of the book that sometimes lack clarity or a bit confusing. The main character is good, but his personal motivation or goal cold have been clearer or explore deeper. The meaning behind the "anomaly", I stay purposely vague here not to spoiled anything, are not that clear either, I have made my mind on it, but I'm right or is it just me imagining it...

Overall this was a awesome book, one of the best novella I ever read and the best one I read since Silver In the Wood by Emily Tesh. It was everything it was suppose to be, was engaging and original enough to make it matters and worth the read. I enjoy it and I'm really curious to see what this young author will do in the future. I recommend reading it if you love fantasy or science-fiction, because for me it was a in-between genre story, which for me is good, I love those genre-breaking boundaries book! Good job Yare!
Profile Image for Sylvia Spruck Wrigley.
Author 32 books45 followers
September 25, 2020
Tower of Mud and Straw is an intelligent fantasy novel of avarice, destruction and reclamation.
Shea Ashcroft, a minister in disgrace, is sent from the capital city to oversee the construction of an anti-airship tower on the border. Political intrigue, personal ambition and barely-harnessed foreign technology provide the setting for Shea's story but, at its heart, it is a thoughtful tale of love and redemption, or the lack of it.

Barsukov unflinchingly takes on cultural conflict, prejudice, sexism and the fear of intimacy within the context of a high-action fantasy. The audio book showcases his writing talent as actor Miltos Yerolemou shifts between the strident declarations and soft whispers of Shea as he struggles to do his duty in a world as ambiguous as our own. The men and women of Tower of Mud and Straw are complex and multi-layered as they are forced to accept that there is no right or wrong, only the hope of making things somehow better than they were.

Tower of Mud and Stone combines traditional fantasy with modern day language and issues in a historical context clearly influenced by Barsukov's experience as a Russian living in Austria.

This is a fast and furious read which will take you on a trip to another world both fantastical and gritty. The fate of the Owenbeg Tower propels the reader with a sense of wonder and inevitability, like a cart hurtling down a track. Barsukov's detailed and thoughtful worldbuilding leaves the reader craving more stories from the people and culture glimpsed in Tower of Mud and Straw.
Profile Image for Rebecca DeVendra.
Author 3 books3 followers
September 5, 2022
I was privileged to write a blurb for this story:

"Tower of Mud and Straw is a Tower of Babel story with a hero haunted by his fate. Shea Ashcroft is an Aeneas in an airship set in a world that gives homage to Dune. Once immersed it is hard to stop reading: like a play or a good painting, you won't be able to look away until you've discovered everything."

I didn't know what to expect but when I started reading I couldn't put it down. I’m usually nose-deep in Roman and Greek myth, so the hero of this tale reminded me of the old heroes always accosted by pesky Fate. Babel came down, Aeneas left Dido, strange technologies that cannot be understood will have a cost. The Inevitable hangs over this story. So much of the story takes place in conversations and daily scenes, all with a sense of expectation: something is going to happen, but what?

Shea Ashcroft has noble aspirations and accepts his punishment in the way Aeneas pays obeisance to a pietas which forces him to move from place to place at great personal cost. “I’m like a cart on a track- I must move forward,” Shea says of himself. His fate does indeed catch up with him in the end. Without spoiling it, I did like that in the end he realized the freedom in it- and of course, the cost.

This story expects you to spend time with it, and once it draws you in it will linger with you after you've finished. Elegiac and beautiful.
Profile Image for Lawrence Schoen.
Author 116 books221 followers
September 25, 2020
I was privileged to read an advance copy of this novella and I was only too happy to provide a blurb.

"Barsukov's prose is not merely a feast for the eyes, it is an explosion of textures, a narrative metaphor that wraps the reader in gritty burlaps of politics, the oaken solidity of wonder, and powerful silks of longing."

Keep an eye on this author, even greater wonders await.
1,699 reviews22 followers
November 17, 2020
I don't read a lot of Fantasy, and this was very good. There's a hint of the theater saying "leave them wanting more" here because this is short, and it is well written, and could make the reader want a little more when it's over. Recommended.

Thanks very much for the ARC for review!!
Profile Image for Lesley.
Author 27 books26 followers
September 9, 2020
I really enjoyed Tower of Mud and Straw. Excellent world building with a complex plot and interesting characters! Good stuff!
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