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Barsukov-tower-coverWhat moves us to read and write steampunk and historical fantasy? Is there a distinct benefit to tales of airships, royalty, daguerreotypes, and juxtaposed future-tech verging on alien magic? Or is the use of an old-timey background and simpler inventions a mere set piece, a change in scenery against which to play out stories that could take place almost anywhere?

In the case of Yaroslav Barsukov’s Nebula-nominated novella, The Tower of Mud and Straw (2020), an attempt exists at uniting a host of societal, technological, personal, and relational intrigues through the vaguely Edwardian steampunk fantasy of a man and an overburdened tower-project at the edge of a nation and on the cusp of apocalypse. I say “attempt,” because this piece feels better suited to readers who need only the general flavour of steampunk to enjoy an ambitious concept played out with freewheeling narrative energy. As someone more partial to fully immersive approaches to fantastical alt-history, I was not nearly as invested in the wide range of elements loosely introduced and developed in this work.

We cannot help, of course, but to have affective relationships to new texts shaped by our past exposures. I entered my reading of Barsukov’s Tower with Kij Johnson’s The Man Who Bridged the Mist (2011) in mind: another novella focused on an ambitious architectural project meant to stabilize a region, a man who needs it completed, and an intricate interplay of local politics and fantastical lore. Johnson’s piece was much steadier and more detail-oriented, with a protagonist who knew himself and his ends well, and a narrative style keen to linger on the worldbuilding at patient length. Its technical precision deeply satisfied what I look for in the subgenre.

From the outset, though, Tower’s protagonist, Lord Shea Ashcroft, was quite different—more like Billy from China Mieville’s Kraken (2010): a text with all sorts of colliding fantastical, political, and interpersonal struggles amid imminent doom, and a main character who spends the vast majority of the book pinballing, tossed this way and that by others’ machinations, without much in the way of consistent inner motivation (save simply trying to survive).

What makes Shea unlike Billy, though, is that Shea has plenty of character backstory that should make inner motivation clear. Shea used to be a state minister, after all, in the court of a queen who gave him orders that required killing protesters. When he spared them, he became in equal measure reviled and adored by citizens who suffered in the aftermath of his refusal to kill a few among them, and was given a new, mixed blessing of a role as the queen’s “intendant.” Cast out from his home to monitor progress on Queen Daelyn’s legacy project, an in-progress anti-airship tower designed to be two kilometers tall, on the border with a threatening neighbour, Shea has this one last chance at redemption … and not just in the court, but also after the death of his sister, whom he lost to the careless use of a fantastical future-tech that is now being installed in the tower itself.

And yet, Shea never really seems the type to have been a state minister, the type to have been given the power to make major life-or-death decisions in the first place. Early in the story, he easily debunks a local theory that the tower had been sabotaged, and after illustrating the workers’ poor knowledge of volatile technology, sensibly calls for its removal. That’s when he finds out that the chief engineer needed these dangerous devices to stay in place, to hide her massive mistake with the planning of the whole structure; and then Shea feels bad, for … not helping this woman hide an error that has already hurt many and now imperils many more? It’s not at all the kind of response one would expect from someone supposedly experienced in large-scale governance, but the narration establishes that we are supposed to believe that Shea was wrong not to have helped her to keep her engineering failure hidden.

Shea also does not demonstrate any level of courtly deftness or noble education in his dealings with Lord Aidan, a man who curated Shea’s receipt of this position in the first place, and whose own elevated standing now depends on Shea’s success with the tower. Rather, right from the outset, when Aidan gives him this mission, Shea willfully tunes out the vast majority of his initial briefing—which conveniently creates a significant delay in readers learning the full extent of the story’s stakes: not until a far later conversation, that is, when Aidan reminds him of that first encounter. Around this later point in the book, Shea also argues against Aidan’s insistence that they kill Shea’s would-be assassin (a man who also seems underqualified for the role he plays in most of this tale), and their quarrel has all the finesse of a child arguing with a parent over being made to do chores.

Are we supposed to accept all of this as intentional incompetence: the story really about a man stumbling upwards from a body of past trauma and current helplessness? Difficult to say. Shea does indeed succumb to alcohol addiction, but some of his most unprofessional mistakes long precede his falling off the wagon. Shea also quickly falls head over heels for the “beautiful” (we are often reminded that she is attractive) consort of the unpleasant duke in charge of the tower project, and they lose no time in getting around to copulating and falling for one another. Mere weeks later, her mother then shows up as a straightforward narrative prop, existing centrally on the page to reassure him that the daughter loved him very much. Oh, and did I mention that this consort has the same name as Shea’s dead sister: a fact presented early on as some kind of … sign of good favour from the universe?

As one might have surmised from the above, there is an argument to be made that this novella should either have been a novel, to give all of its storyline elements more depth, or else markedly reduced in both size and scope, to zero in on the most vital components. And yet, I’m inclined to think that “novella” was the correct size for this piece, despite all its moving parts. To hold a reader like me, other narrative components needed adjustment instead.

One of the most obvious has to do with the “voice” of the piece. More than a few lines overexplain action and intention, while others reveal editorial oversight (such as Aidan wanting to meet covertly with Shea so that they could speak “undeterred”), but a more significant matter was the story’s use of anachronism in ways that made it difficult to pin down historicity. In a world of queens and lords and a fantasy-species with antigravity devices (amid human airships and little else to mark their technological baseline), Shea speaks like today’s North Americans. The use of “guys,” or descriptions like “the luxury suite guy,” is common; he and others employ “motherfucker” and related variants; his narration is filled with contemporary contractions and turns of phrase—and yet, even this temporal hodgepodge would have been fine, if there had been clearer worldbuilding to align the story’s sociopolitics with such a tone.

Unfortunately, though (at least, for readers who enjoy more precise steampunk and alt-history fantasies), the most ambitious parts of this tale—the “tulip” technology of the Drakiri, and the winding, market-square-wide tower spiral itself—are presented just long enough to be functional to specific plot points and backstories. Otherwise, they, and most of the characters, sit as surface-level elements on the page—and are perhaps supposed to, in the same way that “Lena” serves as an interchangeable lament for both the lover and the sister in Shea’s troubled life. After all, as Barsukov notes in a subsequent author’s comment, the inspiration for this tale was hazy, too, because:

I saw the novella in a dream. I was my own hero, banished from the capital to a province which sheltered a magical race. An exile that turned out to be something more.

Another thing was, I wanted to write a story about architects and artisans. I briefly toyed with the idea of an architect main character, but my knowledge in this area is non-existent and my laziness is great. So there you go—we've got Shea who is sent to oversee the construction of the biggest defensive tower in history.

The author’s aims seem fairly well matched, then, to the story’s follow-through—and that may work as entertainment for someone who enjoys steampunk and alt-history fantasy as a general flavour, a set piece gestured at in broad strokes to tell familiar tales. But for someone seeking a more immersive experience, well, both subgenres are rich and contain multitudes: Move on.

M. L. Clark is a Canadian immigrant to Medellín, Colombia, and a writer of speculative fiction, reviews, poetry, and cultural essays.
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