Hey there, bookworms. Today we have a guest post from Yaroslav Barsukov, author of the newly released Tower of Mud and Straw. It’s a tight and polished and highly unique debut, and I think fantasy fans will find it to be a breath of fresh air. In celebration of his recent publication, here is a post Barsukov wrote for Novel Notions discussing a bit of the inspiration behind his debut. Enjoy!
TOWER OF STRAW, OR FLEEING HOBBITON
Imagine Frodo taking a last drag on a cigarette, stubbing it out, picking up another.
“You needed someone,” he says, “and I was the lesser evil.”
“You were,” Gandalf agrees.
“I wish Bilbo was here. I wish Boromir hadn’t sold out.”
“Wishes, wishes,” the wizard says. “Wish in one hand and do something else in the other, and squeeze them both and see which comes true.”
Funny? The interesting thing is, there’s no reason for Gandalf or Frodo not to talk like the nine princes in Amber. After all, Hobbiton’s a rough neighborhood, too—just remember The Scouring of the Shire, all those orcs’ heads on pikes outside the Bag End’s door.
The scene appears comical because of our preconceptions. Western fantasy? Characters have to quote Hamlet and the Chivalric Romance Phrasebook—and heaven forbid they use a swear word!
But we don’t really know how people talked in the Middle Ages, do we? So the dialogue becomes stilted. The writer feels they can no longer rely on modern metaphors and wisecracks to convey character. Frodo absolutely cannot put out a cigarette. Gandalf isn’t allowed to take a sip of brandy on the rocks—it must be wine, remember? The Witch-king of Angmar has to get rid of his brass knuckles and replace them with something more appropriate.
The further you move away from the contemporary, the smaller your palette of comparisons and epithets becomes, the more expression tools you have to create yourself. And whatever you do create feels somehow lesser, somehow paler than reality.
Some authors, like the great Roger Zelazny, acknowledged the advantages of a wisecracking, modern-looking protagonist, but still shied away from inserting them directly into the story. Zelazny often devises a doorway between worlds, a way for our contemporaries to slip into ‘vaguely medieval’ times and, once there, flash their erudition. A phrase in French here, a Chinese proverb there. Perhaps a libretto quote from Wagner’s operas.
This is how we get acquainted with Corwin, Shadowjack, Sam (okay, okay, I concede, Lord of Light is technically sci-fi; please put away your swords). The problem with tales of two worlds, however, is just that—that there are two sides to the narrative, and they’re rarely in a state of equilibrium.
What do you recall of Earth in Amber? Quite probably, the opening scene in the hospital. Conversations with Random in the car. Personally, my memory can’t conjure up much more than that. What springs to mind when you say “Amber” is the sword fight with Eric, ascending Kolwir, meeting Benedict, the final showdown at the Courts of Chaos. From Jack of Shadows, I remember only the fantasy.
One world becomes subservient to the other.
Meanwhile, pure fantasy already provides the richest framework possible. You aren’t constrained by physical laws, by time, by space; why would you choose to be constrained by gestures and patterns of speech? Why would you willingly confine the movements of your pen to squares on some non-existent checkerboard?
This is how Agatha Christie describes her most famous creation: “Poirot was hardly more than five feet, four inches, but carried himself with great dignity. His head was exactly the shape of an egg, and he always perched it a little on one side. His mustache was very stiff and military.”
The late, amazing Peter Ustinov was five feet, ten inches, his mustache in Death on the Nile was big enough to smother a baby elephant—and the last thing his head resembled was an egg. Nevertheless, he played Poirot in a total of six movies. When Agatha Christie’s daughter exclaimed, “But he looks nothing like you!”, Ustinov calmly replied, “He does now.”
The moral of the tale is simple: what matters is confidence. This is true of acting, and doubly so—of literature.
While working on the penultimate draft of my fantasy novella, Tower of Mud and Straw, I found the following comment from my editor (the amazing B. Morris Allen) in the page margins:
“Characters in an invented world can obviously speak however you choose. It’s common though in vaguely medieval fantasies to avoid distinctly modern-feeling words and phrases—fucking, guys, amirite?, etc. There are a few places where you do this. However, fine if intentional.”
This was in response to the main character saying to an unmistakably fantasy lady, “You guys possess a too vivid shared imagination.”
My editor had more faith in me than I; I chickened out and removed the ‘guys.’
But the point is, I didn’t have to. Morris was right—it’s an invented world, your world, and if someone tells you that ‘fantasy characters don’t talk like that’—well, “they do now.”
In the end, I brought the dialogue in Tower as close to modern speech as one can without raising a couple hundred eyebrows.
But I didn’t do only that.
There’s another way in which you could flee from Hobbiton: time periods. You want castles and horses, but you also happen to love industrialization and airships—why not mix them? You don’t need the magical Castle of Amber for that. And if you feel you do, that’s your inner voice talking; you’re writing the history of a fictional world, so limiting yourself can only be your own conscious decision.
Authors have a panic fear of being pigeonholed. Airships? But they’ll perma-glue a ‘steampunk’ sticker onto my novel!
Maybe they will, maybe they won’t. In my case, none of the reviewers could pin down the exact genre; the best guess came from Queen’s Book Asylum: a gaslamp science fantasy.
What helps, I found, is separating the time periods in space: airships in the capital, castles in the province, furniture workshops in a valley that feeds off a great river and, in its green saddle, nurtures science and arts.
My Tower stretches from the end of Renaissance through industrialization to the moment the first airship, or zeppelin as we call them this side of the rainbow, took to the skies. It’s all possible. You simply have to remember Peter Ustinov and, should anyone complain, “But fantasy isn’t like that!”, reply with a resounding “It is now.”
Title: Tower of Mud and Straw
Author: Yaroslav Barsukov
Publisher: Metamorphosis Publishing
About Tower of Mud and Straw:
THE QUEEN RUINED HIS LIFE. HE WOULD DO ANYTHING TO RECLAIM IT… OR SO HE THOUGHT.
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.
After leaving his ball and chain at the workplace, Yaroslav Barsukov goes on to write stories that deal with things he himself, thankfully, doesn’t have to deal with. He’s a software engineer and a connoisseur of stone alcholic beverages—but also, surprisingly, a member of SFWA and Codex (how did that happen?). His stories have appeared in Galaxy’s Edge, Nature: Futures, and StarShipSofa, among others. At some point in his life, he’s left one former empire only to settle in another. Tower of Mud and Straw is his first novel.
You can order Tower of Mud and Straw here.