Book Review: Barsk: The Elephants' Graveyard
Mamma Bear Book Review
*A bear trundles in with a book under one, fuzzy arm*
I fell for Bask at a science fiction convention in Seattle. I'd heard about this "Elephants in Space" book, so when the author's reading popped up on my con schedule, off I scampered to hear more. Not five minutes into the reading, I knew I had to have the book. Not only is Schoen a marvelous literary performer, but his characters seemed to live and breathe through distinct dialogue and backed by a crazy interesting premise. As soon as the reading ended, off I went to pick up my signed hardback
It came with a beautiful postcard of the cover with this slogan on the back:
Prophecy. Intolerance. Loyalty. Conspiracy Friendship.
A Drug for Speaking to the Dead.
Also Elephants, in Space.
Bask quite happily delivered all of the above and more. The story follows an uplifted elephant or Fant named, Jorl, who is one of the few of his kind that is adept as speaking to the dead through the use of the Fant drug, Koph. Lately, however, he's been having trouble contacting some of the deceased, and he rightly sorts out that strange things are afoot with the afterlife. Jorl embarks on a journey to the elephants' graveyard to discover what is amiss, only to fall into a lot more than he ever bargained for. Outside forces after the Fant's Koph are interfering with the graveyard and have some unsavory designs on the planet Barsk as well.
Meanwhile, Pizlo, the outcast son of Jorl's best friend, begins his own quest to help Jorl, the only one aside from his mother who even acknowledges his existence.
Barsk is masterfully written. The language is rich and delicious to read. The characters are unique and deeply portrayed, and the setting and world are so entrancing. I found the writing and the feel of the story reminded me a great deal of both Dune and the Planet of the Apes, and I adored the reading of it. The book is a thick, slow indulgence in words and character, and it wasn't until almost two thirds of the way through it that I started to see one minor issue.
Pizlo, who is by far the most sympathetic character in the story, has a sort of fated quality. He sees what's coming, in fact, which is really cool but also really good at eliminating any tension. I felt almost like Schoen had done too good a job of making me trust in Pizlo, because I did trust in him, thoroughly. So when the proverbial excrement hit the plot fan, and Pizlo said, it's okay, it's all going to work out fine... I believed him.
And unfortunately, that killed the suspense for me. Right at the point in the book when I wanted to be terrified for the heroes, I felt really safe. Everything was going to be fine. Pizlo said so. And so, while I loved the book, the ending fell a little apart for me.
Barsk gets a four claws up from me, and I'm absolutely desperate to read the next one.
Character: The Fants are so cool! Wait, is that unprofessional? Don't care. I loved the way the elephant people used their trunks for affection and expressed themselves with ear flutters and toots. Pizlo was by far my favorite character, and I think, the most sympathetic, but Schoen doesn't stop at elephants and there are cats and dogs and otters and all sorts of critters to satisfy a furry reader.
World-building: Barsk is a rich world and well laid out. I have no problem with the idea of uplifted animals, so it seemed natural and good to me. The racism against the Fants was well explained, and the racism within the Fants, primarily against Pizlo, beautifully kept everyone flawed and made fertile ground for culture and ideals to clash.
Pacing: As I mention above, the pacing was rocking along until I worked out that Pizlo was letting us know it would all turn out fine in the end. The story still flowed nicely, but the lack of tension did take the wind out of my sails a bit.
Shiny: The culture in Barsk is beautiful and as rich as the writing. Both together make it a celebration of words and world building. If elephants ever colonized a world and built their own society, I have no doubt it would look, feel, smell and sound exactly like Barsk. This place lives in Schoen's mind, and now, in mine as well.