Review -- Barsk: The Elephants’ Graveyard
I’ve had this book for a long time. Like, a long time. Completely my fault. Well, more appropriately my bias’s fault, because the quick-uptake I did of the book when I first got it revealed that it was science fiction. So, it got shelved until just recently, in favor of other books that I thought I’d likely enjoy more. Now, after finally picking it up off the shelf and reading the thing, I’m feeling REALLY bad that it took so long because this is a great book.
BARSK: THE ELEPHANTS’ GRAVEYARD (Amazon) is Lawrence M. Schoen’s first published novel, but he has a grip of shorter published works that stretch back into the late ’90s. So I was kind of surprised that I hadn’t come across his name before this, but will now be looking for anything else the guy writes in the future.
BARSK starts out with a first chapter that would have made a perfect prologue. Rüsul, an old Fant, has struck out upon the open ocean in a small raft, with little food and water and a few other simple implements, sailing toward his death. His time has come to die. He can feel it much like recognizing a change in the air before a coming storm. He is not alone. All other Fant have gone this way before him, ever since the coming of their race to this planet, and many will follow him in the future as they feel the time come to them, to a location that none of them know. The problem comes when a submarine rises from the deep and those within take Rüsul prisoner.
From there the main sequence of the story begins primarily through three central characters that are all essentially anthropomorphic versions of animals one might find on Earth, but the locale is definitely not our planet.
Jorl ben Tral is a Lox, one of the two species of Fant (elephant), that reside on the planet of Barsk. He’s been off-planet before, but now has a home on one of the two islands of Barsk. Occupationally, he is a historian, but he is also a Speaker, which means he can contact the dead through the manipulation of nefshons, or intrinsic particles, that make up the essence of each individual that has ever lived. In life, these nefshons are bound to each person, but upon their death they begin to disperse into the surrounding universe. Speakers can gather nefshons corresponding to a given individual together and, within the construct of their own mind, talk to those that have died. It is not long before he realizes that he cannot Speak to those who have recently passed and he doesn’t know why.
Pizlo (ben Arlo) is also a Lox, six-years old, and an albino. The albinism came upon him as somewhat of a curse, due to the fact that his parents weren’t wed before he was conceived. As a result, every Fant but for his mother and Jorl ben Tral (Pizlo’s dead father’s best friend) completely ignore the fact that he even exists. Pizlo is an outcast in the most extreme sense of the word. As such, he runs wild through the jungles surrounding the village where his mother and Jorl ben Tral live, and occasionally finds time for “school” at Jorl’s table. He is also unique though, in that every living thing around him “speaks” to him. He can hear and understand them when they speak, and frequently they tell him of things that will soon occur.
Lirlowil, is a Lutr (otter) from another planet. She is a telepath of some talent and also a Speaker. She hates the Fant, much like most other non-Fant races. She has been recruited by some very powerful people to come to the planet of Barsk and try to illegally wheedle from its inhabitants the secret to manufacturing koph, the substance that gives those with the in-born ability to Speak, the power to manipulate nefshons into realizable entities and then converse with them. The Fant regularly export koph to the numerous planets and species organized into the Alliance, but there are those within the Alliance’s government that no longer wish to be chained to the mercy of the Fant.
Okay, so it was incredibly easy for me to just rattle those descriptions off, and with how detailed I was able to get, that should immediately tell you just how amazingly well the characterization is in this novel. Not only that, but there are quite a few more characters that get POV time in the book than just these three, and although that bothered me slightly from a structural point of view, it never once got in the way of me enjoying the story. I do think that the story could have been a little tighter if some of those extraneous chapters had been removed from the book, but I can’t fault the guy’s work here. Really well done.
The political atmosphere of the Alliance, although mostly not focused upon, reminded me a lot of Dune and its house wars, and yet the way each of the alien races within the Alliance (elephant, otter, dog, panda, bear, cheetah, sloth, yak… there are a lot of them) were presented made them all feel not only familiar but unique and fresh and new as well. I was immediately caught up in the story and understanding what the stakes were. Pizlo’s story was especially fun for me. Reminding me at times of the adventures of Babar and Blinky Bill, both characters that I loved reading about in my childhood. Schoen does a really good job of relaying the persona of this precocious six-year-old outcast, and how he affects the core of story.
My only real criticism is that I think the climax of the story could have benefitted from a little more attention. Things happened kind of quickly, and it wasn’t always clear to me why certain actions were taken by each character, and/or why those actions affected those around them the way they did. I liked how everything ended up and how it happened; the pathway could have just been a little bit more well-defined.
This book was seriously a fun read. Relatively quick. Well-written. Great characters. Good scientific ideas, which every science fiction book requires, but also with a focus on the characters, which every great science fiction book does.
The first story by Lawrence M. Schoen I’ve ever read, but definitely won’t be my last. If you haven’t found this one yet, pick it up. Well worth the ride.
- Recommended Age: 14+
- Language: A handful of f-words and not much else
- Violence: In general quite mild, but there are a couple spots where it gets somewhat strong
- Sex: A few references