Ahoy there mateys! Though the First Mate and I have very different reading tastes, occasionally we do recommend books to each other. Books the first mate introduced to me included xom-b, holes, and the perks of being a wallflower. He and I both read the following:
barsk: the elephants’ graveyard (Lawrence M. Schoen)
We read and talked about the book and I enjoyed his viewpoint so I
ordered asked him to write a review. So you get one from me and a bonus additional review from me crew. Please note that I write like I talk and the first mate writes like he thinks. Hope you enjoy!
From the Captain:
This is one of the best books I have ever read. Period. The cover of this novel drew me in and the synopsis was weird and intriguing. But the book sounded like something that I would need to be in the correct mental space for. And I just didn’t ever pick it up.
Then this year the First Mate and I were trying to figure out what our next joint audio book was going to be. He happened to mention that he was thinking of re-listening to barsk and would I be interested? I wasn’t sure if I was in the right mood but his description of the book made me willing to give it a chance. I am so frickin’ glad.
This is one of the most beautifully written books I have ever listened to. The opening sequence was one of the most beautiful and perfect ever. It made me both cry and grin madly at the lush imagery and at the characters. While the tone of the overall book is bittersweet, the world building, concepts, and characters stole my heart. Aye, human-like elephants (Fants) are the main characters. While it seems weird in concept, it is stunning in execution. I cannot do this justice. But I wish I could give all the crew members a copy.
One of me favorite things in this book (besides the amazing writing) was in the character relationships. There is an older scholar named Jorl who helps teach a young Fant named Pizlo. Their relationship was beautiful, poignant, and heart-warming. I love them individually and love them even more together. I am tearing up just thinking about it. In fact all the characters are fascinating and fully realized – even the minor ones.
The world building is also exquisite. The planet Barsk itself sounds extraordinary from the shadow dwell, to the various islands, and because of the people themselves. The politics of the world were complex and fascinating, particularly the use of Speakers. These Speakers are able to speak to the dead and this concept is central to the novel. This book is nuanced and beautiful and watching the story unfold was like having the amazement of seeing the pearl slowly manifest before yer eyes.
Me words fail, fail, fail at how amazing this book is. Please do yerself a favor and read this book that deserves all the love and more. Check out the First Mate’s words below and have them help tip this book off the tbr and into yer hands. It be worth it. Arrrr!
From the First Mate:
Barsk has one of those cover/synopsis combinations that always make me want to read the book but also makes me continually put it off, telling myself that I’ll pick it up when I’m in the proper headspace to deal with something weighty. I don’t know why I initially waited so long (around 2 years after purchase) to read the book, but I suspect I’m not the only one that has done so. Most of the people to whom I’ve mentioned the book have also said that they’ve had the book on their TBR for a while. I want to start a movement. Barsk deserves to be read and appreciated; this is an amazingly awesome book.
With absolute certainty I can state that Barsk would have been the best book that I’d read in any of the past years since it’s been published. Schoen has written a deep, complex, perceptive, sad, and beautiful novel that, once read, has continued to come back to my thoughts over the last several years. Concepts raised in the work have been so intriguing to me and I’ve thought about them for so long that they’re now like smooth stones in my mind that have been long handled.
On the first descriptive level, Barsk could seem a little silly. Yes, it’s essentially a space opera populated with anthropomorphic animals and includes psychic abilities. Certainly understandable if someone took that element of the synopsis and assumed that the book was going to be something akin to Bucky O’Hare or Zootopia in space. And yet the very first scene of the novel is of an old artist waking up and coming to realize that his life is over, setting his affairs in order, and then making arrangements for the way the Fant (elephants) come to die on their world. That scene is achingly beautiful in its description. Subdued and introspective, it was definitely not the type of opening I was expecting for the novel, but it was absolutely perfect.
Then we meet our protagonists, Jorl and Pizlo, a psychic historian and a genetic abomination. A man who has been devastated by the loss of his best friend and the son of that best friend. Two kind, perceptive, unique characters who wonder through their world continually asking “why.” As events in their world start to change the nature of their lives, both Jorl and Pizlo continue to ask “why is this happening,” “is this good,” and “how can I help to make things
better.” Faced against the forces of the law, tradition, prejudice, physics, and even the the bounds of life and death, Jorl and Pizlo continue to search for the right thing to do. And we also get many beautiful conversations between the two of them on a myriad of topics.
The topic that is most central to the book is that of speaking to the dead. Schoen makes the decision to develop a scientific explanation for the psychic ability of Speaking. While not the first author to do so, Schoen’s skill at presenting a plausible scientific backing for a psychic ability is truly first rate. Perhaps the aspect I admire the most is the way in which Schoen explores the boundaries of what is possible within the rules of what he’s set up. Several
times various characters believe something is impossible only to have another character show them how that very thing is possible within the very rules of the universe as set up. A continually expanding exploration of various ideas.
As with any creative work that deals with death, loss, and prejudice, Barsk is a fundamentally sad book. While Pizlo has a child’s fundamental optimism about the world, Jorl has been alive long enough to know that there’s a lot of sadness in life. Jorl witnesses many things in Barsk that are fundamentally unfair and for which there are no good solutions. Schoen presents elements of dissatisfaction with the world and coming to acceptance with the way things are probably better than any author I’ve read in quite some time.
As I said before, Barsk: The Elephant’s Graveyard is one of the best books I’ve ever read. It works perfectly as a standalone novel. In fact, that’s what I thought it was when I first read it, only to be delighted a year or so later when it’s sequel, The Moons of Barsk, came out. And, to be perfectly honest, The
Moons of Barsk is even better. The sequel is not as self-contained, requiring both the introduction of Barsk and ending on a dangling plot thread (though wrapping up the main storyline just fine).
Unfortunately, Schoen has indicated that his publisher has not expressed interest in getting a third book, which is totally unacceptable to me. There needs to be a Barsk revival. This series needs to be celebrated for the beautiful,
perceptive work that it is. More people need to read and love Barsk.
Also the audiobook version of Barsk is fantastic. Read by J. G. Hertzler (General Martok from Star Trek: Deep Space Nine). His rich, resonate voice made me feel like I was sitting by a fire, listening to an older friend tell me a parable. Soothing, interesting, an informative.
Unreservedly recommended to almost everyone. Avoid if you’re not currently in an emotional place to deal with a beautiful work that is fundamentally sad.
Goodreads has this to say about the novel:
An historian who speaks with the dead is ensnared by the past. A child who feels no pain and who should not exist sees the future. Between them are truths that will shake worlds.
In a distant future, no remnants of human beings remain, but their successors thrive throughout the galaxy. These are the offspring of humanity’s genius-animals uplifted into walking, talking, sentient beings. The Fant are one such species: anthropomorphic elephants ostracized by other races, and long ago exiled to the rainy ghetto world of Barsk. There, they develop medicines upon which all species now depend. The most coveted of these drugs is koph, which allows a small number of users to interact with the recently deceased and learn their secrets.
To break the Fant’s control of koph, an offworld shadow group attempts to force the Fant to surrender their knowledge. Jorl, a Fant Speaker with the dead, is compelled to question his deceased best friend, who years ago mysteriously committed suicide. In so doing, Jorl unearths a secret the powers that be would prefer to keep buried forever. Meanwhile, his dead friend’s son, a physically challenged young Fant named Pizlo, is driven by disturbing visions to take his first unsteady steps toward an uncertain future.
To visit the author’s website page go to:
To buy the novel visit:
To add to Goodreads go to: