Review of Barsk: The Elephant’s Graveyard by Lawrence M. Schoen

After Wanderers by Chuck Wendig, I needed something a little bit less intense. I wanting something lighter, something I wouldn’t spend quite so much time thinking about. How about a book about anthropomorphic elephants written by the man that founded the Klingon Language Institute?

If I had to describe Barsk in one word, it would be “rich.” Maybe even “savory.” Some of that may have had to do with the voice of the narrator, J. G. Hertzler. His reading was unhurried, and his voice had a husky, grandfatherly quality to it.

Just as the story starts with an artist working at the height of their talent, carving an image into wood, Dr. Schoen crafted a fantastic story full of nuance and exquisite payoff to each piece he sets up. On the surface, the description of the story sounds silly, and while there are moments of humor spread throughout the book, this is a serious story. Dr. Schoen didn’t cheat.

I wish I’d read this story sooner. Going in, I wanted a story I wouldn’t have to think about so much. In that respect, I did not get what I wanted, since I’ve spent quite a bit of time thinking about this story since finishing it.

TL;DR — This is a fantastic book, and I recommend you read it. If I had to score it, I’d give it a 9/10.

I’m about to go into some plot points which may contain spoilers. If you have not read this book yet, this is a good time to close the tab.

SOME SPOILERS BELOW

Last warning. Don’t read below unless you’ve read the book.

Here we go…

There’s a lot going on in this book. The world building is both wide and deep. We see the relationship between the Fant of Barsk and the other hominid species of the rest of the galaxy. We also see how the Fant culture works on its own in how it treats Pizlo, my favorite character in the whole story. We’re treated to the spirituality, the politics, and the relationships of this world without heavy-handed exposition. It’s all woven into the story with a deft hand.

I admire Dr. Schoen’s patience. Early on, we find out that Jorl’s best friend, Pizlo’s father, committed suicide. We find this out when Jorl speaks to his friend’s ghost. It sets up the question: why would he do it? What could be so bad that this individual would take his own life, leaving behind his wife and child? By the end, we get the answer, and it is surprisingly satisfying.

All of the pieces fit together so nicely, sliding into place as the story unfolds, intricate as clockwork. But the writing itself isn’t dry. Questions are planted and answers are revealed naturally. Characters behave consistently, and they drive the plot.

The only thing that might detract from the story is the amount of alien terminology that the reader must pick up and discern. There’s quite a bit, and it made me nervous at the beginning. It’s not beyond reason, however, and it’s appropriate for this type of story.

Barsk isn’t afraid to go to dark places. At one point, dozens of older Fant are burned alive. One of these is a POV character. It is a dark scene, but it is not bleak. Dr. Schoen doesn’t cheat, but he’s not cruel to the reader.

This is a good one. I’m really glad I read it.

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