Moons of Barsk Review
I finished reading “The Moons of Barsk” a few weeks ago and wanted to put a review of it up for folks. This is the new book by the linguist, Lawrence M. Schoen and a sequel to his “Barsk: The Elephants’ Graveyard from a few years ago.
In complete transparency, I was given a review copy of Moons but I was such a huge fan of his first book that I had been actively waiting for more from him. Barsk: The Elephants’ Graveyard was an amazing book and a breath of fresh air in how it was full of ideas that hadn’t been rehashed to death as genre tropes (and even the ideas in it that were common enough tropes were handled in interesting ways). Moons continues on this vein and does not displease, though I do think it suffers a bit from being a “middle novel” in what I assume is a trilogy. It continues the story of the first book in new ways but does not, ultimately, tie the threads of story up completely but sets things up for continuance and conclusion later.
The basic setup of the series is a kind of Island of Dr. Moreau writ large and on a galactic scale. There is a federation and the denizens of this federation are different races of humanoid or uplifted animals. I do not wish to spoil the first book for readers so I cannot go into any history that is revealed but things are explained to a fair degree in the first novel. The main characters of both books are Fants, which are distinct but similar species of upright, humanoid elephants. They are despised and viewed with disgust by the rest of the federation for their horrid (it seems) appearance to others and have long ago but exiled to a single world, out of sight. The first book deals with the possibility of pogroms and genocidal plots against the Fants by others and revelations about the history of the Federation, in general, and the facts in particular.
In Moons, we pick up a few years after Graveyard, with the protagonist, Jorl, of the first book having grown a bit older and, possibly, a little wiser, but much of the emphasis in Moons is on Pizlo, who was a young child in Graveyard. He’ now an adolescent attempting to find a place in the world and with his abilities. He’s much more the focus of this book than Jorl (in my opinion) though Jorl is still a viewpoint character. In some ways, I find Jorl largely uninteresting. As a special sort of speaker, those members of the Federation who can recall the minds of the dead and communicate with them, he’s in most ways too powerful to be interesting. Pizlo is also a speaker and a pre-cognitive, but he’s young and deeply conflicted about his role in the universe and in fact society. Pizlo is a genetic outcast, meant to have been exposed and die at birth, because of the circumstances of his conception. As such, all members of fant society, with the exception of his mother, Jorl and, Jorl’s immediate family, pretend that Pizlo is invisible. If a confrontation is forced, it escalates. This is a radically alienating thing to a young man, growing up hated and unwanted, but knowing (due to the voices in his head that may just be his abilities) that he has some sort of role to play.
Where the first novel focused on the potential for violence and destruction towards the Fant from others, the second one has an exploration of violence from within Fant society, the kind of violence that clothes itself in necessity and “for the good of society.” Jorl and Pizlo both explore questions of Fant history and future in a universe that hates and despises them. What would members of Fant society do to protect it, from outsiders but also from other Fant who find out too much about Fant history and potentially secret activities of some to protect the denizens of Barsk, their planet of exile?
Overall, it was a fun read. I did not find it quite as engaging as Graveyard but I put much of that down to the first book having a high degree of uniqueness and being so unexpected. Moons is not badly written but I very much want to read the next book to see where it all winds up, assuming that this is a trilogy. The ideas of Graveyard continue to build and be developed, as do the characters, and the world expands in scope and depth as well. What will an adult Pizlo be like as he comes into his prime? Will Jorl ever figure out his own longterm place in helping the Fant, even from themselves? I look forward to finding out.