It isn’t too often that one finds a novel that has such a genuinely unique world built around it, but Barsk: The Elephant’s Graveyard by Lawrence M. Schoen is one such work.
Barsk to some readers familiar with uplifted or anthropomorphized animals may not be struck by any unique cords by reading the inside flap, but the effortless way that Schoen is able to enter into the POVs of the characters is what really separates this narrative from the rest.
We follow Jorl, a “fant”(elephant) historian, on the planet of Barsk. The Fant are an extremely discriminated against by the rest of the animal kingdom. They are more than happy to allow the Fant to reside on their single planet, on the grounds that they continue to produce a drug named “koph”. With the aid of this drug, certain individuals can recall the dead and speak to them, they are otherwise known as Speakers.
Jorl, who is also a Speaker, becomes embroiled in a plot to uncover the recipe for koph and unveil a secret that should have stayed buried. The revelations from the secret could overturn the entire balance of power and place Barsk on the brink of annihilation.
Despite these rather grand stakes, Schoen’s narrative remains one that is quieter and relies on humbler characters to move the plot, which in a way subverts certain genre tropes. Part fantasy, part science fiction and even part mystery, Schoen has fashioned a complex and even with animal protagonists a very human story. Juggling the complex politics of planets who struggle for resources and various species of animals that all struggle with one another for seemingly petty reasons, all cast a light on our own human interactions.
Barsk is a treat to any reader who wishes for a truly unique world and a story that epitomizes the “everyman” character.