Barsk: The Elephants' Graveyard
by Lawrence M. Schoen
Cover Artist: Victo Ngai
Review by Colleen Cahill
Tor Books Kindle Edition ISBN/ITEM#: B00Y7RWXDE
Date: 29 December 2015 List Price $12.99 Amazon US / Amazon UK
Science fiction can focus on several tropes, such as space travel, alien worlds and elephants. Okay, I admit the last one is rare, but it is key to a stunning new work by Lawrence M. Schoen from Tor Books. Barsk: The Elephant's Graveyard is a tale peopled with intelligence animals and a hunt to find the secrets of the drug koph, which allows those with a rare ability to speak with the dead. Koph can only be found on the planet Barsk, a tropical world of the Fants or what we would call elephants. Now the Alliance government wants to learn how to make koph, even if it means genocide for the pachyderms.
The book opens with an elderly Fant sailing off on his final rite of passage. His trip is interrupted when he is picked up by an Alliance ship, where he is one of many Fants who were captured while sailing to the elephant's graveyard. A hint of what is happening is uncovered by Jorl when he cannot reach any recently departed Fants. He fears a prophecy might be coming true: "When the dead will not answer, the Silence is at hand, and the fate of all Barsk will soon hang in the balance." A historian by training, Jorl has just been marked with an aleph, making him a distinguished person in Fant society who can go anywhere and request anything. This makes the second part of the prophecy of key interest to him: "The newest Aleph must do what has never been done though it is almost always done." Jorl fears a major crisis is coming and he is at its center.
This is not Jorl's only concern. He is attempting to educate Pizlo, the son of his best friend who committed suicide several years ago. Pizlo faces several challenges: not only does he have albinism and no pain receptors, but "his existence is violation of Fant culture". A very bright seven year old, Pizlo is also somewhat a wild child and is not upset that only his mother and Jorl acknowledge his existence, as he can hear the plants, the wildlife, and even the moons of Barsk speak to him. Little does Jorl know that Pizlo will be an important part of solving the riddle of the Silence.
While Jorl tries to discover what has happened to those Fants who left for their last journey, the Alliance has also in been motion. Not only have the military been kidnapping elderly Fants, they have taken a hedonistic otter named Lirlowil and changed her status from Citizen to Resource as she is not only a Speaker, she can also read minds. Taken from a world of privilege and decadence, she is now locked in a room and instructed to speak with dead Fants and find what they know of koph. Most animals looked down on Fants and Lirlowil is not different, although she is coming to hate them with a passion as she calls up several of their dead. She makes a big breakthrough when she calls up Margda, the first person to ever be a Speaker and who made the prophecy that worries Jorl. Bringing back a dead Speaker is one of three forbidden acts and Lirlowil discovers why when Margda decides to take over the otter's body and proceed with some unknown plan.
At this point you might wonder why this story needs to be about elephants, otters, and other intelligent animals: couldn't the same tale be told with humans? The different species all have elements similar to the animals we know, such as badgers who are aggressive and do "everything with sharp, quick movements" or the otters who live for play. This causes some tension between the different groups, and adds an atmosphere to the book you would not get from a human cast. Also, all the other species dislike the Fants, complaining they are ugly and have no fur. Only a few in the Alliance government know why the Fants are so despised and why all Fants were moved to the planet Barsk 800 years ago, isolating them from the rest of intelligent life. The secret is not only what Jorl needs to save his people, but it that will change your understanding of this universe.
Barsk is a compelling book that deals with so many points, it would be hard to list them all here. Of key importance is this is a great read and a story that will take you places this review has only hinted at. And I will admit I have a selfish reason for you to all go buy Barsk -- if you do then next book will be released that much sooner and I definitely want more of this universe.