Barsk is an interesting story that rearranges some familiar sci-fi tropes in an interesting combination. (Think: Dune, but with elephants.) Its strengths are rich world-building, warm relationships, and vividly depicted alien cultures.
Unfortunately, however, a lot of the choices didn’t resonate with me. Anthropomorphic animals are just not my cup of tea as a general rule, for one. The blurring of sci-fi and fantasy using make-believe particles didn’t work for me either. In this case, human memory and personality was reducible to “nephshons” (unsure about the spelling, since I listened to the audiobook version) in a way that was eerily reminiscent of the infamous midichlorians of the Star Wars prequels.
The central mystery of the novel was also not very mysterious, and so the big reveal at the end prompted a reaction of, “Really? That’s it?” Yup, that was it. Sometimes I think I just read way, way too much sci-fi, and now it’s difficult to find much that surprises me.
I stayed engaged despite this because I found the main characters compelling and the writing strong. I still had a mostly favorable opinion of the book right up until the end. But then the resolution really let me down.
After uncovering a vast, ancient conspiracy the protagonist decides to join in on the conspiracy to keep the truth hidden from everybody. And that’s it. Now, if this had been a dark ending, then it could have been interesting, but the character was written as a conventional good guy. Right after defeating the two characters who are held up as object lessons in the dangers of absolutism and arrogance, he murders the last survivor of a once-great species that had been unjustly exterminated. Ok, calling it “murder” is perhaps blurring some metaphorical lines, but at a minimum he personally obliterates the last remnants and becomes an accessory to xenocide after the fact. This sort of retroactively obliterates all those warm fuzzies that had kept me engaged in the story.
In the end, Barsk strikes me as a well-written book with an interesting premise that unfortunately chose tropes I am just not interested in and then went with a fundamentally flawed resolution.