Book Review: Barsk: The Elephants’ Graveyard by Lawrence M. Schoen + GIVEAWAY!

***The giveaway is now over, thanks to everyone who entered!***

A review copy was provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review. All opinions are my own.

BarskBarsk: The Elephants’ Graveyard by Lawrence M. Schoen

Genre: Science Fiction

Series: Stand Alone

Publisher: Tor (12/29/15)

Author Information: Website | Twitter

Mogsy’s Rating: 4 of 5 stars

We’re just about nearing the end of the year, but apparently 2015 had one last big surprise for me. It came in the form of Barsk: The Elephants’ Graveyard by Lawrence M. Schoen.

I confess, I had absolutely no idea what to expect when I started this book because I dove in blind, and that’s actually the way I wanted it. When I first looked upon this novel in my hands, I was struck by this feeling that the less I knew about it, the more I would enjoy the experience. So I swore off reading any previews or early reviews and simply let go. I wanted this story to take me where it would.

Well, what an amazing adventure it turned out to be! Barsk was a mysterious and captivating journey from the very first page to the last, featuring a puzzle that begins with the novel’s title itself. According to a well-known myth, an elephants’ graveyard is a place where aged and dying elephants instinctively know to go when they reach the end of their days. There, they stay until they die, alone and far away from the herd.

This is how the story begins, in a distant future where humans have long since died out. Instead, walking talking anthropomorphic animal species dominate the galaxy. On an isolated planet named Barsk, a Fant named Rüsul receives a message in a dream telling him that his time is near, and that he should start making his way to an island whose location is only revealed to the Dying. Fant are a humanoid sapient race, but their features resemble those of an elephant—grey and furless skin, big flapping ears, and the distinctive long trunk. They’re also a species with deep-rooted cultural values, and they prefer to keep to themselves. The only contact Barsk has with the rest of the Alliance is through the trade of specialized pharmaceuticals developed and manufactured by the Fant.

The most desirable of these is koph, a drug that allows gifted individuals called Speakers to summon and interact with the dead. Meanwhile, a shadowy faction in the Alliance government wants control of koph for themselves and are willing to destroy Barsk and all its inhabitants in order to learn how to manufacture the drug. They begin kidnapping dying Fant on their way to the final island, disrupting the natural order of their lifecycle. A Fant Speaker named Jorl notices these disturbances, but gets captured himself when he goes to investigate, becoming the linchpin in the enemy’s grand scheme. He is subsequently blackmailed into Speaking with his dead friend Arlo, a koph researcher who committed suicide years ago to protect an earthshattering secret.

Barsk: The Elephants’ Graveyard is a novel that is unique in so many ways, I don’t even know where to start. I suppose a good place would be the setting, a galaxy home to not just Fant, but also dozens of other alien races referred to by the common names of the animals they resemble as well as an adapted form of their Latin genus, like the Ailuros (Giant Panda), Bos (Yak), Cans (Domestic Dog), Brady (Three-toed Sloth), Cynomy (Prairie Dog), Lutr (Otter), Taxi (Badger), Urs (Bear), and many, many more. It’s a veritable zoo of different species, and the appendix in the back of the book implies there are even more races beyond the ones that appear in Barsk. Schoen brings these anthropomorphic beings to life using a very interesting approach, making them speak and behave like humans while also giving them their respective animal traits. For example, the Brady are an even-tempered species that likes to take things slow and steady, while the Lutr are more excitable and move about with agile grace. In a sense, characters are given the impression of being alien but also familiar, making it easier to connect with them.

Barsk is also a science geek’s dream, touching upon a number of different disciplines and bringing their philosophies together. One of the central themes of this book is the question of Instinct vs. Learned Behavior, and the development of culture and social norms. It’s worth noting that all the species of the Alliance look down on the Fant, discriminating them for their lack of fur and overall unusual appearance. Fant themselves are highly reclusive, having negotiated a Compact hundreds of years ago that would forbid visitors from ever setting foot on their planet. The relationship between Barsk and the rest of the galaxy plays a vital role in the way things play out, not to mention it also highlights the sheer ingenuity behind the world-building as it relates to our own understanding of sociobiology.

I was simply in awe at how well everything came together in the end. Barsk is a strange book indeed, but it was weird in a wonderful, unexpected way that really appealed to me, due in part to the creative handling of the science fiction elements. A few sections involved very abstract concepts, but it was smooth sailing thanks to Schoen’s easy yet expressive style. This is a story that enticed me, pulled me in and kept me enthralled until I reached its conclusion. If you’re looking for a sci-fi novel that’s truly innovative and different, I highly recommend picking this up.

4 stars

*** Originally reviewed at The Speculative Herald ***

* * *



Interested in winning a copy of this book? Tor Books has very generously offered The BiblioSanctum an opportunity to host a giveaway for one print copy of Barsk: The Elephants’ Graveyard by Lawrence M. Schoen. This giveaway is open to residents in the US and Canada. To enter, all you have to do is send an email to with your Name and valid Mailing Address using the subject line “BARSK” by 11:59pm Eastern time on Friday, January 8, 2016. 

Only one entry per household, please. The winner will be randomly selected when the giveaway ends and then be notified by email. All information will only be used for the purposes of contacting the winner and sending them their prize. Once the giveaway ends all entry emails will be deleted.

So what are you waiting for? Enter to win! Good luck!


20 Comments on “Book Review: Barsk: The Elephants’ Graveyard by Lawrence M. Schoen + GIVEAWAY!

  1. Definitely entering this giveaway:-) I can’t wait to read this. It sounds so weird, almost too weird for me, and I’ve read and enjoyed some WEIRD books, but as long as it worked for you, I’m pretty sure I’ll love it. Plus I live the way the author uses the Latin roots of animal species to name his animals.


    • I think your tolerance for weirdness is higher than mine, so if it wasn’t too weird for me, it definitely wouldn’t be too weird for you 🙂


    • I was pleasantly surprised by it, hopefully you would be too. I know you wanted to check out more “out of your comfort zone” reads this year 🙂


  2. Yep, it was the science geek’s dream that sold me on this one: Instinct vs. Learned Behavior? Development of culture and social norms? I squeed XD

    Also, the elephant graveyard was something I hadn’t thought about since elementary school, but I remember thinking that was the most fascinating thing at the time.


    • Haha, I thought I was the only geek interested in those topics! I’m a huge sucker for anything related to behavioral science and cultural studies. My anthro and bio background! 🙂


  3. Pingback: Mogsy’s Bookshelf Roundup: Stacking the Shelves & Recent Reads | The BiblioSanctum

  4. Pingback: Interview with Lawrence M. Schoen, Author of Barsk: The Elephants’ Graveyard | The BiblioSanctum

  5. Pingback: Barsk: The Elephants’ Graveyard | Science Book a Day

  6. Hi, I’m trying something new with my book reviews where I link to other reviews from book bloggers for a given book. I just posted my review of Barsk and wanted to let you know I linked your review!

    I agree with basically everything in your review. And I actually just learned from it that the Elephant Graveyard was a legend before the book. I had attributed it to Schoen’s imagination. Oh well, it’s still an incredibly creative book. 🙂

    If you’d prefer I remove the link I’ll of course be happy to.


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