The Barrow: Will have you by the teeth

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At first glance at the cover and blurb for Mark Smylie’s prose debut The Barrow, you’ll notice that something sets it apart from a significant portion of recent fantasy. There are no warring states, no fight for the throne. There is no greater evil or battle between light and dark. The Barrow, at its heart, is a treasure hunt — an adventure. Sure, it’s got fae and curses, a band of anti-heroes, and a very Dungeons & Dragons-esque feel, but it didn’t feel like the kind of bland story you might expect.

Stjepan Black-Heart and his crew have found a map that will supposedly lead them to an ancient barrow, where they hope to find an equally ancient sword worth an unimaginable sum of money. Among Black-Heart’s crew are Erim, a woman disguised as a man, a very sly brothel owned by the name of Gilgwyr, the archetypal mad magician Leigh, mercenary and all-around bastard Godewyn Red-Hand, and the Orwain siblings Arduin and Annwyn, whose family’s reputation lies in ruins thanks to the latter’s scandal. The characters all fill their roles remarkably well for what they are, though several of them aren’t what they seem as is revealed by the politicking and continually unexpected twists that Smylie has created. They weren’t necessarily characters to write home about, but they fit the story.

Though the nicknames like Black-Heart and Red-Hand are pulpy and stereotypical, they’re part of an incredibly detailed world. The Barrow contains one of the most well-drawn and vivid worlds that I’ve read recently, though it wasn’t without its issues. Sometimes the story was bogged down by superfluous names. As soon as I began the prologue, names were dropped left and right — “War of the Throne Thief,” “The Sun Court”, you get the picture. Everything has a name. The bakery that a character briefly stopped at? Name. Any book the mad magician or Black-Heart consult? Name. That tree over there? You bet, it’s got a name. After finishing the prologue, I thought to myself, “Surely this book would benefit from some kind of glossary…” as I flipped to the back of the book and found just that. It was very helpful in understanding the world and its history. I think the previous wars and other historical events were important for the worldbuilding, but the names of stores the gang passes by are irrelevant and do more harm than help.

Skim through the reviews for The Barrow and you’ll see a large division between those who liked it and those who didn’t. In fact, the majority of negative reviews you’ll read come from people who were uncomfortable with the graphic detail of the (very) erotic and bizarre sex scenes. Many also share my feeling that there was a bit too much irrelevant information to digest, but the majority of said poor ratings were based on the over-the-top sex. The thing is, most of the violence and sex served a purpose. Sure, it did get pretty weird, but they weren’t tossed in the book simply for the edginess.

If you like your fantasy dark, your characters darker, and your worlds deep (dark) and full of terrors, Mark Smylie’s debut The Barrow will have you by the teeth by the end of one of the most exciting prologues I’ve read, and it will hold on all the way through the equally impressive finale.

Publication Date: March 4, 2014. Action, horror, politics, and sensuality combine in this DEBUT EPIC FANTASY novel for fans of George R. R. Martin and Michael J. Sullivan, set in the world of the Eisner Award-nominated Artesia comic books. To find the Sword, unearth the Barrow. To unearth the Barrow, follow the Map. When a small crew of scoundrels, would-be heroes, deviants, and ruffians discover a map that they believe will lead them to a fabled sword buried in the barrow of a long-dead wizard, they think they’ve struck it rich. But their hopes are dashed when the map turns out to be cursed and then is destroyed in a magical ritual. The loss of the map leaves them dreaming of what might have been, until they rediscover the map in a most unusual and unexpected place. Stjepan Black-Heart, suspected murderer and renegade royal cartographer; Erim, a young woman masquerading as a man; Gilgwyr, brothel owner extraordinaire; Leigh, an exiled magus under an ignominious cloud; Godewyn Red-Hand, mercenary and troublemaker; Arduin Orwain, scion of a noble family brought low by scandal; and Arduin’s sister Annwyn, the beautiful cause of that scandal: together they form a cross section of the Middle Kingdoms of the Known World, united by accident and dark design, on a quest that will either get them all in the history books…or get them all killed.

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Patrick Doherty, one of our beloved GUEST REVIEWERS, has been addicted to fantasy since he read his first Dragonlance novel when he was fifteen, and the addiction has expanded into most Speculative Fiction in the past few years. When not reading, Pat is probably either watching or playing sports and is a huge Boston sports fan. His favorite authors include Adrian Tchaikovsky, George R.R. Martin, Steven Erikson, and David Gemmell. Pat keeps a blog at A Bitter Draft.

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  1. You were the perfect reader for this book! I was not. I didn’t get much past the prologue, mostly because of the very thing you mentioned; endless naming and nuggets of info that didn’t, for me, move the story forward. I may give it a second try, though, after reading your review.

  2. I was not a fan either but I did get a couple of chapters in before I quit. However I’ve read a few reviews that assure me that the ending is worth the effort. I may try it again myself someday.

  3. Rob Rhodes /

    Read this in 2014 and just reread it, and it’s clearly one of the best D&D-style quest novels I can think of. Yes, it’s bloody, dark, and graphically and disturbingly sexual at points. On the sex issue, I wouldn’t say the sex scenes are gratuitous, but a couple are longer and more detailed than they “need” to be. The numerous, historical details can also be cumbersome, but at the same time, they add up to a vividly imagined world, with a tremendous sense of depth. The plot is gripping; the characters are fresh spins on their archetypes; and the result is a fantastic, dark, whirlwind of a dream. Like so many books referenced by its characters, this book should be “forbidden” to anyone under 21, but it’s a bold revision of the exhausted quest tale–for a magic sword, no less. Eagerly awaiting the next books.

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