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.