The Barrow review

Monday, October 20, 2014


The Barrow is the first novel by author Mark Smylie, who's also the author and illustrator behind the comic book series, Artesia. The main character for The Barrow, Stjepan Black-Heart is the brother of the heroine of Smylie's comics and namesake of his series, Artesia. The book is a stand-alone but with an ending clearly leaving an opening for a follow-up.
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, brought together by accident and dark design, on a quest that will either get them all in the history books, or get them all killed.
The Barrow starts with a bang.  As the synopsis mentions, we follow Erim, a young woman full of doubts about herself but trying to find work within a team of some respect, pretending to be a man who was recruited to help in the unearthing of an unknown relic, the aforementioned map, with a motley collection of tomb robbers. Imagine Indiana Jones in a medieval Fantasy setting. A great and intense prologue forging great expectations for things to come.

Right after that adrenaline rush, we are introduced with the other two main protagonists, Stjepan Black-Heart, an Athairi (human mixed with the blood of Fae) who's much more than a simple cartographer and Gilgwyr, the owner of a brothel or I should say a house of particularly twisted entertainment. They will be the characters of utmost importance to the tale and in Stjepan's case, the most interesting one, even when seen through the eyes of the more banal Erim. Tagging along and interwoven sparingly within the narrative, are Annwyn, a dashing women who's falling out from the nobility and serve a strange new purpose and Leigh Myradim, a mad and exiled sorcerer making a vengeful comeback. Quite the colorful cast on paper.

In coming together, the group has to go through forbidden libraries and dark magic, sex rituals planning and evade a mob trying to lynch them for murder while they sit in Annwyn's brother manor. When the dust has settled and the group finally safely take hold of the map they went to such trouble to catch hold of, they depart on a journey that will take them through all of the Middle Kingdoms. From that point, up until the arrival at the barrow where lies the sword they are looking for, the pace becomes more erratic and a pattern of slow going and rather monotonous events forms up between action sequences, some inspired dialogues and mostly a discovery journey with frequent info-dumps for Erim.

Mark Smylie's previous career can clearly be seen as an influence in his writing (even if he was already a writer working within another canvas). The illustrator in him stands out when he starts describing in details, mostly so for the clothing of his characters. I don't think I ever read something so vivid ''portrayal-wise". However, there's a small drawback to this and it all comes down to dosing. While it's a first full length novel for him, there are slightly too much of it but nothing to make you pull out from the plot.

On a different note, another aspect of the author's writing stands out. I'm not a prude reader but as John R. Fultz's quote on the cover of the book mentions: "Genuinely inspired, shockingly erotic, and completely fantastic... It is bloody beautiful.".  The erotic part is quite right.  There's a lot of sex or sex related scenes or references.  I wasn't offended and it reflects reality more than we're used to in this type of Epic/adventurous Fantasy but still, I felt it was a bit much and not that helpful in moving the plot forward, at least for my personal taste.

Even if the setting is ultimately truly medieval with a significant touch of magic, there is great world-building to be found in The Barrow with much, much lore. I have to admit I was really drawn in by Smylie creation. That set-up alone isn't enough to create a great novel but it's an excellent basis. His experience in Artesia is clearly showing, for the better, aside from Stjepan lecturing Erim.

When the barrow finally present itself as a setting for the crew falling action and denouement, the surprises and betrayals finally add a layer of complexity to the plot and that was much needed to keep the main protagonists compelling. The ending, while the novel could remain a stand-alone book, is a nice opener for a future story of grander proportion.

There you have it.  The Barrow is a fair debut with a great background for Smylie to work with. However, the quality of the story isn't consistent and some elements could use some work. It's a novel worth picking up for a large specter of Fantasy readers, not simply the gritty and grimy crowd. It's not a mesmerizing novel but it's an entertaining one.

Cover: The Pyr cover by Gene Mollica isn't bad for a photo-realistic cover but has a feel of too-serious for its own good...
Release date: March 4th 2014
Map: Indeed, more than one and by the authors himself!
Number of pages: 587 (trade edition)
Acquisition method: courtesy of Pyr
Other: Maps, maps, maps and a glossary

I liked...Was disappointed by...
The hero Stjepan (however you pronounce that..)The uneven middle of the book
The world-buildingThe info-dumping cruise around the world for the bland Erim
A dose of the detailed clothing descriptionsThe amount of erotic parts
The prologue and the ending


The Barrow review rating :

A Round of Covers

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Gather around fellow readers and enjoy or despise the mightily beautiful and... dubious choices of covers in this round!

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First up is the cover for Tom Lloyd's Old Man's Ghosts, the second book in the Empire of a Hundred Houses series, follow-up to Moon's Artifice (which I still have to pick up soon!!!). That cover looks awesome!


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Another great new cover art unveiled recently is for Daniel Polansky's Those Above, first book in the Empty Throne series.


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Next is the cover for Brian Staveley's second book, The Providence of Fire (follow-up to The Emperor's Blades in the Chronicle of the Unhewn Throne series). This is the UK cover art (the US one is posted below). Both covers look nice but I prefer the US one. What about you?



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Brandon Sanderson's covers for the UK, be it for his Mistborn, Reckoners or Stormlight Archives series, have all been illustrated with the same original style. Firefight is now one of them. Not bad.


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Trial of Intentions, the Vault of Heaven second book (after The Unremembered) has been a long time in coming but the cover is now unveiled. It's less interesting that the amazing Kotaki cover for the first book and I didn't find who's the artist for this one...


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Finally for this round.... Peter V. Brett novella Messenger's Legacy. Is it just me or.... ouch!


R. Scott Bakker's Second apocalypse short and update

Thursday, October 2, 2014


R. Scott Bakker posted an update about the editing of the last novel of the Second Apocalypse series and second trilogy, The Aspect Emperor, titled The Unholy Consult. Sadly for avid readers waiting patiently for the novel : 
 I’ve received feedback from several readers now, but nothing officially editorial. I’m in the process of cleaning up the issues emerging from the feedback I’ve received now.
Hopefully, we may read more from the world of history of Earwa with a short story Bakker wrote called The Knife of Many Hands that will be published in the Grimdark Magazine in a near future (split into two parts). We don't know if that future will be before the final opus but it looks like it.  What is it about you ask?
[...] a short-story set in Carythusal on the eve of the Scholastic Wars.
Sounds interesting don't you think?



October releases

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

October 2014 isn't the biggest month in term of Fantasy releases and my spolight list seems quite short. But it's all quality!

Also, The Scarlet Tides, book 2 of the Moontide Quartet by David Hair is released this month (on October 7th) in the US.

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The Dark Defiles
Land Fit for Heroes book 3
Richard Morgan
October 7th
Ringil Eskiath, a reluctant hero viewed as a corrupt degenerate by the very people who demand his help, has traveled far in search of the Illwrack Changeling, a deathless human sorcerer-warrior raised by the bloodthirsty Aldrain, former rulers of the world. Separated from his companions—Egar the Dragonbane and Archeth—Ringil risks his soul to master a deadly magic that alone can challenge the might of the Changeling. While Archeth and the Dragonbane embark on a trail of blood and tears that ends up exposing long-buried secrets, Ringil finds himself tested as never before, with his life and all existence hanging in the balance.
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The Free
Brian Ruckley
October 14th
From the bestselling author of Winterbirth comes a magnificent new epic fantasy about The Free - the most feared and revered band of mercenaries the kingdom has ever known . . .
They are the most feared mercenary company the kingdom has ever known. 
Led by Yulan, their charismatic captain, the Free have spent years selling their martial and magical skills to the highest bidder - winning countless victories that shook the foundations of the world. Now they finally plan to lay down their swords. 
Yet when Yulan is offered a final contract, he cannot refuse - for the mission offers him the chance to erase the memories of the Free's darkest hour, which have haunted him for years. 
As The Free embark on their last mission, a potent mix of loyalty and vengeance is building to a storm. Freedom, it seems, carries a deadly price.
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The Slow Regard of Silent Things
Patrick Rothfuss
October 28th
Deep below the University, there is a dark place. Few people know of it: a broken web of ancient passageways and abandoned rooms. A young woman lives there, tucked among the sprawling tunnels of the Underthing, snug in the heart of this forgotten place. 
Her name is Auri, and she is full of mysteries. 
The Slow Regard of Silent Things is a brief, bittersweet glimpse of Auri’s life, a small adventure all her own. At once joyous and haunting, this story offers a chance to see the world through Auri’s eyes. And it gives the reader a chance to learn things that only Auri knows....

New poll - Publishers

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

The hiatus on the polls is over. But as always, before I tackle the new one, let's return to my last interrogation in my non-scientific search for the complete description of the typical Fantasy reader and to its results. I asked you fellow readers two questions:

Do you like battles in Fantasy?

and

The more detailed the better?

The idea behind these two questions came to mind after I read the insightful guest post Grieftongue, written by Jeff Salyards (that you can find on the blog).  He mentioned in his text that he knew that some readers (dare I say Fantasy readers?) don't like battles. While I agree that it was certainly the case, I thought that it must be a minority in the Fantasy readers crowd.  And the results are in.

96% of readers answering my poll like battles in Fantasy and 79% of them think that the more detailed the better. So, it can be concluded that Mr. Salyards is hitting the bullseye when he so deftly describe a battle in his books. Don't forget though that I focus on Epic Fantasy...

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Next up is the publishers!

For  the first several years of Fantasy reading I indulged in, I didn't really care about the publishing houses behind the books I picked up. Even when I began blogging in 2009, that was the last of my concern.  But eventually, I tended to favor some publishers over the others, without putting real thoughts behind it.  And then the ARCs began coming my way and I got a better understanding of the nature of most of them.

The Fantasy genre has a great number of publishers investing into it but some of them clearly stand out from the crowd, be it for the sheer number of novels they print or for the quality of the authors they sign and the editors they employ.

While browsing the web for a complete list of them, I stumbled into an interesting one from Worlds Without End. This isn't a list strictly for Fantasy publishers (there isn't that many who focus only on the particular genre) but for Fantasy, Sci-Fi and Horror. The top list is based on the awards the books they publish received and the number they won. Anyway, I'm not here to talk about awards and judging from the connection we can make between the number of books and authors and the wins, there's no big surprises except that Gollancz clearly stand out.

Here's the top 20:

Gollancz
Tor
Ace Books
Bantam Spectra
Orbit
William Morrow & Co.
Doubleday
Ballantine Books
Bantam UK
Ballantine Del Rey
Del Rey
HarperCollins
HarperCollins/Voyager
DAW Books
St. Martin's Press
HarperCollins UK
Eos
Pyr
Roc
Timescape Books

Night Shade books could have been on the top 20 if it hasn't been for their misfortune. Here's the link for the complete list.

A comparison could probably be made with the movie studios or the recording companies.  For these two industries, I dodn't care much about the company behind the works and when I think about it, I'm more interested in the book and gaming publishers.

It would be though to point out a favorite and Tor is clearly more present on my shelves. However, I admit that I always had something for them, Orbit books, Gollancz and Pyr more recently. Feel free to comment about the publishers you care about (or the ones you might despise).

And now, for my poll question:

Is the publisher of a book influencing your acquisitions?
- Yes
- No

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