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's 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 spectrum 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 :


Bob/Sally said...

I had a lot of fun with this. To me, it was almost an extension of what Andy Remic began with The Iron Wolves, offering up a more mature sort of epic fantasy, one that reaches deep into the genre's pulp sword-and-sorcery roots, but which refuses to hold back on the sex and the violence. It certainly contains elements of grimdark and anti-heroes, but it chooses to smirk rather than scowl along with the reader.

I am most definitely hoping there's a sequel on the way soon.

Phil said...

Hey bob!

The sequel, Black-Heart is scheduled for 2015.

Your analysis and comparison are interesting. I think I should have talked about the tone as you're right, the grittier elements are taken on too seriously in some instances.

Anonymous said...

Hi, regarding the pronunciation of Stjepan's name - written in phonetic transcription, it should be like this: /ˈstjepʌn/. I know because that's a common name in my country. :)

Phil said...

@Anon: Thanks for the info. What's your country?

Anonymous said...

@Phil: No problem, I find it interesting that Mark Smylie chose this name for a character in his novel...

I'm from Croatia, EU. ;)

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