Review: The Barrow

By Mark Smylie

I must admit being a Smylie fanboy. I fell in love with the Artesia graphic novels back when I first encountered them—high medieval warfare in a magical and engrossing setting carefully built with ideas taken from (among other things) Greco-Roman religious cult practices and starring the ambitious daughter of a witch. What’s not to like? Not to mention the art—Smylie’s watercolors are truly a pleasure to behold and different from any other comic-style artwork I’ve seen.

I really cannot say enough good things about the setting that the Artesia and Stjepan Black-Heart (the arguable protagonist of The Barrow) stories take place in. It has everything extraordinary world-building should have: beautiful maps, a complex mythopoeia that provides a basis for the beliefs, superstitions and worldviews of the inhabitants (and even a guidebook to the historical, mythological and cultural in the setting), cultures influenced by historical Earth cultures that nevertheless stand on their own, magic and grit, grand, capital “E” Evil and shades of moral gray. I daresay that I prefer Smylie’s setting to Tolkien and Martin.

To boot, Smylie worked on a roleplaying game for the setting called Artesia: Adventures in the Known World (using the Fuzion System). It’s perhaps a little more rules-heavy than I prefer my RPGs to be, but written directly by the author and it captures the feel of his setting beautifully.

Did I mention that there’s an undertone of Lovecraftian horror? It’s in the existence of the Nameless Cults that worship forbidden gods (cf. Unaussprechliche Kulten or “Nameless Cults” in the Mythos), the chapter titled “Dreams in the Witch House” and the naming of the dead necromancer as Azharad (cf. “Abdul Alhazred,” Lovecrafts “mad arab”).

So, perhaps you should take my review with a grain of salt—there’s just so much in Smylie’s works that appeals to my personal tastes that I cannot help but be biased in his favor.

With that warning, I’m going to highly recommend The Barrow.

It is, in some ways, a classic fantasy story—the quest to recover the mythic sword Gladringer from the long-last barrow of the necromancer-king Azharad, who stole the blade from the “good guys” in centuries past. But the story goes well beyond the simplicity of “classic fantasy,” the members of the “fellowship” that seek this treasure are often at cross-purposes, forced together by circumstance and as likely to kill one another Hamlet-style as to actually succeed. This is, in many ways, a combination of the epic fantasy story with the “small stories” of personal victories and survival favored by post-modern fantasy.

There is much more going on than what the reader sees on the surface of the quest, and while epic dangers may exist in the novel, it is realpolitik that connects this story to the greater world more than the object of the quest itself. Life is cheap and bad things happen; even the highly-competent Stjepan (the sister of the eponymous Artesia, by the way) is out of his element or otherwise subject to the whims of fate at times.

Story aside, the book is very well-written, descriptive and poetic in places while avoiding the prosaic and matter-of-fact when that style best suits the narrative. I read this book rather than listening to it (I’ve been listening to Glen Cook’s Black Company novels at present, with a review forthcoming) and it reminded me of the pleasure of words in print. That said, there are some noticeable editing errors throughout, mostly improper pluralization, verb tense or a similar-sounding but incorrect word written in lieu of what was intended—all understandable writing mistakes, but ones that could have easily been fixed with another round of editing. Still, nothing that rendered a sentence inscrutable or that severely disrupted the flow of the words.

The characters are, for the most part, deeply drawn and well-nuanced, enjoyable to read about without all of them being likeable. Where characters are seemingly two-dimensional (the mad wizard Leigh comes to mind), their stereotypicality is used to good effect, whether humorous, metacommentary about the genre, or a twist on expectations.

I found the story’s ending to be masterful, the kind of skillful writing that leaves the reader somewhat surprised but satisfied with the logical progression of developments that lead to the resolution.

Readers should be warned, however, that the story does contain some graphic depictions of sex acts, some of them highly unpleasant. Mr. Smylie has commented on his website about the reasons he chose to include those scenes, and I find his argument persuasive. Our American society seems to be strangely at home with graphic ultra-violence and yet extremely perturbed by the depiction of sex, even when romantic, consensual and healthy. As I mentioned above, some of the sex in this book is quite unsettling, but not everything that happens to people in this world or any fantasy world is pleasant, and I didn’t find that any of the depictions were there for their own sake or merely for shock value—they made narrative sense, and much more than the too-oft used, “you know this guy’s a bad guy because he’s a sexual deviant.” In many ways, this book is focused on outsiders, on those who are, for various reasons, either at the very threshold of societal expectations or far away from them altogether. The sex in this book provides additional development of that theme.

If you check reviews on other websites, you’ll find that the book has received generally good reviews, but not necessarily review ratings as high as I’d expect. I think that the discomfort caused in some readers by the depictions of sex in the book are likely responsible for some of the lower ratings. That’s not really fair.

There is also graphic violence in the book, but since that doesn’t tend to offend like sex does, I don’t feel a need to address it.

Overall, if you are a fan of the fantasy genre, and in particular if you’re a fan of gritty fantasy (a la Martin or Cook), you really owe it to yourself to read this book. Smylie’s short story published in the collection Blackguards is also good, but should only be read after finishing The Barrow.

I eagerly await the next book in the series.

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