The Barrow – Mark Smylie

About the Book

Action, horror, politics, and sensuality combine in this stand-alone fantasy novel with series potential. Set in the world of the Eisner-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, 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.

613 pages (paperback)
Published on March 4, 2014
Published by Pyr
Author’s webpage

This book was sent for me to review by the publisher.

The Barrow, my lovelies, is one hell of a book.

First things first, if you aren’t comfortable with incredibly graphic sex and violence, along with some incredible adult language, you might not want to try this book. This isn’t a PG 13 read. If you don’t mind a book that lacks a little bit of a filter, than give this one a go. If you are easily offended, then you’ll probably want to pass on The Barrow.

Now, to the real juice of the review.

The Barrow is a book that I didn’t expect to enjoy at first. The back cover blurb looked a bit like an Indiana Jones and Dungeons and Dragons mash up. While I enjoy my D&D, I’m kind of past the point where reading D&D books appeals to me. And, shoot me if you want, but I really don’t like Indiana Jones.

It takes about three paragraphs for a reader to realize that this isn’t Indiana Jones, and if it is anything like D&D, it is D&D on steroids. Smylie takes the action/adventure/quest plot line that makes fantasy so great, and really ups the ante. He infuses The Barrow with emotion, tension, and suspense.

But the thing that really makes this book stand out to me is the epic, incredibly impressive, and very noteworthy world building. You know, I sat down to read this book, I expected something a lot different from what it ended up being, and perhaps the area that really surprised me the most was the world building. Readers will almost get a Steven Erikson sort of depth and detail, as well as diversity to the world. There is no surface level here. This world has been battered, burned, and beaten, and the people that inhabit it are just as interesting and diverse as you’d expect.

The thing is, The Barrow is sprawling, and I didn’t really expect that from the back cover blurb. The scope is absolutely epic, and while the main plot centers on a quest of some sort, there is so much that happens in the sidelines, and in the background. But nothing is really cheaply done. Smylie seemed to see what the typical dark, graphic fantasy book contains, and took a left turn almost constantly. You won’t encounter any cheap tricks, or any graphic content that doesn’t really have a purpose. The really impressive thing is, every bit of this novel goes into building one of the most incredible worlds I’ve run into in a long time, as well as developing characters and furthering the plot.

As for the characters, they are all somehow broken or imperfect, which speaks volumes to this heart that finds Special Needs in Strange Worlds so important. There are many ways to be broken and even more ways to be imperfect, but Smylie makes these characters shine, and their imperfections are what makes them memorable and strong. Perhaps the more incredible thing is how Smylie makes all of the voices so unique and individual, and how he weaves all of these diverse stories together to make this quest so much more powerful.

The plot moves fast and sucks you in almost immediately. I keep throwing around the word “quest” which, I think, probably makes the plot seem a bit surface level, but that couldn’t be any further from the truth. The Barrow is shockingly complex, full of family drama, political drama, and plenty of self-discovery. All of this, along with the main plot, really makes The Barrow a novel that is just as deep as it is exciting.

Somehow, some way, Smylie did the incredible. He made all of the book’s flaws its many incredible strengths, and that’s what makes The Barrow so wonderful. This novel is intense, and gritty, and uncomfortable, and full of blood, cursing, and sex, with characters that are both wonderful and disgusting in the same breath. It is a book with an epic, well-realized, fantastic world so beautifully done, but also just as broken and battered as the people who inhabit it. The Barrow is a book of contrasts, and it is those contrasts that make me love it so much. Flawed, yet beautiful. The Barrow will probably go on my 2014 favorites list. It hit all the right notes.


5/5 stars


5 Responses

  • Muhahaha. One more joins me in singing the praises of the best debut in recent memory. SO much deeper than expected, I have visions of forums debating some of the finer points (while others jump in asking ‘what the hell we are raving about, all I saw was dongs and graphic sex). I hope this one takes off like it should, I can’t stop raving about it everywhere and it is all I can do to not just stop everything and read it all over again..

    I have an ARC and a finish copy, and will still probably buy an e-book when the next one comes out so I can read it again even faster!

    PS. I love this book.

  • That is some high praise. I’ll admit you really caught my attention comparing the world building to Erikson. I really didn’t have much interest in it before, but between the little blurb you gave it a few days ago and now this 5/5 review, I think I now HAVE to try this!

  • Thanks, Sarah.

    Have you ever read ARTESIA?

  • welll…. WOW! guess I better give this one a shot!

  • I’m not quite the cheerleader for this that Nathan is, but it was pretty entertaining. (To be fair, I’m not quite the cheerleader for fantasy as a genre that Nathan is, so judge that accordingly.) I was most impressed, and surprised, by the way Smylie took fantasy convention and turned it into more of a theme and variations, rather than just derivative slop. In fact, The Barrow almost convinces me to read the Artesia comic series, something I would never have done otherwise.

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