The Barrow – The Barrow #1 – Mark Smylie
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.
‘The Barrow’ is an epic fantasy adventure, set in the world of the Artesia comic books, by the same author and illustrator, Mark Smylie. For those of you who are familiar with the Artesia comic books, ‘The Barrow’ follow Artesia’s brother, Stjepan, on a dangerous quest to retrieve a fabled sword from the tomb of notorious Demon King. The story is some sort of prequel to the Artesia comic books and is as such accessible for new readers. If you don’t know anything about the comic books, as I did when I first started this book, you’ll have no trouble following or enjoying the story at all. Artesia herself only makes a few brief appearances in this novel, but if I’ve heard correctly, we’ll learn more about her in the sequel to ‘The Barrow’.
First I’d like to warn people who are not familiar with the comic books and who are interested in picking this book up. This is a book that doesn’t shy away from anything. There is crude language, extreme, bloody violence, death all around and some very explicit and disturbing sex scenes and sexual references. I for one was not put off by this, though it made me feel slightly uncomfortable at times. It fit the story and somehow didn’t feel ‘wrong’ in the context of the book. But I’m pretty sure some people won’t want to read stuff like this and if you know that you are opposed to the things I mentioned above, than I don’t think this book is for you unfortunately.
The prologue that Smylie wrote for The Barrow is one of the best I’ve read in ages. In many ways it’s a story in itself that paves the way for the rest of the book. We meet Stjepan Black-Heart, Erim, Harvald and Gilgwyr, who, together with a band of thieves and criminals, are breaking in to a temple of the Nameless cult and stealing the gold and – more importantly – a map to The Barrow. You might have guessed, ‘breaking in to a temple of the Nameless cult’ sounds pretty dangerous and it is. Prepare for your first introduction to Smylie’s thrilling action scenes and the horror of some of the creatures he has inhabited this intriguing world with.
From there on follows a very extensive and intricate quest-like adventure where the surviving members of the gang first try to make sense of the map and then try to locate the Barrow. It would be too easy if the map just plainly led them to the Barrow, wouldn’t it? Off course it’s cursed. In a thrilling series of events the map is destroyed and it looks like everyone who had hopes of becoming rich when finding Azharad’s Barrow has to go back to their daily occupations. But then the map shows up somewhere no one had expected to find it. It brings with it some complications but the quest is back on and they all set out to find the Barrow and the sword.
I have to applaud the world building here, it was magnificently done. It might be a bit confusing and overwhelming at times, but it’s extremely interesting when one of the characters tells you something more about the history of the Known World. It gives the story a lot more context, especially since not all the characters are from the same part of the country or the same race. I’m always interested to know more about a certain culture’s history, their customs and their religion. Traveling through the lands of the Known World we get to know more and more about all these things, which delighted me.
Smylie has chosen a varied cast of characters for his story. I think it’s safe to say that the most important one is Stjepan Black-Heart, a royal cartographer with more than one obscure side-job. He’s both cruel, stone-hearted and solitary, but sometimes you can see a glimpse of a more caring, softer person deep inside. He met Gilgwyr and Harvald at the University, which teaches next to the more ordinary things also magic, and they are all in on this scheme to steal the sword from the Barrow. Gilgwyr owns a brothel and is one sick bastard. Seriously, get ready for some perverted thoughts and some weird stuff when you read from his point of view. Harvald is the son of a once rich and noble family that has fallen from grace due to his sister’s escapades. Harvald seems like a clever, sane person, but looks can deceive. Erim is a young girl that disguises as a boy and she is Stjepan’s protégé. She’s fierce, a skilled fighter and very loyal, though she is in a constant internal struggle over her own thoughts and virtue. Arduin and Annwyn are Harvald’s siblings. Arduin is every bit the image of a nobleman, the knight in shining armour, looking down on anyone who is not worth his time. Stjepan and his gang are definitely far beneath him and he’s not afraid to show it. Annwyn, famed for her beauty, has suffered immensely from the scandal that rocked her family and has since become a recluse. She is a very dubious character, but the ending explains everything concerning her behaviour throughout the story.
On to another thing that I thought was worth mentioning about this book: the sexuality. As I’ve said before, there is some seriously disturbing sexual behaviour and thoughts in this book, but it’s more than that. A lot of the characters are explicitly bisexual and they are also very open about this. The only ones that I’ve seen shy away from the sexuality are Erim, who’s scared to be condemned for her thoughts though she does have more than a few lewd thoughts, trust me, and Arduin, who is just a prude nobleman. Than we have the character of Erim, who is a girl but prefers to disguise as a boy. Does she identify more with a boy than a girl or is it simply to have an advantage in this male-dominated, criminal world? I’ll let you make up your own mind.
‘The Barrow’ is a richly narrated, dark story that kept me hooked all the way through. The worldbuilding is extensive and interesting and the characters are varied and complex. Nothing is as it seems in this book, there are twists aplenty that will keep you on the edge of your seat. There is a lot of gore, more than one disturbing scene and explicit sex and that might put you off, but if you think this won’t be an issue, read this, it’s one hell of a book.