Book Review: The Barrow by Mark Smylie

The Barrow by Mark Smylie

Genre: Dark Fantasy

Related to: Artesia

Publisher: Pyr

Publication Date: March 2014

Author Info:

Wendy’s Rating: 4 of 5 stars — a dark and unique gem within the fantasy genre. 

A treasure hunting expedition goes horribly wrong when Stjepan Black-Heart steals from the Nameless cults. Violence and horror befalls the group in one of the most thrilling prologues I’ve ever read. The survivors escape with an even bigger prize than they had ever expected: a map to the Barrow, wherein lies a priceless sword. The journey to the barrow is dangerous and the barrow itself is more so, but Black-Heart and his people are willing—only, the pesky map gets cursed and is lost in the process of trying to decipher it. But when it reappears in the most unexpected of places, things really start to get dark and crazy as the anti-heroes embark on their deadly adventure.

First of all, I love the Black-Heart. Well, I love all the characters, mainly because none of them are particularly likable and none of them are your typical fantasy heroes or even your typical fantasy anti-heroes. Let’s just say that I will be inviting none of them over for dinner. Anyway, Black-Heart I am fond of because at first, he is introduced as the dark, emotionless badass that rarely cracks a smile, but soon enough, you learn that he is actually the well-educated royal cartographer who is known well by those above and below the law. I love that the story remains entirely centred on Black-Heart and this map, even as more and more fascinating tidbits are revealed about him.

Fans of Smylie’s Artesia might be disappointed that she does not make an appearance beyond fleeting images in dreams and memories. This is the Black-Heart’s story and Smylie tells it well, without having to rely on Stejpan’s sister, and expanding on the world he’s already built in the stunning Artesia graphic novels.

As mentioned, The Barrow is an adventure story, complete with a fellowship in search of treasure. But Smylie makes it clear that these people are not in the least bit interested in saving the world or being heroes. They are in this for the treasure and some of them just might stab a man in the back to get it.

The Barrow does suffer from an over indulgence of tell, rather than show and often feels like a historical tour of the Known Worlds as Black-Heart and his crew make their way toward their goal. While I appreciate the wealth of knowledge and have always loved Smylie’s world, having so much within the book itself can be overwhelming. However, being a fan of Artesia, I did enjoy the mentions of deities and magical events that I was already familiar with. Smylie’s mythology is immense, with rich stories that go well beyond myth, since magic is very real and does play a significant role in The Barrow.

Technically speaking, the long sentences and paragraphs are problematic, as well as the point of view changes that occur within each chapter. However, I am very impressed with Smylie’s transition from graphic novels, where images tell most of the story, to novel format where words have to paint those pictures. I think, with lessons learned from this book and background lore already given, Smylie will be able to tighten up the writing to focus more closely on the plot.

As others have already pointed out, this book does contain a lot of sexually explicit content. Personally speaking, I’m a big girl and in my maturity, I’ve grown more comfortable with dealing with sexuality in its many forms. As a society, we have a long way to go when it comes to sexual maturity and moving beyond the oppressive Victorian sensibilities that plague us. Anyway, The Barrow does contain a lot of sex, especially within the first hundred plus pages or so, and some of it is quite perverse. One might argue that it comes off as mere titillation and I would agree that perhaps it goes on too long—but no more so than the violence or any other aspect of the story that Smylie spells out in detail as he weaves us into his world. I consider it important to the lore and, considering Smylie’s vast mythology, am not really surprised by it as such debauchery is not unheard of within the actual mythologies of the real world. Shall we take a walk through one of my favourites, Greco-Roman mythology, and see how often rape (sometimes in animal form) is attributed to Zeus? And consider, in turn, the debauchery common to the Romans in their time.

Now, all that said, I was ultimately disappointed that the female characters were most often and unsurprisingly the victims of these acts and the only woman who comes out of the story reasonably unscathed, sexually, is Erim, who is disguised as a man.

I was quite fond of Erim though. Another intriguing and completely atypical character in a book that is a dark and unique gem within the fantasy genre.

2 Comments on “Book Review: The Barrow by Mark Smylie”

  1. Pingback: Tough Traveling: Companions | The BiblioSanctum

  2. Nice review! 🙂 As someone who hasn’t read the comics i probably wouldn’t like the traveling in the book as much and the whole sex thing does bother me. I like the sounds of the characters though. I won’t count this novel out, I can always skim a few scenes.


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