Exploring The Known World with Mark Smylie
It’s hard to believe that it’s been over a decade since Mark Smylie gave us the epic military fantasy, Artesia, and it’s been that long since Mark and I met at a little Detroit convention. We fell out of touch over the years, but thanks to a chance encounter on Goodreads, I learned about The Barrow and have happily jumped back into the Known World.
Both Mogsy and I have reviewed The Barrow here and here, and I have reviewed Artesia here. I recently had the wonderful opportunity to chat with Mark about his work and have the pleasure of sharing his thoughts with you!
It’s interesting to discover the reality behind Mark’s stories. Artesia
was inspired by the Balkan Wars
, a religious war heavily rooted in ethnic schisms and hatred. The Barrow
was conceived as a response to America’s invasion of Iraq in search of weapons of mass destruction. “I can’t imagine this is too controversial a statement but I think the Iraq war has really contributed to a sense of U.S. decline,” explains Mark, pointing out that despite battlefield successes, the United States fell short of its theoretical goals and is still dealing with the consequences. “The parallel to a weapon of mass destruction in a fantasy setting is, in effect, a magical sword, and so that became the subject of the characters’ quest.” As the adventurers hunt for the ultimate treasure hidden within the barrow, Mark sees his story as less of an anti-heroic view than as a look at the unintended consequences of failure.
Stjepan Black-Heart’s adventure actually began as a screenplay when a director friend approached Mark with the concept of a low-budget prequel following the success of his graphic novel series, Artesia. Artesia would have been a bit too daunting and costly a project to tackle first, but her brother, Stjepan, who appeared in the graphic novels, had his own story to tell. The screenplay plans didn’t pan out, but when Pyr‘s Editorial Director, Lou Anders, discovered Artesia, wheels began to turn.
Mark had originally intended Artesia to be a novel, but as a very visual person, he got caught up in the descriptions, making it difficult for him to “parse it all into a readable format. I was too caught up with an image in my head I was trying to describe. So I switched to trying the project as a comic instead.” Writing for a graphic novel means “thinking within the boundaries of pages and panels,” says Mark. The writer must think visually and consider the “plannable moments, beats and reveals” to keep the reader turning the page. With Artesia, Mark had the advantage of also being the artist, meaning he could easily translate his thoughts into images, though the process was extremely time-consuming. “Doing art for comics takes much more time than writing for comics. I don’t think I’m alone in thinking that.”
While a screenplay has similar elements to comic book writing, pitching a novel to Pyr was a whole different story. “Can I do this?” was the thought that kept running through Mark’s head. He’s not quite sure if it was a case of experience, maturity and the overall passage of time, but “sitting down to turn the screenplay into a novel worked more easily this time,” and, over four days, he put together what would become the riveting opening sequence of The Barrow.
Obviously, Lou Anders was impressed enough to green light the project, and now a year and a half later, not only do we have The Barrow, but Mark also has its sequels, Black-Heart and Bright Sword in the works, as well as plans for the long-awaited conclusion to Artesia’s story.
Aside from the prologue, the new format allowed Mark to add many more elements to the story, including the journey sequence where he could really show off the Known World and play around with fantasy conventions.
One of the most controversial ways Mark breaks the fantasy mould is with the level of sexuality involved in The Barrow—something that reviewers are fairly polarized on. While it’s not uncommon for sexuality to be a part of some fantasy series, it’s a topic that is often only brushed over. The sexuality (NSFW) in Artesia is one of the many impressive aspects of the story and the character herself. Mark describes the graphic novels as potentially a more “sex-positive” experience, where Artesia and those around her have a healthy—if hedonistic—view of sex and accept it as a source of pleasure, not perversion. “I’ve sometimes described Artesia as kind of a female Conan, so she’s this woman filled with larger-than-life ambitions and desires, and she’s not afraid to act on them.”
The Barrow on the other hand focuses on the perversion, taking place within a patriarchal, feudal environment where women are treated as little more than property and the goddess of pleasure, Dieva, is subverted by Ligrid, the goddess of perversion and one of the rulers of Hell. While the level of debauchery present within the story is quite extreme, the concept of female degradation and the notion that sex is something dirty remains ingrained within our own society now. It leaves us, as a culture, rather sexually immature and often unable to handle the concept, even when presented in a less explicit manner than in The Barrow.
Like the opening sequence, which features frightening imagery of cult violence and gory deaths, the sexual acts depicted are in keeping with the underlying horror of the story as a whole. The scenes are meant to make the reader uncomfortable. Mark admits that perhaps some scenes did that too well, but he doesn’t regret their inclusion. “I feel pretty strongly that too often as writers or as artists we let the narrative get away with allusions; that we cut away before we show something really terrible, only vaguely referencing some fate that a character is facing and thereby removing the full impact and understanding of what a character is enduring. I think it’s important for both the reader and writer to, in effect, bear witness, even though it makes us uncomfortable to do so.” Within the genre of speculative fiction, he’s certainly not the first author brave enough to take on sexuality in all its forms. Authors like Octavia E. Butler, Jacqueline Carey and George R. R. Martin come to mind, where the more violent and deviant (sexual) acts are generally attributed to the villains. “My hope was that readers would consider The Barrow‘s controversial scenes as crucial clues that reveal where the true villainy in the story lies. I tried not to simply announce who the villains were, but to describe their actions and just as importantly their mindsets so that readers could start to make those kinds of moral judgments for themselves.”
This isn’t a book where the good and the evil are strictly defined, and, as opposed to J.R.R. Tolkien‘s world, for example, the evil is not creatures set outside of society and humanity. “I think evil arises from intent and desire and how they manifest as actions. There’s very little in the book that doesn’t have some purpose, something it’s meant to reveal about the characters and their place in the narrative.” Mark reminds us of Harvald’s words at the beginning: “Things are never what they seem.”
Mark’s fantasy world is “gritty and grounded,” but another element that really stands out is the “real, functioning magic and the presence of the divine.” Artesia and The Barroware part of a “divine-filled universe,” explains Mark, and the characters genuinely believe in the many gods. Even the skeptical humans accept the existence of the deities, even if they choose not to put faith in the gods’ actions. Alchemy, witchcraft and astrology research have all gone into the creation of this universe, resulting in a heavily symbolic structure. While the wealth of information may be daunting for some, Mark’s lore is deep and rich and well worth the read.
So what’s next for Artesia and Stjepan? Mark expects Black-Heart to reach bookshelves in 2015. It picks up where The Barrow left off, following the survivors. Erim and Stjepan will join the Grand Duke’s Summer Campaign as he deals with the rebel Earl of Orliac. Artesia, who only appeared briefly in dream sequences in The Barrow, will be formerly introduced. The siblings’ stories will intertwine in Bright Sword, allowing readers to see all of these events from the different perspectives of Mark’s rich and intriguing characters.
While it’s not necessary to read Artesia to appreciate and understand the events of The Barrow, with all the incredible stories Mark has planned, now is definitely a good time to do a little catching up!