The Barrow by Mark Smylie is an "old school" epic fantasy adventure story that could have come straight out of a Dungeons and Dragons campaign, with a party of characters of various alignments heading out on a quest to track down an ancient treasure hidden within the lost burial chamber of a long dead wizard. It also has a number of modern elements, with dark themes, graphic violence, and very detailed sex scenes scattered throughout the many pages of this book. It took me a long time to read this book, but in the end I think it was worth it. I should note that if gory details about things like decapitated maggot strewn bodies, or erotic details about things like all male sauna orgies, casual incest, and how best to use a unicorn to achieve sexual gratification make you feel uncomfortable, then prepare to feel uncomfortable for the majority of the book.
The story follows the exploits of Stjepan Black-Heart and his group of adventurers who are trying to track down an ancient magical sword, rumoured to have been buried in the Barrow of one of the most infamous wizards in history. They have the map (at the cost of many lives), they have the means of deciphering the map (again at the cost of many lives), and they have a party of willing and unwilling people who will make the journey to the Barrow (also at the cost of many lives). This all seems reasonably straight-forward, but there are machinations happening behind the scenes, a number of motives that remain unseen, and a number of complications that threaten to mortally wound their journey at every step.
The first thing I want to comment on is the world-building, because it is immense. Every single character has a detailed history. Every single location has thousands of years’ worth of history. There are many races and many religions that have evolved over time. And Smylie gives you as much of it as he can in as much gritty detail as I have experienced reading fantasy. I would say that the level of world-building here is almost on par with what Erikson and Esslemont have produced with their Malazan books. I have read other books with this level of world building contained within, and it has often been to the detriment of the story, but Smylie manages to communicate his world-building and exposition in such an interesting way that I found myself wanting to know more and more, even though it was taking me away from the main story. I think The Barrow acts as a great example of how to use detailed world building to complement a story, not overwhelm it.
When you look at the story itself, it is very basic and moves at a glacial pace. Our adventurers find a map, decipher the map, travel to the target destination on the map, and chaos ensues. There are some machinations happening in the background, but it never gets more complicated than that. The Barrow is not about the plot, but rather it is about the characters who are taking part in this story. We get to know every single character on such a personal level, from their deep-seated fears about life and the universe, to the favourite methods for achieving sexual gratification. We get to see people learning to trust their companions, and then see how they react when that trust is betrayed. Every single character in this book feels like a fully realised person, with goals and dreams and a variety of different aspects motivating them, and the full cast of characters shows a wide array of cultural, ethnic, religious, sexual and gender diversity. The characters are what make this story so compelling.
So yeah, despite the very slow pace and the sheer volume of exposition provided, I really enjoyed this book. The Barrow is not for everyone, it deals with a wide range of explicit material and taboo topics, but if that type of stuff doesn't bother you then I recommend you dive right in and join the expedition. The sequel is not due out until later in 2015, but if you are looking for more material set in this world, the Artesia comics (written and illustrated by Smylie) are what you're looking for.
Review by Ryan Lawler
Spen from Uk
One of my favourite books of all time. Describes the world incredibly well. Many fantasy authors make the mistake of not describing the environment the characters travel through. Mark Smylie describes it excellently. Characters are described good too. Blackheart is my favourite character. Prologue the best and most exciting of any book I have ever read. The maps to go with the book are the best of any fantasy book. Many mysterious empires and environments are shown on map such as Palatia and Thessid Gola. Hope to travel to these mysterious places and more in future Mark Smylie books. Glossary at end of The Barrow was excellent. Describes many strange and mysterious people, gods and others.
Jeff from United States
I couldn't put this book down. Too many fantasy novels pit white vs black. This book was full of grey characters. Yes it has sex, probably not for teens. The ending threw me, I love unpredictable stories and I can't wait for the second book.
9.5/10 from 3 reviews