BRIEF SYNOPSIS:: A mercenary cartographer and a motley set of mutually distrustful companions set off to obtain a legendary sword in a poisoned and dangerous realm outside civilized lands.
PROS: Deep worldbuilding, richly invoking the Known World; diverse set of characters with agency; evocative description of places and violence alike.
CONS: Highly charged sexual content may turn off some readers; prologue is tonally very different from rest of the novel.
BOTTOM LINE: A bloody, violent, sexy and evocative novel debut that captures the spirit and feel of the author’s graphic novel efforts.
Stjepan Black-Heart is a mercenary fighter, hedge-magician, and a cartographer — and pretty experienced at all three roles. In other words, he’s the perfect person to go reaving into the wild hills of the Manon Mole in search of a map. A very special map. A map that will lead its bearer to the barrow where Gladringer, sword of Kings, lies buried. But the map turns out to be far more special than one might expect, and its strange curse draw a disgraced noble family’s scions unexpectedly into Stjepan’s quest. Add in a mad mage, treacherous mercenaries, and a greedy brothel owner, and you have more agendas than there are factions riding on this quest. Even the westward trip getting to the tomb is going to be a challenge for this group, and passing beyond the wall that holds back a divinely created wasteland from infecting the rest of the continent will only up the stakes. And what really is to be found in the barrow of a long dead sorcerer-king in the midst of such wastes? And does Stjepan really want to find out?
The Barrow is a debut novel from Mark Smylie. Best known for his RPG writing work and his award winning comic, Artesia, The Barrow is set in the same universe as his comic magnum opus. Readers of the comic will already recognize Stjepan’s name and his identity as the titular Artesia’s older brother. Set a year or so before Artesia’s rise to power, Artesia is only mentioned en passant, and familiarity with the comic is unnecessary to appreciate the novel. (The comic, for one thing, takes place in a completely different region of his world.)
The Artesia comic is bloody, violent, and charged with sex and sensuality, and I wondered if the author would, or could, convey the aesthetic of the Known World solely in words. Although the descriptions sometimes overrun a bit to the florid, the Artesia aesthetic is in full flower and full evidence in The Barrow. Readers unused to or disliking such material are going to be uncomfortable with much of the novel, especially the first third which takes place mainly with the capital city of Therapoli Magni. We see locked hidden rooms in libraries, the faded glory of the halls of a noble family disgraced, and a truly wicked den of sin and iniquity. When combat and violence comes, and they come often, they are described in a sharp, violent and pungent manner. This, with the rest of the descriptions in the books, brings the world of the novel alive.
The other major strength of the novel is the diversity of the motley protagonists, often with unusual characteristics and traits. And everyone in this novel are juggling multiple secrets to go along with their natures. Far from being a set of adventurers of fortune from central casting, Stejpan and his colleagues are distinct and realized, each with hopes and goals of their own. I was previously familiar with Stejpan, of course, and having a mapmaker as a main character resonated with me strongly, but I also particularly liked Arduin, who is the closest thing to a white knight in a very grey morality world. And even he has a dark taint lurking within him, complicating him.
Another major flaw I found in the book is that the prologue gives an extremely false idea of the rest of the novel. The prologue is a straightforward dungeon delve, almost like the opening action sequence in an Indiana Jones or a James Bond film. The problem is that that tone and style are never repeated in the book, even when the novel goes back on the road. The protagonists in the Delve are much more integrated, much less concerned with hidden agendas and working at cross purposes than the characters in the rest of the novel. Readers expecting a novel full of the elements and “character party” of the prologue are going to be highly disappointed.
Aside from that, however, it has been too long since the author has provided readers with new material in the world of Artesia, and even if this is set before the timeline of the rise of Stejpan’s sister and the events she is caught up in, the complicated plots, factions, action, and sensuality from the graphic novels are all here in written form. There’s wide open spaces of room, physically and temporally for more novels set in the Known World and I would love to have a chance to read them if Symlie is inclined to write more of them.