Monday, March 17, 2014

Review of The Barrow by Mark Smylie

The BarrowThe Barrow by Mark Smylie
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Writing 4/5
Imagination 5/5
Plot 4.5/5
Setting 5/5
Characters 4/5

Overall enjoyment 4.5/5

Goodreads Summary
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.
Summing up for experienced fantasy readers I would say this book is a combination of the Malazan Books of the Fallen by Steven Erikson in terms of world building and Joe Abercrombie in terms of grittiness; and, in both world building and grittiness, Mark Smylie is as good as both those huge names and goes even further adding elements of provocative sexuality. This book is a major investment as it will immerse you in an unbelievably huge new world with a massive cast of characters to get to know.

The world is expertly detailed and immense. To me, this book strikes of older epic fantasy in that the setting is often more of a focus than the characters. The maps and glossary come in handy because there are so many characters and places that without a reader could become confused quickly. I thought the author did a great job of introducing everything and it was rare I needed to consult either of the former but they are there which is nice and many will rely on them. This being said, there is no lack of character building and interestingly my favorite character is Erim, who receives the least time but that is probably the reason for my fascination. She seems very complex and mysterious. Another main character who was deeply drawn was Stjepan, although I spent a lot of time trying to figure out how to pronounce the name. Fortunately, most of the names and places were easy enough to remember.

The plot was multi-layered and complex which, although this was a quest type story, it felt very fresh and it was enjoyable figuring out its complexities. It caused me to think; a lot, which some readers might find difficult but I found pleasurable. The lore and history are woven tightly into the plot and there is so that it could make up its own book. I thought it was wonderfully delivered as well. Sometimes in fantasy, lore can be placed a bit awkwardly but not here. If you love lore, as do I, this book has some of the richest I have ever read. The ending was excellent and sets up for what could be an even better second book.

Sometimes I read reviews critical of some perceived philosophy in a book, an authors motives, or what they believe are the authors personal beliefs. Those reviews annoy me so I try to avoid them. Of course, everyone is entitled to their opinion and people read into things in different ways but I think a review should be about what specifically a reviewer liked, what excited them, and what they didn't like rather than their interpretation of the book. I'm not interested in a reviewers abstract interpretation of a story. If you tell me what you like and what you didn't, I will use that along with the description and blurbs to decide whether to read it or not. I mention this because there is so much going on in this book that it is inevitable that some reviews are going to get into a verbose rendering of what this book is about. I loved this book for its fantastical elements, excellent story lines, and the beautiful world the author has created. I had fun reading it.

This is also a book that, because of its dark themes and adult subjects, will certainly provoke controversy and with that negative reviews based on that. If you're an adult who's prone to offense, I can say with confidence you will find something in this book to be offended about. People will complain about the violence, cussing, sex, deaths, etc. If you don't enjoy books which have the those elements on a regular basis, then save yourself the grief and time and skip this. You will be unable to objectively rate this book. This is a book for adult fantasy fans that can handle adult material and are not so easily offended. Even though this book is obviously edgy, I don't think that was its primary purpose. I got the impression the author is a lover of fantasy and wanted to create a highly unique world with realistic characters and a great plot that would be fun to read. Perhaps some of the scenes were a little over the top but that really just added to the atmosphere of this world. I was troubled at times but I enjoy reading troubling events. It provokes emotions and I learn more about myself in the process.

I hope this book gets the recognition it deserves because I rank it with George R.R. Martin, as well as the authors I already mentioned, Steven Erikson and Joe Abercrombie, in terms of quality, grittiness, and epic world building. If you enjoy grimdark, and those 3 authors, this is a must-read book. If you love epic fantasy, and even if you're not a fan of grimdark, try this anyway for its epic scope and classic questing for a lost relic storyline. I think you will be amazed at what Mark Smylie has done here. I know I am.

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Nathan (@reviewbarn) said...

Yes, this book was friggin awesome, best debut I have had the pleasure of being in the early readers of. It is going to piss off its fair share of people (both for its grimdarkness and its heavy backstory nature) but for many of the rest of us, perhaps the next must read series.

Unknown said...

Agreed! There will be certain people who will not be able to handle this book and will post negative reviews based on that. By most objective measures, I think this book was amazing. I know I can't wait for the next in the series I hope it comes in a year and not 5!

BiblioSanctum said...

Thanks for writing such a detailed review and a warning to readers who might be turned off by the cussing, sex and violence. I ADORED this book, and it tears me up inside to think of some of the bad rap it gets from readers picking it up not knowing the nature of it. It is perfect for its audience, and could mean hours of entertainment for the right person. I know I really enjoyed it.


Unknown said...

It was a hard part of the review to write because I wanted to give a warning for sensitive readers but didn't want to turn anyone off from trying this. In the end I figure that if I put the warning out there, maybe some of those sensitive types will skip this book rather than read it then post a bad review. It is perfectly fair for a person not to like a book for whatever reason but why would someone who knows they are easily offended read a book like this and then post a bad review? My fear is they won't be able to objectively rate this book if they are offended. I recently read a review of one of my favorite books of the year and it was obvious the reviewer couldn't get past one particular scene and that was reflected in the poor review the book received. This reviewer even stated as much saying that was the part where the book lost her. If someone doesn't like a gritty, dark, realistic portrayal of the dark side of human nature, they shouldn't be picking up these books.

This also reminds me of a thread on Goodreads for Mark Lawrence's new book, Prince of Fools, where a person knew upfront they would not like the book but stated they would read it anyway. Mark mentioned to that person maybe they shouldn't read it then. Needless to say, things deteriorated from there but Mark was absolutely right.

2theD said...

Have you seen the fantasy-faction website has a writing competition for grimdark fantasy? It'd be interesting to see you review those short stories (all under 1,500 words).

Unknown said...

2theD, I am looking at that now and it's pretty cool. Interesting idea to review them. I'll have to put that on my to-do list!