Action, horror, politics, and sensuality combine in this DEBUT EPIC FANTASY novel for fans of George R. R. Martin and Michael J. Sullivan, 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.
The Barrow is probably one of the most elaborate novels I have read in a long time. This is high fantasy, along the lines of Tolkien and Martin, with a richly detailed, complex world involving magic, politics, and religion. A group of adventurers discover a map that might lead them to a magical sword buried in the cairn of a dead wizard. This is a fairly typical trope for fantasy – the epic journey to find a mythic article; however, Mark Smylie has taken it to a whole other level.
The original group includes Stjepan Black-Heart (a cartographer and sometime spy); Gilgwyr (a deviant pimp); Harvald (a rich scoundrel from a scandalous family); and Erim (a young women masquerading as a male fighter). After losing the majority of their expedition in a failed treasure hunt, the company returns to the nearest City to translate the mysterious map and fund a new quest. They discover that the map is cursed, it destroys itself during the translation, and they believe it is lost forever. However, the map simply transfers itself to an unexpected place. As they accommodate themselves to this change, politics and religion start to interfere, and their lives are complicated by a Citywide riot, a new scandal to further discredit the aristocratic family, and the murder of a high-level religious leader. By the end of the novel’s first section, the band is fleeing with a price on their heads and the whole known world out to stop them.
I cannot overemphasize the breadth and depth of this story. Smylie has developed different races, entire pantheons for several different religions, and multiple political leaders. The character names are complicated, and their relationships are convoluted. However, his writing is straight and plain, and what could have been an impossible read is really very simple. I sped through this book in just over two days and had difficulty putting it down at night because I kept thinking, “just one more chapter . . .”
In his ending Author’s Note, Smylie states that this novel is based on his graphic novel series and Role-Playing Game, Artesia, developed over the past 15 years. In hindsight, that explains to me how this novel could be so deep and effortless at the same time. His world has had time to evolve over the years, and his experience with it has allowed him to create a story that is both immersive and yet down-to-earth. As I mentioned before, this is simply a quest story, like many other fantasy novels, yet in Smylie’s hands, I was transported as I read it. If you are looking for a story involving wizards and rogues, aristocrats and mercenaries, you cannot do better than to try Smylie’s The Barrow.