The Barrow – by Mark Smylie (Review)

Sword & Barrow #1

Grimdark, Fantasy, Epic

Pyr; March 4, 2014

587 pages (paperback)

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8.5 / 10 ✪

With the long-awaited release of Black Heart earlier this year, it was time to revisit the world of Artesia via The Barrow, a prequel adventure to the comics/graphic novels that I’ve not yet read. What I remembered about the book I read back in 2014 could’ve filled… well, a paragraph? A short one, at least.

Deep and extensive world-building. A highly addictive read full of adventure, magic, darkness, intrigue, and bloody fights. Also, very graphic sex.

Which… yeah, is basically the Barrow in a nutshell. But let’s go a little deeper, shall we?

To find the Sword, unearth the Barrow. To unearth the Barrow, follow the Map.

Stjepan Black-Heart, murderer, royal cartographer, and adventurer, is desperate for success. But then he’s traversed the whole of the Middle Kingdoms—even escaping their bounds, and crossing the continent itself. But for his greatest adventure, he must turn to somewhere oh so close to home.

When asked just who she was, Erim wasn’t sure what to say. But after a trip to Manon Mole, she would’ve said she was Stjepan’s man. Only hiccup being that she ain’t a man at all, but a woman masquerading as one. What she may lack in confidence, Erim makes up in skill. Her skill with a blade, specifically. But this latest adventure may answer a few questions for her—if it doesn’t kill her first.

Harvald Orwain is the youngest son of a once great house, determined to retrieve his family’s honor. He’s also a troublemaker, thief, and architect of the crew’s current mission. After all, only a miracle can resurrect their family name. A miracle, or a mythical sword.

The sword Gladringer is one of the most legendary blades in creation. Used by the last Dragon king to slay the Wormlords and their hell-forged swords, it was lost by a lord known forever as the Fumbler, and fell out of hand and into legend. However, rumor has it that it was taken up by Azharad, an evil warlock without equal, and was buried with him in his barrow when he fell. Many adventurers have set out to find this blade, and only a few returned empty-handed.

Because most never returned at all.

The problem with the barrow is, while it’s thought to exist in the Bale Mole, its precise locale is lost to time. And the Bale Mole is as vast as it is deadly. And yet Harvald and Stjepan have hope. Because they have found something that no one else has.

A map.

But even with a map, a quest into the Bale Mole is fraught with danger. They’ll need a some weapons, some talent, some expendables—they’ll need a crew.

Gilgwyr is a brothel owner and exceptional pervert. The only thing he likes more than sex is power, and the coin to enable it. Leigh, a magus who may not be the evil wizard he was exiled for, but he’s definitely gone a little bit crazy in his years alone. Arduin Orwain is the scion of Harvald’s house, brought low by scandal. Annwyn is the beautiful cause of said scandal. Godewyn Red-Hand is a mercenary, murderer, rapist, and professional asshole. But where the crew is headed, they’ll need all the help they can get.

Wilhem Price and Sir Colin Urwed were walking around the Ladies’ Tent, marking a sentry circle, scanning the field and hills around them, when they heard something like a whisper come up from the hill. They turned and looked up the hill just in time to see a plunge of dust jet out from the entrance to the barrow some six hundred paces away up the stone steps. The two of them took a few steps toward the hill and stopped, then looked at each other.

A bloody, violent, brutal romp through half the empire to the tomb of an evil necromancer. Absolutely filled with violence, lore, graphic sex, and “oh FUCK” moments. Supported by tension, mystery—and lore the likes of which is rarely seen. Did I mention the graphic, graphic sex? It’s like, I mean, I can’t judge personal preference or taste but… it’s borderline too much. Beastiality, incest, consenting adults and all that. I mean, it’s definitely noticeable, especially in the beginning. But then the adventure takes over.

This is the dark fantasy you always wanted. Or never wanted to see. Or… probably somewhere in between.

And if the graphic sex didn’t scare you off, the gratuitous violence probably won’t either. But, to be fair, it really isn’t the worst I’ve ever seen. It’s definitely grimdark level combat, but Smylie doesn’t have the bloody red streak that you’ll see in Abercrombie and Lawrence. But he does have his own personal touch (what with the all sex and such).

The adventure, the quest is the reason to come and the reason to stay. Set in a world of deep lore and meticulously built from the ground up, Artesia is truly a wonder, say what you will about how it comes across. There’s just so much to it—the depth keeps going. Sometimes this was borderline too much as well; unwanted info that otherwise spoiled the mood, or more likely the pace, though I really couldn’t find myself caring overly much about it. This is the Barrow’s charm, you see. You take one with the other. And to go on this legendary adventure, you’re going to have to pick up a bit of its history. History that was mostly quite entertaining. I only ever really noticed it near the end. Otherwise, I didn’t care.

The adventure itself… well, it’s a treasure hunt through a kingdom of lords and thieves. Of whores and ladies. Of magic and mystery. Of darkness and… darker darkness. It’s everything that you ever dreamt when you first read Narnia and though “hmmm that doesn’t seem realistic”. It’s a treasure-hunt with all the blood and sex and battles and undead and intrigue and mythos and more. It’s a hell of an adventure and a hell of a read.

And it’s just the beginning.

Black Heart, the second Sword & Barrow novel by Mark Smylie, is currently available in three parts as an ebook, but has yet to be picked up by any publisher. If you’re curious about the story there, I’ve a bit of a series of posts about it. I’ll throw the links in down at the bottom. The final entry in the Sword & Barrow, Bright Sword, is in the works. Smylie has said he’s started working on it already, and with Black Heart finally releasing, I’m actually hopeful we’ll see it in the next few years.

• Black Heart Updates •

BH IBH IIBH IIIBH IV

6 thoughts on “The Barrow – by Mark Smylie (Review)

    1. Yeah, that’s why I redid it. I’d remembered some details, but completely forgotten the big twist and 90% of the ending. Good news is, it was just as good a read the 2nd time through! 😁

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  1. I loved the graphic novels, and now I tried The Barrow. I was pretty tired, on a plane, and just… couldn’t get into it. So many details, I could possibly draw a comics based on all the descriptions. Maybe I got tired to easily, I will try again another time, but I think these were better as comics…

    Liked by 1 person

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