The Barrow #2 / Black Heart Omnibus #1-3
High Fantasy, Dark Fantasy
Self-Published; March 2, 2022
1124 pages (ebook)
Part 1: Goodreads • StoryGraph
Part 2: Goodreads • StoryGraph
Part 3: Goodreads
Author Website • Patreon
9 / 10 ✪
Please beware spoilers for the Barrow.
‘ For in the Middle Kingdoms, the clothes made the man, or the woman, or the woman into a man.‘
The Barrow of Azharad has been opened, and the famed sword Gladringer found. But for the survivors, there is no rest. Stjepan and Erim travel to Devil’s Tower in search of Gause Three-Penny, and are confronted by the terrible demon that lives within. Something so ancient and cruel to be beyond their worth—except for the sword of legend that one now carries. The sword that, when it kills, echoes a bell toll across the land.
A toll that has now sounded. And the land itself takes pause to listen.
But it turns out that neither gold nor glory led Gause and his crew into Devil’s Tower. Instead, it was the rumor of Nameless: the followers of the devil himself, and the dark pantheon around him. For the Nameless presence is more profound in the Middle Kingdoms than it has been for centuries, and the cults have had their fingers in seemingly every attempt to return the Devil itself, Nymarga, to the world.
But where some like the Black College are more benign, other cults like the Azharaites have their own worries. For example, a never-ending train of human flesh to sustain them. Human flesh that must come from somewhere, be supplied by someone—something Gause and his crew would very much like to know.
While Erim heads north with Gause to flush out the Nameless, Stjepan is summoned back to the capital, where already lords are gathering for war. The seasonal campaign to flush the Rebel Earl from the depths of Manon Mole has arrived, and Black-Heart’s services as the king’s cartographer are required. Though who can say whether or not this campaign will prove any more successful than that of the year before, or whether the Earl’s rebellion will balloon into a full-blown civil war.
Annwyn is a lady no more. Instead, having taken Azharad’s power for herself, she sets up in the Black Tower, overlooking the barrow itself, where she waits for the world to acknowledge her. Only… the lords of the west seems to have some odd opinions about their new neighbor. Rumor is, that Azharad has risen again, and returned to his throne. Something that Annwyn knows is impossible, as she subsumed the sorcerer herself. And yet there’s a confidence to his followers when they proclaim this, even when to her face, that leaves Annwyn cold, and just a bit… uncertain.
Something is happening in the Middle Kingdoms, something that will change the course of history, turning one age into another. But will it be an Age of Gold or an Age of Blood?
’ The thing that sits Azharad’s throne may call itself another name, wear [another face] as a mask, but the thing itself is Azharad. It commands in Azharad’s name. It rules in Azharad’s court. It wants what Azharad wants. ‘
Divided into three parts, each self-published by the author as each part was finished, Black Heart came together over the course of two years. While it can certainly be read in one, at 1124 pages, it’s a bit of a brick, albeit one split in three. Black Heart begins right where The Barrow leaves off, with the survivors of the Barrow of Azharad coming back to civilization. From here it’s a slow build turning to a slow burn, until everything gets rolling and the Nameless mystery unfolds before us.
Deep and immersive, practically drowning in history and lore, Black Heart is both an amazing read and the perfect example on how to build a fantasy world. The world of Artesia has been constructed over the course of twenty years by Mark Smylie, through the Artesia graphic novels, corresponding RPG, and more recently the pair of fantasy books. It’s a dense, incredibly well-built world, consisting of far more than just the Middle Kingdoms, where most of the first two stories take place.
Fresh off a reread of the Barrow, it took me little time at all to get back into the world of the Middle Kingdoms. There are several threads in play—one surrounding the Nameless, another the Rebel Earl, the third the pursuit of fortune, the fourth that of newfound freedom, oh, and the fate of the Middle Kingdoms themselves—each of which come together and split apart before finally building up once more at the close, revealing the mystery in full. While a bit slow at first, it slowly drank me in, especially once the second and third acts come around. Indeed, by the time I got to the third part, I was completely immersed, able to focus only on this story and no other.
I have two minor issues with Black Heart, then I’ll go back to raving wildly about it. The first is the most noticeable: it’s definitely self-published. I mean, the punctuation and language are great, but sometimes you’ll see things you wouldn’t in other traditionally published novels, such as the repeating of a term in its own definition, or a non-menial word two or more times in a single sentence. The length is also a noticeable factor. That is, while the Barrow had certain instances dedicated to lore, in Black Heart they’re all over the place. For the most part this didn’t bother me as it was just part of the world itself playing out. I felt as if events were playing out before my eyes, rather than a storyteller being asked for “just the facts and vital bits, please”.
The other issue is the inclusion of Artesia. Now, if you’ve read the graphic novels (which I have not) you might be aware that her inclusion is building towards something (as these novels serve as a prelude to the Artesia series). I assume that it will build up to the point at which Artesia’s own story begins in full, but in this story her role is… minimal. In all honesty, I’m not sure she adds to it at all—though I suppose I could be proven wrong come Book #3, when it all comes together. Instead, they seem to be just an excuse for the author to revel in hedonism, graphic sex, and cultural orgies.
As I said, neither of these complaints is very big, and both fail to detract from the plot as a whole.
A wizard can be into places at once; that’s what makes them a wizard.
It’s a magic sword. If it made sense, it wouldn’t be a magic sword.
While I had two minor issues with Black Heart, and neither detract from the story at large. They mostly come down to self-publishing editing and what all should be included in the book. But the rest of the tale… no complaints. At Stormlight Archive-length—1124 pages, not including afterwords, forewords, notes, and glossaries—the thing is a doorstop. But a damned good doorstop at that. Simply, the plot is amazing. The world is amazing. The world-building is amazing. The level of immersion is amazing. The pacing is a bit off at times, but mostly measured throughout. I know this isn’t going to make complete sense, but even the white-knuckle parts are measured. Simply, Black Heart is an amazing addition to the series, and—while it might take you some time to get through it all—it was time that I never once regretted, and money well spent. I only hope that the author finds an outlet for the novel soon, and that the Bright Sword doesn’t have to wait another two years.
Notes: This is not a family book. Seriously, there’s too much graphic sex, graphic violence, graphic language, and then other things that aren’t only for mature audiences that I feel probably should be. If you’ve read The Barrow—it’s more of that. If you haven’t read the Barrow, or Artesia, or played the RPG—maybe do that first? At least one of those, preferably. I’ve only read Book #1, so that’s what I’d recommend, but hey, you do you.