The Barrow – by Mark Smylie (Review)

Sword & Barrow #1

Grimdark, Fantasy, Epic

Pyr; March 4, 2014

587 pages (paperback)

GoodreadsStoryGraph
Author WebsitePatreon

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

Black Heart Update IV

Black Heart is officially done!

The image signalling Black Heart’s conclusion: as the second, and final, epilogue has come to a close.

Back in late 2021, I announced that Black Heart was totally done except for two epilogues that the author was still working on. Now that he’s finished them, the book is completely finished. If you’re wondering when you can expect it to hit the shelves… well, there’s still a bit of an issue there. As of February 2022, the book still has no publisher. So while you may be able to get your hands on an ebook at some point in the coming year, readers who might want it a little bit quicker may have to settle for the PDF versions available from Mark Smylie’s patreon.

I’m not quite ready to read it yet, as I still need a refresher of The Barrow. But as soon as I get that reread, you can bet Black Heart will follow shortly after!

Oh, and if you’re wondering where I’ve been and why I haven’t been commenting on your posts or answering those to my own, this last month has been insane. Stress, insomnia, anxiety abound. The only reason I’ve managed to post at all is that I had quite a few things scheduled in advance (quite a few for me, at least). I’ll try to get back to reading/reviewing posts soon, but with everything on the table right now, it might still be a little.

Thanks for sticking with me. And thanks for not giving up on Mark Smylie—I’m certain he appreciates it!

Black Heart Update III

Update #1Update #2

My last update on Black Heart was in January of this year, and might seem like an age ago. That’s because—in part—Black Heart’s predecessor, The Barrow, came out even longer ago still, back in 2014. At the time this sequel was predicted to follow a year after, but some things happened. Pyr sold, the holding company declined to publish the next book, and the author had some issues writing something using only his free time if it would never be published. Anyway, in January 2021, Mark Smylie was most of the way through Black Heart, having written 37 of a potential 47 chapters which he then posted on his patreon for subscribers to read. At the time, he projected he’d finish up around March 2021—which I figured instead meant more like May/June 2021 because I’m cynical like that.

Well, now it’s almost November and I’m actually a little surprised to relay that the main book is finished! There’re supposed to be a pair of short epilogues to follow that the author has yet to write, but all 46 (yes, 46, not 47) chapters are up on his patreon and he hopes to have it together into an ebook by the end of the year. Given the length of time it took for “March 2021” to roll around, I’m expecting this to get pushed back a bit, but it looks like it’ll actually get done here sometime in 2022. That’s for the ebook, of course. Since the book currently has no publisher, at the moment there is no plan to release a physical version.

Not yet, at least.

Should you be impatient or mad with joy, you can go over to his patreon and join up for $5/month and read the unbound/technically finished version. I’m certainly interested but I might wait until December at least because of obligations and TBR that I’m already well behind on. But two things are certain:

  1. I will definitely be reading Black Heart, and
  2. It has actually become a reality at long last!

So maybe celebrate with a refresher of the Barrow, and then decide what format you’d like to enjoy it in. Or, simply stay tuned here and I’ll be sure to get a review out as soon as the entire thing (epilogues and all) are written and edited, and I read the damn thing, of course.

But hey, who actually thought we’d get to this point at all? Many kudos to the author Mark Smylie for persevering on this project, and the patrons on his site for supporting this dream that is soon to become a reality!

Mark Smylie’s Patreon

Black Heart Update

Just a quick update on Black Heart. If you don’t know, Black Heart (by Mark Smylie) was due to be the 2nd book in the Artesia series, followup to his 2014 fantasy debut, The Barrow. But then Pyr was sold, the new holding company rescinded the contract for the 2nd book due to their lack of interest, and Smylie has been working on getting it out on his own since then.

I did a post on this back in…. May 2020, reporting that Smylie had written 37 of a projected 47 chapters, 29 of which he’d posted for subscribing members of his Patreon. He went on to routinely publish chapters until about July 29, by which point he had 36 posted. He posted Chapter 37 a month later on August 31.

Then the updates stopped.

No, not completely. Smylie has other projects on his Patreon, mostly consisting of his Sword & Barrow Artesia TTRPG, which he continued posting content for semi-regularly even after Black Heart updates stopped. At this point I just assumed that his mind wanders just as much as mine does and his authorial tendencies do as well, judging the odds that he got back around to it to be 50/50 (as in either he would or he wouldn’t).

Well, on December 31, he posted Chapter 38.

Then on January 11, we got an update. You can read it HERE if you’re so inclined. Otherwise, I’ll give you a TL;DR version:

  1. Black Heart is still on, just delayed a little because COVID
  2. Maybe a dozen chapters left in the book, which will set it at ~400k words total (as compared to the Barrow which was maybe half that)
  3. He hopes to have it completed by MARCH 2021
  4. Announces the sequel to Black Heart, BRIGHT SWORD, which he’ll begin working on sometime following finishing up Black Heart

My reactions to this are mostly positive, but maybe slightly more pessimistic. I’d hope to see Black Heart wrapt up by May-June 2021, but it is heartening to hear that it’s almost finished and to see an actual ETA. (I mean, that being said, THIS was a thing from a couple years back) I was further bolstered about Black Heart’s fate after hearing that he’d actually planned its sequel—and, while I have reservations about the likelihood of that happening anytime soon as well, concrete ideas for a story following the one you’re supposedly finishing are great as they actually indicate the likelihood of you finishing the story that precedes them (if that makes any sense). Dunno if he’ll ever get to Bright Sword, but while I hope he does, my immediate concerns rest with the completion of Black Heart.

TL;DR

So, if the just skipped right to the end, here it is. If you read all that stuff above, congratulations! I apologize if it was a bit rambly, but I’ve been sick (don’t think it’s COVID, but we’ll find out here in a little) lately, and I tend to talk a lot more and make waaaay less sense when I’m not feeling well.

Anyway, take heart friends! Or, at least, some heart. But any is better than none, eh?

So, Mark Smylie’s still working on Black Heart, having posted 38 of a projected 47 chapters on his Patreon page as of the writing of this. He hopes to finish it by March 2021. Additionally, he has announced a sequel, BRIGHT SWORD, which he’ll begin writing after finishing BLACK HEART. There’s also some stuff on the Last Barrow, a new addition to his RPG collection which you can check out in detail if you’re interested. Or if you’re not.

I do really hope Black Heart becomes a thing.