The epic fantasy genre gains a new entry in The Barrow. Mark Smylie tells a story of desires, be it power, prestige or passion. With a slow pace, Smylie builds his journey through a foreign world and time. Magic and religion are expertly mixed, clashing well against instinct and brawn. Throughout, Smylie commits to his story for better or worse.
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, united by accident and dark design, on a quest that will either get them all in the history books…or get them all killed.
Smylie started off with what seemed to be the concept of sex sells and tamed his story after the first part, making for a dull novel. A big fan of fantasy, I am not one to ignore a story because of its slow pace. Many times this helps establish characters and the world they live in. Unfortunately, this was not the case with The Barrow. The world which we are introduced to seems well thought out if not well explained. There is the illusion of many customs of the various people and cultures but we never actually learn any of these oddities. The only time we learn about them is when Smylie introduces physical attributes associated with one group of people. While this can be effective, it wasn’t here.
The ensemble cast only serves to make each character bland and one dimensional. At no point did I actually become interested in any character’s progress as a person or their journey at large. The large band of brothers, that had five characters, were only partially memorable and all for odd reasons. There was the one guy who everyone thought was handsome but I never quite understood how, the chick who was gender fluid both in her own identity and her preferences, the pimp, the guy who had an incestuous relationship and finally the crazy naked chick. I couldn’t tell you what the passion was of any of these people nor what made them tick. I barely have any recollection of what those characters look like, where they came from or most importantly, why I should care. The characters were so uninteresting that I couldn’t feel invested in what they were doing.
Simply put, The Barrow has a taboo beginning, a boring middle, and an anticlimactic end. Sure, it does get better towards the end but Smylie blurs through the important plot points, instead focusing on unimportant details such as naming each person in the company rather than telling us why the journey is so important in the first place. Out of all the blunders, Smylie’s lack of establishing the basic plot is by far the most glaring. Many a book with simplistic characters have been entertaining simply because of the overall adventure. Smylie just doesn’t deliver an entertaining or thought provoking read, making The Barrow a lengthy book I wasn’t too enthusiastic to read, let alone finish.