By Mark Smylie
This is Mr. Smylie's third time on this review series, and the first novel of his that has appeared. The other two appearances being his comic book series Artesia. In this novel Mr. Smylie shows us that he's basically gripped by a creative vision that is not letting him go, as he has been working on this for over a decade now. The Barrow, published in 2014 by Pyr books is set in the same world as the Artesia comic series but instead of the relatively backwater highlands where the first comic series took place, this novel takes place mainly in the Middle Kingdoms. Whereas the highlands are a rural place divided into a series of petty kingdoms, the Middle Kingdoms are (in theory at least) unified under the rule of a High King. Being a feudal society, there's a lot of infighting and rebellion among the noble class, which of course has a lot of consequences for the lower classes. The Middle Kingdoms are more densely populated than the highlands, having large cities, vast kingdoms with great populations, and all the problems that those things bring. There is a strict class system with nobility and commoners being fairly divided with the rare mingling usually taking place on the margins of society. For example a lot of the clerks and skilled labor of the royal courts are commoners, with a large minority of noble born younger sons who rub elbows with them on and off work. They're educated at a university which is open to men of noble and common birth (no girls allowed, I'll get back to this). The clerks are exiled to the edges of court society (to the point that one of the nobly born characters doesn't know the names of his little brother's commoner friends) and aren't considered worth any mention in commoner society. Adding to this tension is boiling pot of three-way religious conflict.
The Middle Kingdoms are a place where the Old Religion of the worship of Yhara Queen of Heaven has been mostly supplanted by Islik, Divine King of Heaven. A lot of this was done by the invasion of a new ethnic group that invaded the Middle Kingdoms a long time ago that basically took them over, burnt down all the temples, committed atrocities, and then declared themselves the pinnacle of morality. This is really a metaphor for... basically all of human history (seriously I could put anything in here from the Aryan Migration theory to the Imperialist Age). The third religion is despised by both groups, because... they literally worship the Devil. The Nameless Cults are all about corruption, depravity, and ruin. I mean, we literally have them practicing human sacrifice and eating people! The Old Religion hangs on mostly in the rural areas among commoners and members of the ethnic groups displaced by the new nobility, the Religion of the Divine King is mainly in the cities and in proper society. The Nameless Cults show up in the wilderness and the darker cracks of urban society working to subvert and corrupt the world. These conflicts help drive the plot forward and provide both background and character motivations. Speaking of character motivations, let me talk about the characters a bit.
Stjepan, the Black Heart, royal cartographer, adventurer, and man with a past is one of our protagonists and viewpoint characters. Despite that Stjepan keeps a lot of secrets from us (to be fair all the characters do), but then keeping secrets seems to be fairly second nature to him as throughout the entire book he's keeping secrets from his friends, his protege, his boss and well... Everyone. Stjepan is a Athairi, one of the older ethnic groups which in the story serve as a kind of a gypsy analogue without the reputation for theft and kidnapping. They are one of the groups that remain worshipers of the Old Religion and tend to live out in the country and in nomadic groups. On top of that Stjepan's mother was a priestess of the Old Religion (which got her burned at the stake for witchcraft, we flashback to this a lot in Stjepan dreams) combine this with Stjepan having an education from the royal university (where they also store all the forbidden magic books because where else would you hide all the books you don't want read but at a place full of people eager to learn anything and thumbing their noses at social convention!). Stjepan's role in this story is basically that of the experienced leader who doesn't tell anyone everything. This is reinforced by the fact that no matter where in the Middle Kingdoms we go in this story there is someone who knows Stjepan or at least knows of him. You’re certainly left feeling that this guy has been around a bit.
Erim serves as Stjepan right hand... not really a man, huh let me explain. Erim is a city born brawler who is exceptionally dangerous and may be one of the best sword masters in the Middle Kingdoms. A commoner born, Erim lives a life by selling fighting services and doesn't really fit in well anywhere. There's a good reason for that, you see Erim is also hiding a secret, from everyone but the reader. Erim is a girl. Now for a 21st century American like myself you may be saying “big whoop”. Well, Erim lives in a society with very strict gender roles and strict sexual mores and she's a bisexual woman who is fulfilling a male role that would be disapproved of even if she were a man. The thing is, Erim isn't someone like Stjepan who has enough grounding in a different culture or education to be able to consistently reject society's judgment, she is a person completely formed by her culture but is unable to fit herself into the hole demanded of her. She honestly feels guilty about this and believes that she'll be punished for it and worse, believes she deserves it. I end up feeling bad for a number of characters in this book but Erim takes the lead in my sympathies and ends up being one of the more interesting characters. Although seriously, someone teach her how to read, I'm not kidding this could kill her sooner or later.
Three of our characters are nobility from the same family. A family that has fallen due to scandal and disgrace. Let me hit them in order of appearance, first there's Harvald, a younger son who was sent off to university and works as a clerk of the court. It's not that bad a life as he also gets to run loose with Stjepan and have violent adventures. I started out liking Harvald as he's a charming rogue when he wants to be but... oh God is this man an utter monster. This is hammered in when we see him go home and interact with his sister. Which brings us to Annwyn, which while I sympathize with Erim the most, I find myself truly saddened by Annwyn's story. Frankly her life is awful and I find myself not agreeing with the choices she made but understanding them and seeing her reasoning as justifiable. While Erim is wronged by her society in a general way, Annwyn is flat out victimized by the men in her life--by the very people who should have protected and helped her. Frankly her character arc is heartbreaking. Lastly is the older brother Arduin. I'm an older brother myself so Arduin kinda annoys me deeply. It's worse because unlike Harvald, Arduin isn't a screaming douchebag on purpose. There's no cruelty or drive to humiliate in his actions but Arduin is an idiot. That's harsh, but he is utterly wrapped up in himself and his drive to get his family out of disgrace and isn't even paying attention to that family. Additionally, despite being thrown under the bus by his society for something he had nothing to do with, he refuses to think that there might be a few flaws in his society. Additionally: listen bro, I ain't batting a thousand as a brother. I'll admit that, but you know I've at least tried to talk shit out with my siblings when there were issues. Admitting to your sister that you felt bad about your part in things and wish you could change it would have likely avoided at least some of the worse of it for you. Arduin is a man too caught up in his prejudices and problems to remove his head from his ass. Seriously his skull is firmly wedged in there and that kinda causes more problems then really necessarily. I want to have more sympathy for him because he's not an awful person, just... stupid, but he's just so deep in his own rectum that I can't.
We also have a number of adventures joining us. There's Gilgwyr, a brothel owner and pimp that I was leaning towards liking but... let me sum up his introduction this way. Hi! I'm Gilgwyr, I'm a brothel owner but I don't force myself on my girls and do everything I can to keep them in good health and spirits. Because they don't deserve to be shit on for their occupation. Instead I like to blackmail my clients into giving me blow jobs! His character only gets worse from here folks. I hate this asshole. He's smarmy and self serving and pompous and if Arduin had cut him open then I would have been a lot more forgiving of Arduin's failures because then he would have at least done something useful. Mr. Smylie kinda telegraphs Gilgwyr's fate and well... I laughed. That's all I'm going to say there to avoid spoilers. We also have Leigh, a crazed wizard who... is actually bat shit insane and evil. I've run into a lot of “crazy” wizards in fantasy and this is the first guy that actually really came across as dangerously insane. He goes from cheerfully buying pastries in a shop to cursing (I mean with magic here not swearing) the shop owner at the drop of a dime for example. He's grandfatherly and protective one second and malevolent the next. Leigh honestly feels like someone you need to have in your sights at all times because having him out of sight means you have no idea what he's doing and that is when he's most dangerous.
All these characters come together to follow a magic map to find the tomb of an ancient witch king who was buried with a divinely blessed magic sword that said witch king had stolen. It's a mess of conflicting motivations and secrets, of characters who are working against each other when by doing so they place each other in greater danger and a group with a cross section of simmering resentments and outright hatreds that could boil over at any moment only held together by mutual need and desire for reward. The Trek takes us across the Middle Kingdoms which Mr. Smylie takes as an opportunity to show a place with a intense depth of history and culture being played out. As you might guess I enjoy settings like this, although I get a little twitchy with his somewhat half-hearted attempts to make the Cult of the Divine King into a fantasy Christianity (seriously why does everyone turn us into sun worshipers!?!). I can see and feel the vast amount of care and thought that Mr. Smylie has put into the setting, he just manages to avoid the sin of paragraphs of massive info dumps mainly by having the historical information come out in conversations between Stjepan and Erim or with other characters. There are a ton of interesting places in this book, like the Plain of Flowers, or the Waste Beyond the Watchtowers (that interestingly enough are a result of good guy actions not bad buy actions). It's a setting where I actually understand why there's an Inquisition because holy fuck there are cannibal rapists lurking about who worship the fucking Devil! There are also references to real mythological figures buried in the book (like the Corn King for example) although they are twisted a bit.
That said this book is not for minors. There are graphic sexual scenes in here, some of which are intensely depraved. I don't mean there's some blindfolds and ropes, I mean this stuff is all manner of messed up. Mr. Smylie train also has no breaks, which is becoming a theme in adult fantasy in the 2010's maybe. I kinda feel this a reaction to people pooping fantasy as being rather restrained in some ways (David Eddings for example would write that Anglo Fantasy works at least tended to be very prissy in terms of human sexuality and he blamed Tolkien for that) but I really do need to research this further before making any real definitive statements. There's no holding back on the violence here either, nor are the consequences of said violence sanitized. People--innocent people--die in this book in rather terrible ways (as do a number of not so innocent people). That said, this isn't nearly as dark or depressing as Bakker's work, there are relationships that are good ones here and characters are allowed to have good ends. I actually find myself emotionally satisfied in the ending even if it is somewhat morally ambiguous. So while I wouldn't hand this book to anyone under the age of 16, or even to all adults, I do think it a very well written book that isn't afraid to confront some really dark stuff without getting pulled down by it. I find myself giving the Barrows an A, the character work, the action and the overall depth of the setting more then carry it there. That said, this book could have stood with the other Halloween books rather easily, so I'm going to try something a little lighter. You know... I haven't tried a Manga on this review series have I? Let's give it a shot.
This review edited by Dr. Ben Allen