Monday, November 24, 2014

Book Review: The Barrow

The Barrow, by Mark Smylie

I'm torn on this one and perhaps that's a good thing because a good book should elicit strong emotion. I picked this up at Incredible Universe in LA earlier this year when I went on a big book buying binge. I had never heard of Mark Smylie before but right on the cover was a positive blurb by facebook friend John Fultz and that along with the back cover synopsis was enough to say "Yeah, I''l get this."

The synopsis, goes along the lines of a pack of scoundrels are going after a fabled sword that is supposed to be in the barrow of a long dead evil wizard but things never turn out like they are supposed to do they?

You had me at pack of scoundrels. Quick rant: I hate these new covers that tell you next to nothing about the book -loads of fantasy books are doing these now and its a damn shame - I suspect it has to do with grabbing a new audience but I think they lack imagination and I bought the book in spite of the cover but I digress...

The opening prologue packs quite a punch and Smylies writing  is witty, action packed and very visceral. The barrow blends epic fantasy and Sword & Sorcery very well and while I can see some of the long historical tangents throwing some of the S&S readers I'm sure epic fans will eat it up. I have to say Smylie has a truly intriguing and well thought out realm. His world building is absolutely fascinating and top notch.

Now my issues: The Barrow suffers from the cardinal sin of not giving me any character I actually like - I had problems with absolutely everyone. I'm very used to despicable characters in George RR Martins and Joe Abercrombie's works (these are the most similar type writers and I'm a big fan of both) but one way or another Smylie turned me off of every player here.
Erim, the woman sellsword pretending to be a man just isn't interesting, Harvald is interesting but far too morally reprehensible for me to get behind, his sister Annwyn just grated on me with her passivity and their brother Arduin is the pompous nobleman's son we have seen a million times before - not that people like that don't exist but nobody you enjoy and that's fine because we have other characters - BUT
Leigh, an exiled magus, he is such a crazed despicable man I couldn't enjoy his dark humor, Godewyn Red Hand a tough bandit leader doesn't make me root for him in any way and Gilgwyr, brothel owner extraordinaire had me despising him immediately,
And finally the main character that everything and everyone revolve around is Stjepan Black-Heart, a bisexual renegade royal cartographer. My issue with him is = too wise, too renowned, too smart, too everything - every single place they traveled in the book everyone knows him - give me a break! And yet Arduin didn't know him? Stjepan is his brothers best friend but Arduin has no idea who Stjepan is but every other person in no matter what out of the way backwater inn they go does?

And just too much graphic sex that doesn't move the story at all is all over the place, if I was going to give the book a nutshell Dungeons & Dragons name it would be Catacombs & Cocks - I'm not kidding, way too much detail for things that don't move the story. It really threw me out of the book every time. I probably could have enjoyed the characters a bit more if I didn't have graphic detail on their personal sexual deviations, but it permanently gave me opinions about them that I just couldn't get beyond.

Granted that's me and my taste, make of it what you will - I didn't even feel this extreme about Jaime and Cersei of Game of Thrones. The book is a standalone, while leaving things open for continuing adventures, there were some holes for me though. Some of Stjepans friends actions showed me very early in the book what kind of people they were and why they would betray him - if he was so wise why didn't he see it? Their actions early in the book  are exactly why I didn't like any of them - trying to watch my spoilers here. I also didn't care for the two epilogues.

So - story wise, its a pretty good book - can I recommend it? Probably not - you have to know what you are in for - if you want epic sword & sorcery and you're cool with fifty shades of grey - get it.
As for me, IF I had thumbed it open and read just the first paragraph of the opening Gilgywr chapter I wouldn't have bought it.

I believe the sequel Black Heart is coming next year and while Smylie is a talented fantasy writer I don't plan on reading it.


Paul R. McNamee said...

I'm all for realistic touches in fantasy but it is *fantasy*. I think some writers go overboard trying to make it 'real' which instead pulls me out of the story.

Or, just doesn't interest me because I want to get away from reality when I'm reading fantasy.

Charles Gramlich said...

I do need a sympathetic character most of the time. I'm surprising myself by reading the Parker books by STark and liking them. Not really sympathetic characters there.

Keith West said...

My reaction was pretty much the same as yours, only moreso. Hell, if I'd read the opening line of the first Gilgwyr chapter, never mind the first page, I wouldn't have bought the book.

I got my copy as a review copy, so fortunately I didn't buy the book. I tried to read this book twice, and both times never got past more than a few chapters. The endless descriptions of erections and the twisted sex completely turned me off. About the only kink I didn't encounter was necrophilia, and if it showed up later, I don't want to know. You're a stronger man than me for slogging through to the end. Reading fantasy is supposed to be fun, and if I feel like I have to wash my mind out with lye when I'm done, it isn't fun.

I agree that the worldbuilding was incredibly detailed, almost too much so. There are only so many details I can keep up with before they start falling out of the holes in my head. Still, Smiley created a great world.

And while I loved the premise of a group of rogues trying to steal a sword from the barrow of a dead wizard, I felt the same way about the characters as you. There were none I would want to spend time with either in real life or in fiction.

What I read of this book was extremely disappointing.

Paul R. McNamee said...


I just skimmed through the Kindle preview. I lost count of the number of times characters say "Fuck/ing" in dialog.

Swearing doesn't automatically equal gritty & grim. I'm not against swearing in life or writing, but it has to count.

This just seems juvenile.

Paul R. McNamee said...

p.s. - "Catacombs & Cocks"

You win the Internet today, sir!

David J. West said...

Too right Paul

Charles, this was the longest thing I've read in recent memory wherein I didn't like anyone, usually I put it down, but it was pretty dang good world building and mystery.

Keith, the audiobook solved my issues, I wanted to listen to something what with all my driving lately and so I went ahead and grabbed the audio from Tantor - but yikes, I had to turn it off whenever I picked up my kids whereas I left Monster Hunter International on and they liked that.

Paul, I can deal with language IF it seems true to character, having worked a lot of construction in my time (years past) I am quite used to it. But I just was so bogged down on the porno details of every single sexual escapade here and no real reason storywise for any of it.

When we meet Godwynn Red Hand he is having a go at some Countess while her man at arms looks on and all of Godwynns crew watch and fap along - it didn't seem warranted for story and seemed unlikely as far as anything historical goes when it comes to nobility etc.

Heh, and thanks for that, I was trying to think of something D&Desque while halfway thru the book just for the sake of this review.