The Barrow by Mark Smylie
The wizard, the warrior (she cross-dresses to get the part), the thief and the Rogue (sorry no barbarian this time round) go into an inn. “Drinks all round!” calls out the Rogue and so the game begins. Yes we’re in the land of RPGs, specifically Quests and, to prove the point, The Barrow by Mark Smylie (Pyr, 2014) (see the Artesia graphic novels) starts us off in full tomb-robbing mode. When the label “sword & sorcery” was being coined back in the 1960s, the general practice was to have the heroes gather, set off quietly, and build to a big set-piece at the end when mayhem, usually both violent and magical, was allowed full rein. This book rather breaks with convention by showing a team in action as they approach an underground temple. Within just a few pages, they have boldly gone below and are soon fighting for their lives as the worshippers don’t take too kindly to their temple being violated (again). While the acolytes go hand-to-hand with the intruders, the priestess gets into the business of an invocation and, as the light fades, something this way comes and it’s not going to stop with just pricking thumbs. Fortunately, the main protagonist, Stjepan, aka Black-Heart, has found what he was looking for and, together with Erim (she’s undetectably doing the man’s job of hacking away at all-comers) and Harvald, they escape with The Map! Yes, the thieves were preparing to carry away treasure, but the enigmatic Stjepan, cartographer and other things to Kings, was only interested in finding the route to the ultimate treasure. Not surprisingly, he’s on the track of the legendary sword Gladringer which was reputedly buried along with a wizard called Azharad — not to be confused with Abdul Alhazred, the Mad Arab from Lovecraftian Mythos.
Having now demonstrated he can write exciting set-pieces in underground locations, our attention switches to the city and something rather sad happens. By way of introduction, I should confirm the story being told is actually quite interesting. The politics of this society and the subsequent travel across the landscape of this fantasy world are done well. Indeed, the problem comes from the attention to detail in the world-building. This is a six-hundred page book — intermediate in size since one or two books are now weighing in at more than one-thousand pages. Obviously, a lot happens in a book this long, but there’s also a vast amount of infodumping going on to introduce everyone, explain where they are, the history of the places, the religious significance of different practices, and so on. If you didn’t keep having to slow down to read it all, this would no doubt be considered an excellent adventure book. But it can’t seem to make up its mind what it wants to be. The opening section suggests it wanted to be rip-roaring, non-stop action, but once we get back above ground, it’s like the author wanted to show all us Doubting Thomases just how much effort he had invested in making up all this stuff. Shame really. If someone on the editorial staff had taken an axe to the book as submitted, there was a wonderful 400 page epic fantasy waiting to be told in crisp, elegant prose.
Instead, it gets rather boring. You can tell the author was also finding it heavy going because, from time to time, he tries to divert attention from the plodding nature of the prose by introducing some sex scenes. In a way, this book reminded me of the Gor novels by John Norman. When our professor got tired of expounding on the merits of the social Darwinism underpinning his fictional societies and their cultures, he would allow the dominant men to show their women a good time (remember Lange also wrote a more academic book — only joking — arguing that sexual fantasies, often of a BDSM variety, would help couples improve their sex lives). Well some of the sex in this book is slightly more graphic than even our good professor would have fantasised about on paper (or perhaps elsewhere for that matter).
Anyway, once back in town, Harvald assigns himself the task of decursing The Map, but things don’t go quite as planned and the physical document is destroyed. Depending on your point of view, this is not the end of matters. The Map does not go quietly up in smoke, but elects to reappear in another location — tickets to view are soon on private sale. With the security situation deteriorating, Stjepan and Erin join with Gilgwyr the brothel impresario and Leigh, the unreliable wizard, to find the Barrow where the sword is believed buried. About two-thirds of the way through the book, the team enter said barrow and discover there are difficulties to overcome — not a total surprise.
So The Barrow suffers from many of the problems common to first novels which set off down fairly well-travelled plot roads. Mark Smylie has attempted to compensate for the underlying lack of originality by adding in detail. This leaves me blaming the publisher whose editorial staff should have taken control of the book, cut out all the dead wood, and distilled the remainder of the plot down to a manageable length.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.