Fantasy Review: ‘The Barrow’ by Mark Smylie

The BarrowYou know those prologues that are long info dumps full of information that won’t have anything to do with the story until the halfway point of the book; at which point you have inevitably forgotten the characters introduced within and therefore miss the important revelation until after you reread the fucking book completely?  Don’t you hate those?  Wouldn’t it be better if the prologue was a kick ass adventure in its own right; introducing the stories main characters within their natural setting and actually setting the tone for the book rather than the author wanking about how cleverly they hid important clues?

The Barrow had a prologue that grabbed me quick and held on tight, it has been a while since I was invested in a story so fast.  No easing in, no foreplay what-so-ever.  We meet a crew raiding some ancient ruins, get a quick rundown of a few important people, and watch everything go to hell on them.  Some manage to escape, they head back to the city, and then the story actually gets its start.  By the time I actually saw the words Chapter One I was in love, and everything kept moving the right way from there.

Oh this book ain’t going to be for everyone.  Did you think my first paragraph of the review was a bit crude?  Then turn back now, because it was nursery school talk compared to what you may read in The Barrow.  Rough and creative uses of the more colorful aspects of the English language are only the beginning of the hedonism within.  Sexual depravity is a major theme, sexual acts are described in heavy detail and are guaranteed to make a reader either blush or just toss the book away in disgust.  But for me it fit the gritty nature of the book perfectly; men and women driven by passion, lusts, and their own agendas.

But this isn’t a cheap dark fantasy relying on shock value and sex to keep a few teenage boys interested in what lies within the pages.  This is a debut that stands out for its complexity and intelligence.  I have been known to accuse a book of not knowing what kind of story it wants to tell but this did something different; The Barrow knew damn well what kind of a story it was but refused to tell the reader until the end.  Oh, the basics are easy enough to follow; treasure hunters look for a famed sword in dangerous places.  But as we are told early on, “never get distracted by the obvious bright bauble.”  I could read this one again right now; I know there are threads I want to follow from start to finish all over again.

A lot of names drop in this book, and it takes some skill to make them all stand out.  Being dark fiction (and I guarantee GRIMDARK will be thrown around quite a bit) one would expect the characters to be a who’s who list of stock characters and tropes, yet this is one more thing Smylie does absolutely right.  Almost no one here fits the standard grimdark archetype, yet we still get the varied cast of dubious ruffians.  A man called Black Heart who can casually let someone die; yet takes great pains to ensure his crew’s families are taken care of.  A young girl presenting as a man; her role in the tale defined by her deeds rather than her gender or any fear of discovery.  There is an evil wizard, or is he?  Guess all you want, it will come through at the end.

Best of all is that as great as this book started (which I will rave about for quite some time), it ended even better.  No let down; just escalating action and twists and turns and stuff I want to go back and read all over.  Everything I thought I knew was wrong, up to and including the entire purpose of the trip for almost everyone involved.  As climaxes go it is one of the best I have read (well…, no never mind, not going there).

I love getting everything I hoped for in a new book.

5 stars

Review copy provided by the publisher.

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