Review: The Barrow / Author: Mark Smylie / Publisher: Pyr / Release Date: April 4th
The Barrow begins with a group of adventurers entering an underground cavern, finding a giant idol, and stealing the huge gems that are its eyes. Anyone familiar with 1980s Dungeons & Dragons may see similarities to the cover of the Player’s Handbook from that period. This one’s a little different, however, in that a huge spiked phallus extends from it, upon which sacrifices are impaled. When trouble arrives, it’s a free-for-all amongst the characters as they scramble over each other in their efforts to escape. Thus the tone is set for author Mark Smylie’s debut novel, centred in the world of his Artesia comics and role-playing game.
On one hand it’s a cracking story, populated with interesting (although not all entirely likeable) characters who give the plot enough twists and turns to surprise even the most cynical of readers who think they’ve seen it all. It’s well-written, with a final act that grips and refuses to let go until the last page is turned. Getting there, however, can be hard work. The band of adventurers are comprised of the various shades of grey readers of Grimdark fantasy have come to expect, but here such qualities are turned up to eleven, taking many of them into the realm of cliché, as if the author has tried too hard – not to imitate, but to outdo.
The book is described as erotic and sensual, but such scenes often go too far, as if the intention is to shock rather than titillate. The author’s background in role-playing games shows, in that we’re given too much detail, too many times; on one occasion, there’s a half page internal monologue on dozens of other treasures that the party could have gone for, while conversations can be little more than history or geography lessons. Good to know, but certainly not vital to the plot; a shame, as beneath all this there lurks a fresh and original fantasy story set in a unique and fascinating world.