REVIEWS

The Barrow can be considered a prequel for the comic book series, but familiarity with the comics is not required to read The Barrow; indeed, it was written to introduce the world and characters to fantasy readers who haven’t seen the comics.  Interview, reviews and author blurbs are listed and excerpted below as they come in, in chronological order (so oldest first and most recent last):

Interviews

Cover Lover: Behind the Scenes with The Barrow at the BiblioSanctum

Author Interview with Mark Smylie at The Book Plank

Interview with Mark Smylie at The Qwillery

Dig into the Barrow at Sequential Tart

Mark Smylie returns to the world of Artesia in prose novel at CBR/Robot 6

Interview with Mark Smylie at Civilian Reader

Q&A: Mark Smylie Talks About ‘The Barrow’ at Fantasy Review Barn

Exploring The Known World with Mark Smylie at Bibliosanctum

Lists & Such

Runner-Up for Best Grimdark, Most Violent, Best Audiobook, Best Action AND Most Disappointing in Ben & Jon’s Best Fantasy 2014 Awards at BestFantasyBooks

One of eleven titles on Mogsy’s Fantasy List in her Best of 2014 and Year in Review at the BiblioSanctum

#2 in the Sword and Sorcery category on Sarah Chorn’s Epic Best Books of 2014 List at BookwormBlues

Katherine Keller’s Favorite Book on the Best Books We Read – 2014 Lists at Sequential Tart

#16 on the Best Anti-Hero Fantasy Books List at BestFantasyBooks

#16 on the Best Grimdark Fantasy Books List at BestFantasyBooks

Reviews

“The world that Mark Smylie creates here (the world of Artesia and The Barrow) is both lurid and gorgeous. It is an unforgiving realm full of dangerous secrets, fae sorcery, and scurrilous antiheroes. Smylie’s characters struggle beneath the iron weight of a history ripe with conquest, terror, and tragedy… The Barrow blends the pulp thrills of sword-and-sorcery with epic sensibilities worthy of Tolkien and Martin. It is an unflinching look at the twisted and damaged souls of an ancient city’s underclass, a band of roguish treasure-hunters who live by the blade, the spell, and the pleasures of the flesh. Genuinely inspired, shockingly erotic, and completely fantastic, The Barrow is an immersive read that grabs you in its own strange gravity and leaves you craving more: More secrets, more battles, more magic, more of your favorite characters–including the ones you love to hate. Definitely not for the squeamish or the faint-of-heart, The Barrow puts the ‘adult’ back into Adult Fantasy. It is bloody beautiful.”

– John R. Fultz
Author of Seven Sorcerers and the Books of the Shaper Trilogy

“A gritty fantasy adventure set in a vivid and complex world. Fans of Joe Abercrombie and Scott Lynch will love The Barrow.”

– Mike Lee
Author of Fallen Angels and The Rise of Nagash

“I love Mark Smylie’s world. Fans of deep, intricate settings with complex cultures and fascinating histories are in for a treat with The Barrow. Anyone who likes Steven Erikson should check this out.”

– Django Wexler
Author of The Thousand Names

“Thieves with high connections conspire to find a lost treasure in a grim quest fantasy that gradually heats to a satisfying boil… After a very slow start, the story hits its stride once the adventurers begin the trip to near-certain doom at the titular barrow. Plot twists and character work are the highlights, with Smylie doing a great job of developing individual personalities within the large cast. The novel shares a setting with Smylie’s Artesia graphic novels, but it’s entirely accessible to new readers. Despite the book’s pacing flaws and a preponderance of casual violence and sexism, fans of quest-centered stories will find this well worth their time.”

– Publishers Weekly

“As the reader, I felt like I was transported right there — and that is both a wonderful and terrifying experience, considering the type of world we’re thrown into, one filled with dark magics, shady politics, and disreputable characters… This is a book that pulls you in immediately, starting with an explosive intro that sets the tone and mood of the story quite nicely…possibly one of the most heart-pounding prologues that has ever graced the pages of a fantasy novel…  Everything that happens after they find the Barrow is pure insanity.”  4.5/5 stars

– Mogsy at the BiblioSanctum

“Plot-wise, this is a story that’s as deceptive as its characters… There are curses and conspiracies, political schemes and criminal agendas, and plots and counterplots to be navigated…with the final act of the story tying everything together, and revealing just how significant and how connected those events are. [The ending] pays off in every respect. Whereas many fantasy novels build up our expectations with hints, promises, and threats of monstrous violence, only to stop short, Smylie delivers on his promises. From monstrous to madness, from necromancy to necrophilia, the events of the climax goes far beyond what we might have anticipated. He allows the worst to happen…and then pushes the horror even farther. There are no close calls or near escapes here, just one crushing defeat after another, with a victorious twist.”

– Bob Milne at Beauty in Ruins

“Oh this book ain’t going to be for everyone… Rough and creative uses of the more colorful aspects of the English language are only the beginning of the hedonism within… 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… 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… I love getting everything I hoped for in a new book.”  5 stars

– Nathan at Fantasy Review Barn

“What The Barrow really is, once it gets going, is a gonzo, turbo-charged epic fantasy played with full distortion on an amp turned up to 11.”

Two Dudes in an Attic

From a mixed review, nonetheless: “If you’re in the mood for an epic quest story, this should be on your shopping list.”

Don D’Amassa

From another mixed review (from the first reviewer to note the Player’s Handbook homage in the prologue): “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… [But w]e’re given too much detail, too many times…a shame, as beneath all this there lurks a fresh and original fantasy story set in a unique and fascinating world.”  6 out of 10

– Alister Davison at Starburst Magazine

The Barrow is shockingly complex, full of family drama, political drama, and plenty of self-discovery. All of this, along with the main plot, really makes The Barrow a novel that is just as deep as it is exciting. Somehow, some way, Smylie did the incredible. He made all of the book’s flaws its many incredible strengths, and that’s what makes The Barrow so wonderful. This novel is intense, and gritty, and uncomfortable, and full of blood, cursing, and sex, with characters that are both wonderful and disgusting in the same breath. It is a book with an epic, well-realized, fantastic world so beautifully done, but also just as broken and battered as the people who inhabit it.” 5/5 stars

– Sarah Chorn at Bookworm Blues

“…[A]lthough this was a quest type story, it felt very fresh and it was enjoyable figuring out its complexities. It caused me to think; a lot, which some readers might find difficult but I found pleasurable. The lore and history are woven tightly into the plot and there is so that it could make up its own book. I thought it was wonderfully delivered as well. Sometimes in fantasy, lore can be placed a bit awkwardly but not here. If you love lore, as do I, this book has some of the richest I have ever read. The ending was excellent and sets up for what could be an even better second book… I hope this book gets the recognition it deserves because I rank it with George R.R. Martin, as well as the authors I already mentioned, Steven Erikson and Joe Abercrombie, in terms of quality, grittiness, and epic world building. If you enjoy grimdark, and those 3 authors, this is a must-read book.” 5/5 stars

– Phil Witvleit at Grimdark Reader 

A somewhat snide review, but still: “…[T]his is high-octane epic fantasy in the modern vein, as complex as anything in Steve Erikson and as compulsively homicidal as anything in George R. R. Martin. Smylie’s a long-time veteran of that fantasy vein, and although The Barrow is his first novel, it’s going to leave many, many readers fervently hoping it’s not his last.”

– Steve Donoghue at Open Letters Monthly

“The other major strength of the novel is the diversity of the motley protagonists, often with unusual characteristics and traits. And everyone in this novel are juggling multiple secrets to go along with their natures. Far from being a set of adventurers of fortune from central casting, Stjepan and his colleagues are distinct and realized, each with hopes and goals of their own…  [I]t has been too long since the author has provided readers with new material in the world of Artesia, and even if this is set before the timeline of the rise of Stjepan’s sister and the events she is caught up in, the complicated plots, factions, action, and sensuality from the graphic novels are all here in written form. There’s wide open spaces of room, physically and temporally for more novels set in the Known World and I would love to have a chance to read them if Smylie is inclined to write more of them.” 4/5 stars

– Paul Weimer at SF Signal

The Barrow contains one of the most well-drawn and vivid worlds that I’ve read recently, though it wasn’t without its issues… If you like your fantasy dark, your characters darker, and your worlds deep (dark) and full of terrors*, Mark Smylie’s debut The Barrow will have you by the teeth by the end of one of the most exciting prologues I’ve read and it will hold on all the way through the equally impressive finale. *Please don’t sue me GRRM/HBO.” 4/5 stars

– Patrick Doherty (Patremagne) at A Bitter Draft

From a mixed review, but still: “I haven’t quite figured out how Mark Smylie pulled it off. The book has some obvious excellences, and some obvious failings, and some oddities that might be mistaken for one only to turn out to be the other… As the endgame of the novel came in sight, there were only three characters I cared about at all — the enigmatic hero Stjepan Black-Heart, the cross-dressing street fighter Erim, and the disgraced noblewoman Annwyn. I kept coming back to my two snarky rhetorical questions: How are these two women going to survive ten more minutes surrounded by all those sociopaths? And when is Stjepan going to have a male friend who does not suck? Only it turns out those are the questions that matter most, and several of the glitches I had mistaken for goofs on the author’s part ended up being the keys to the story’s other puzzles… For all that this is a mixed review, I’m rooting for Mark Smylie.”

– Sarah Avery at Black Gate

“There’s more than a hint of the graphic novel that inspired it in this vividly depicted and beautifully detailed debut. Combining dark elements, action, sex, magic and violence The Barrow instantly engages, dragging the reader deep into the earth in search of a map… The barrow raids were far and away the best part of this novel; exciting, fast paced, nail-biting, terrifying at times and brutal with quick POV changes and tons of action. I read the final barrow raid in a rush, and from a hundred pages to the end the book is completely unputdownable.” 7/10 lascivious dragons

– Helen Petrovic at High Fantasy Addict

“…I love all the characters, mainly because none of them are particularly likable and none of them are your typical fantasy heroes or even your typical fantasy anti-heroes. Let’s just say that I will be inviting none of them over for dinner… [The Barrow] is a dark and unique gem within the fantasy genre.” 4/5 stars

– Wendy Browne at the BiblioSanctum

The Barrow is a dark, epic fantasy full of magic, curses, violence, and sex. The characters in the book are not heroes… They are greedy, self-absorbed, and often have ulterior motives which helps make this book so entertaining. This is a world where everyone is hiding something, and trust is hard to come by… Certainly not a book for everyone, The Barrow offers something dark and gritty woven around the traditional treasure hunting trope.” 5/5 stars

– Whitney Smyth at Portland Book Review

“The story starts off with one the best prologues I’ve ever read… [W]hile the worldbuilding is near perfect, the characterbuilding is nothing short of sublime. All of Smylie’s characters have their flaws and the author develops them as a true master of words… Once you think you’ve figured it all out, Smylie throws in another surprise, all perfectly plausible and explained and well developed. It reminded me sometimes of the movie The Usual SuspectsThe Barrow is…a good old quest fantasy with great characters in a great world and a superb storyline. It reminded me mostly of the Heroic Fantasy tales from the golden age of pulp magazines, though with a lot more depth. A truly splendid debut.”

– Dominick Swennen at Fantastical Imaginations

“If author Mark Smylie set out to write an epic magical, sensual, bloody adventure – then he’s done a fine job indeed… The story is incredibly detailed and quick moving. The characters are most definitely not black and white, and even the grey areas shift without notice. There are surprises aplenty and some seriously graphic encounters, both of the sensual nature and the bloody!… If you’re looking for a good old fashioned adventure with lots of spice and gore and doom…then this is perfect for you.”

Geeky Godmother

 “The prologue that Smylie wrote for The Barrow is one of the best I’ve read in ages… The Barrow is a richly narrated, dark story that kept me hooked all the way through. The worldbuilding is extensive and interesting and the characters are varied and complex. Nothing is as it seems in this book, there are twists aplenty that will keep you on the edge of your seat…it’s one hell of a book.”

–  Cindy at Draumr Kópa 

From a bit of a mixed review: “The Barrow starts with a bang… [T]here is great world-building to be found in The Barrow with much, much lore. I have to admit I was really drawn in by Smylie[‘s] creation… When the barrow finally present itself…the surprises and betrayals finally add a layer of complexity to the plot and that was much needed to keep the main protagonists compelling. The ending, while the novel could remain a stand-alone book, is a nice opener for a future story of grander proportion… The Barrow is a fair debut with a great background for Smylie to work with… It’s a novel worth picking up for a large [spectrum] of Fantasy readers, not simply the gritty and grimy crowd.”

– Phil at A Fantasy Reader

Not quite Best of 2014, but a nice mention at BestFantasyBooks.com: “A rip roaring adventure that’s absolutely the definition of a classic ‘grimdark’ fantasy novel. Fans of Abercrombie’s First Law, Luke Scull’s The Grim Company, Jeff Salyards’ Scourge of the Betrayers, and Scott Bakker’s works will like this one… But oh is this book dark. The setting, the tone, the character interactions, the language, the explicit sexual imagery…it’s one of the better, more exciting Grimdarks this year…”

Ben at BestFantasyBooks.com

#2 in the Sword and Sorcery category for 2014: “The Barrow is raw, dirty, X-Rated and fantastic. It reminds me of a Dungeons and Dragons quest on some sort of drug. Everyone is flawed, which is half of what charmed me so much. The plot is fast moving, the world is stunningly realized, and the grit is, well, gritty. This is a book you won’t want to read if you don’t enjoy sex and violence, but if that sort of thing doesn’t bother you, do yourself a favor and check this one out. It’s not just the traditional quest plot. It’s so much more.”

Sarah Chorn at Bookworm Blues

Her Favorite Book of 2014: “…I would need another 5000 words to unpack the richness and density of all the things that Smylie has packed into The Barrow. It deals far more intelligently and thoughtfully with issues of sexuality, gender, race, religion, class, colonialism, and the complexities and nuances of oppression than anything else I’ve read in ages. But please don’t mistake it for a treatise written by a Social Justice Warrior ™ on a crusade. It’s got too much sex and fun for that… There’s not a dull moment in it, and, best of all, by the end of the book, you’ll laugh at yourself, for the best parts of The Barrow are hidden in plain sight. It’s a book that rewards close readings and re-readings.”

Katherine Keller at Sequential Tart

The Barrow by Mark Smylie is an ‘old school’ epic fantasy adventure story that could have come straight out of a Dungeons and Dragons campaign… I would say that the level of world-building here is almost on par with what Erikson and Esslemont have produced with their Malazan books. I have read other books with this level of world building contained within, and it has often been to the detriment of the story, but Smylie manages to communicate his world-building and exposition in such an interesting way that I found myself wanting to know more and more, even though it was taking me away from the main story. I think The Barrow acts as a great example of how to use detailed world building to complement a story, not overwhelm it… Every single character in this book feels like a fully realised person, with goals and dreams and a variety of different aspects motivating them, and the full cast of characters shows a wide array of cultural, ethnic, religious, sexual and gender diversity. The characters are what make this story so compelling… The Barrow is not for everyone, it deals with a wide range of explicit material and taboo topics, but if that type of stuff doesn’t bother you then I recommend you dive right in and join the expedition.” 8.5/10

Ryan Lawler at Fantasy Book Review UK



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