Roughly two months prior to the time of writing, I found a pair of emails in the Two Dudes inbox from Pyr inviting me request copies of upcoming books. Somewhat boggled, I logged on to the indicated ARC service, Edelweiss, and asked for The Barrow. A few days later, approval came through and I downloaded the first ever unsolicited review copy for Two Dudes. It would be grossly dishonest of me to claim that I didn’t giggle like a school girl. (I only asked for one of the two books on offer knowing how busy my reading schedule would be. I am also glad that I opted for an ebook, since the trade paperback is 600+ pages and probably very heavy.) All of this is a roundabout way of saying that I got me a free copy of this here book, but by golly my review is nothing but my heartfelt opinion. Said opinion is literally dripping with integrity. (I mean that – I just wiped a bit of integrity off the keyboard.)
I believe The Barrow is what kids these days call “grimdark.” In the prologue, we meet a motley assortment of thieves and temple defilers, read several bad words that may or may not start with the letter “f,” witness multiple grisly deaths at the hands of diabolical cultists, and catch a passing reference to the Goddess of Perversion. Somewhere in these first pages we also learn that the hero is often called “Blackheart.” It is very grim. And, er, dark. Things don’t necessarily get any cheerier, though some individuals in the story are occasionally quite cheery. For example, the point of view soon jumps to a brothel owner who is particularly jaunty because he has just corrupted the equivalent of a young, earnest Templar in horrid ways. Fortunately, we don’t spend too much time in his head, instead staying primarily with the aforementioned Blackheart, actually named Stjepan, and his sidekick Erim. Both are actually sympathetic and complex; the former a cartographer and warrior (try rolling that with a d20!) and the latter a woman pretending to be a male soldier.
Before digging further into the world and story, I should briefly address the grimdark aspects. Oddly enough, the book wasn’t nearly as graphically violent as I expected. Lots of people die in a variety of painful ways, but somehow none of it seemed especially shocking or brutal. (Too much Vietnam-flavored Military SF for me perhaps?) In contrast, there was a healthy dose of grunting, sweaty, bathhouse trysts, incestuous molestation, the plotting of a ritual involving a bull and a nubile maiden, and several more pedestrian events. I present no value judgments here, but will confess to occasionally wondering, “Why, Mr. Smylie, of all the possible details in this scene to highlight, did you focus on THAT one?” Or, in other words: Mom, if you’re reading, probably stay away from this one. After the beginning though, things aren’t really as nihilistic as one might expect. In fact, several of the characters are, if not likable, than at least understandable. (Most are quite reprehensible of course, and this includes members of the party that we are ostensibly cheering for.)
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. Most of the conventions are here: a quest for a lost artifact of power, a map, a party of adventurers, lost empires, a mage who lives in a cursed tower, a European-style kingdom with a Christianity-esque religion, even a last stay at a sprawling inn complex on the border. The world building is extensive, but conventional, and while there are twists and surprises in the plot, they are all happening within the constraints of a familiar setting. Within these clichés however, Smylie acts like a head-banging dungeon master fueled by Red Bull and hallucinogenic toad secretions. The artifact is, wait for it, a magic sword, but that’s where most of the usual stuff ends. The party is mostly loathsome, the mage is a self-aware bit of hilarity, certain characters are devoured by cannibals, and the map spends much of its time appearing on a naked woman.
Smylie’s world is vast, with a deep history. I should have expected this, since it is the same world as his long running Artesia comic series and already has an RPG built around it. (I am familiar with neither.) What I have seen is fairly typical of European-based, second world fantasy, though it has more of a modern feel to it than some. Not technologically of course, but the societies and language lend a certain punk-gothic sensibility to the whole thing. Stepjan, for example, has important nipple rings. I have no idea what this means, but it must be significant as it is pointed out several times. No churlish knaves here, just transvestite gang bosses. Something tells me that no matter how much I delve into Tolkien’s obscure writing, I won’t see any of that.
The Barrow is mostly about fun, grimdark or no. Fantasy is one of those genres that rewards the author for going over the top, so Smylie swings for the fences. He’s not going to score any points for subtlety or grace, nor will literature lovers return again and again for insights into the human condition. Instead, he invites us to enjoy sword hunting capers, metastasized college frat pranks, airborne severed heads, audacious and nefarious characters, and of course that Goddess of Perversion. The Barrow is brainier than I expected, but mostly it was a good yarn. I spent more time than is healthy laughing and shaking my head. Will I tune in for part two? Probably. Will I check out the comics? I am intrigued, though I am not much of a comic reader. Would I recommend this to my friends? Yes, though only if they’re already on the grimdark train. This isn’t really something I’d give to fans of prancing elves or doughty hobbits.