This is a review of “The Barrow” the first book in the Barrow-series by Mark Smylie.
When a small crew of scoundrels discover a map that they believe will lead them to a fabled sword, they think they’ve struck it rich. But their hopes are dashed when the map appears to be destroyed in a magical ritual, until they rediscover the map in a most unusual and unexpected place. United by accident and dark design, they set out on a quest that will either get them all in the history books…. or get them killed.
The world is very well thought out. It is big and incredibly populated, and well described. The history of the world has been carefully thought out and lovingly crafted, there is no doubt about that at all. It is clear that the Author took inspiration from real life history and cultures, but he also made it his own.
Stjepan’s Athairi past was interesting, and there should have been more of it. Erim was a strong female character generally speaking, and Arduin was a steadfast knight who never went out of character. Leigh was cooky and interesting, and Gilgwyr was a smarmy bastard that made the story fun until the end.
When it comes to the story itself, it was a solid one. Up until the very end of it, where it started to fall apart at the seams. And until then it suffered greatly and was painfully bogged down by bad stuff.
Oh, where to start on the bad stuff?
Too much time was spent on the first one-third of the book, where the characters have to get together. It left the last part of the book – the barrow itself – less than 180 pages, and that is far too little considering the buildup it was given until then.
The characters are rather useless all around. Stjepan didn’t get to do a thing except to guide them from point A to point B, and he was clearly the Author’s Darling. Also, there should have been more hint of his real employers throughout the story. Erim complained a lot about her lot in life, but nothing was done about it. The fact that she was usually hidden away during the journey and we were never really given the chance to get to know her, made the change in Annwyn too sudden. One remark from her maid is all the hint we had, and that was not enough. Leigh and Gilgwyr and Harvald being worshipers of the Nameless Cult was also too sudden. There were no hints of it, no changes in personality until the very end, nothing that the did at the start which might seem out of character for them.
The grammar is some of the worst I have ever seen. There are painfully long, run-on sentences and superfluous information and constant info-dumps about things that are quite useless and irrelevant to the story. There is no need for a two-page essay on which countries do circumcise their children, and which country doesn’t. Or the fact that the main character is carrying a spyglass in his pack, but he doesn’t need it. Nor do we need to know the names and ranks of knights that have fought in a tournament over ten years ago. It was as if the author was trying to emulate Tolkien or even Martin, but fell painfully short on both accounts.
The biggest complaint is the ridiculous focus on sex. Each main character we are introduced to, gets one or more pages of text about their sexual preferences or lack thereof, Gilgwyr’s being the worst by far. Not only that but women are, apparently, sex-obsessed and mad for it, and the only sex they can have is painful and against their will. Men, on the other hand, will always have good, pleasurable, non-rape sex (especially with other men), and if a male character actually forces a woman to do something against her will, then we as readers know that he is evil and that he will die a painful, horrible death.
This brings us to the final complaint: the treatment of women in this story. Three paragraphs into the Erim’s point of view, she has already imagined a complete orgy and just how much she would have loved to join in on it. And also how stupid she felt when she couldn’t count the numerous steps, but the men around her could. Annwyn was such a victim and quite useless until the last 80 pages, where she suddenly turned into a sex-obsessed libertine who raped a man, and then had sex with a corpse animated by magic and maggots before disappearing into the earth with the dead.
All in all, if a couple of dozen editors had the chance to go through the book, then it might actually have been good. As it stands, it is a story of porn dreamed up by an adolescent boy, with some adventure thrown in for good measure, and where the best characters are the secondary ones.
I will most definitely not be touching the second book in the series.