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Book Review: The Barrow

By (March 19, 2014) No Comment

The Barrowthe barrow cover

by Mark Smylie

Pyr, 2014


A certain old lady of my acquaintance, a dear, querulous thing fond of tepid soup and long naps, upkeeps a kind of literary commonplace book for her small circle of fellow Upper East Side congregants, all of whom like their fiction well-mannered and only decorously strange. When they’re feeling risque, they might countenance a novel whose hero is the b-word, but they’ll offer polite, dismissive laughter if the hero is the g-word – and as for the heroine being the l-word, well, no, obviously not. They’re dismayed by the reports they hear of certain basement book-groups on the wrong side of Lenox Avenue, and they’re collectively convinced that all genre fiction is some kind of extremely elaborate practical joke (when a best-selling novel billed to be about the Loch Ness Monster turned out in the end to be about Russian submarines, they basked in a contented reassurance not usually found outside of Tibetan monasteries). Mention “The Lord of the Rings” to this lady and her friends, and they’ll assume – with a naughty titter – that you’re referring to Liberace.

If you were to tell this old lady and her friends that Mark Smylie’s debut novel, The Barrow, is a 600-page fantasy novel, the smiles would desert their faces. If you were to elaborate that the novel’s history and setting evolved from a series of comic books, it’s possible they’d break out in hives. If you added – perhaps with a tiny lick of malice – that those comic books became the basis for a role-playing game, you’d send them into an Elizabeth Gaskell recovery session that may last for months.

And you’d still be softening things, because Smylie hasn’t written your grandfather’s Tolkien pastiche.

It’s still a Tolkien pastiche, and for fantasy-fiction readers who prize originality (no snickering, now – they exist, though you’re not likely to meet one), that tells against it. “Arduin” is too close to “Anduin,” “Annwyn” is too close to “Eowyn,” and the book’s central plot-hub, a haunted barrow housing an enchanted sword, is too close to the haunted barrows and enchanted swords that appear with regularity in The Hobbit and The Fellowship of the Ring (in fact, I’d bet my last wafer of lembas that Smylie himself learned the word “barrow” from reading Tolkien as a child). The Barrow jumps the reader right into the thick of the efforts of a fello-er, a group of disparate characters to trace the whereabouts of an ancient enchanted weapon across the length and breadth of Middle Ear- er, the Middle Kingdoms. But the standard quasi-skaldic pitch of most such pastiches doesn’t really interest Smylie. He’s also read his Joe Abercrombie, as is abundantly evident every time one of his characters says pretty much anything at all:

“Fuck you, Harvald,” hissed Guilford, suddenly angry enough to make most men take a step back. “You weren’t fucking there. Night battles, ambush and kidnappings, corpses strung up and flayed … the people of these hills do not fight fucking straight. They’re vicious little shits worse than anything you’ve ever seen in the big city. And the Rebel Earl and his men are still out here somewhere, a thousand fucking strong.”

But even if schoolyard-swearing is considered a strength, it’s not by any means the only strength on display here. Smylie doesn’t shy from his tendency to overwrite, and that often yields oddly pleasing results. These pages are slopped to their shoulders in froth and lather, full of passages whose florid excess is their only argument for their own existence. When the enchanter Leigh Myradim (one of the novel’s three actual fleshed-out characters, which sounds encouraging until you recall that the novel has 31,000 characters) decides to lay a curse upon the city of Therapoli, for instance, he leaves absolutely nothing to the poetic imagination:

“Your bodies will be aged and bent. Your heads and brains will be crushed in iron vises. Your eyes will be put out with pokers burning white and your foreheads will be carved with my name. Your ears and noses will be filled with the shit straight from my bowels. Your fields and pastures will lie fallow and in ruin. Your mouths and throats will be filled with the jism of my loins, your chests and hearts with straw and needles, your stomachs with glass, your blood with urine and fire, your hands and feet and all your members sawed from your bodies. You will be cursed going in and going out. You will be cursed in your city, in your towns, in your streets and your squares. You will be cursed when sleeping, where you will fall into nightmares from the Six Hells, and when awake, when you will see plague and ashes, boils and festers, fall upon your houses. Wrack and ruin will seize your ports and your markets, your temples and your courts. You will be cursed when eating and when drinking, when everything will taste of ash. You will speak nonsense to each other and hear screams when you are silent. You will pray for death, but the skies will be made of brass, so that the Divine King cannot receive you, and the earth will be made of iron, so that even the damned Underworld will be barred to you. You will be cursed in all places and at all times!”

Rather embroiders on “You shall not pass,” doesn’t it?

And occasionally – very occasionally – Smylie even risks the impatient ire of his core fan base (eighteen, angry, unkempt, almost unfathomably stupid) by pausing now and then for passages of thoughtful, almost baroque detail, as in this description of the aforementioned Annwyn:

The beauty for which she’d once been famous had not been drained from her face with her tears; if anything, she might have been even more beautiful than when she was younger. Smooth, pale alabaster skin that had not seen direct sun in years; straight golden hair like silk, being pulled back and worked into a bun by her handmaidens; full pale lips, wet and glistening. She wore no rouge or powder. Her beauty was not marred by the overwrought efforts that other women took to improve upon what the gods had given them, and so perhaps for that reason the gods had rewarded her by making her beauty seemingly impossible to improve upon. Her clear blue eyes were the only things to tarnish her looks, being, as the poets and bards had long ago declared, the so-called windows to the soul; for as her soul was dead, so too were her eyes.

Mostly, however, this 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.

Just don’t mention it on Lenox Avenue.