The Barrow Rothdas book review RSS
2-4 Stars

I finished the book last night, and, um, wow.

The markings in this book mostly consist of three runes. The first rune, the Rune of Fantasy-Adventure, is the most successful. The main storyline is interesting, enjoyable, fast, and bloody, and it reminded me of several of my favorite Fritz Leiber stories. There are tomb robbings, library thievings, politicing, plotting, magic, cults, overland travel encounters, and in general it reads like an extended RPG adventure that turned out really, really well. I thought Smylie did a great job of this, and if the book was just this adventure story I would give it 4 stars.

The second rune is the Rune of RPG-Designer-Turned-Novelist, which is less successful. The world building is kind of odd, and draws very heavily on the Artesia RPG book. In many ways it feels like a novelistic walk though of all the concepts laid out in the RPG book. At times Smylie veers into describing the story via his game mechanics, rather than telling a story that could potentially be explained by the game mechanics. There are also more than occasional info dumps. I was thinking that it would be like Chris suddenly deciding to expound at length to his companions about some familiar topic, but then I remembered that the main protagonist is also an academic, so maybe this part is actually realistic. :) Smylie also has this tendency to overproduce in terms of fictional constructs. This works for him really well in terms of designing RPGs, but not so much in terms of story telling. Where some authors would have a fictional city gang or three, Smylie will bring in a dozen. Ditto with nobles, retainer knights, vassal relations, bloodlines, cultures, provinces, forts, etc. These all tend to be dumped on you at the same time too, rather than being introduced and characterized one at a time. I'm not sure how this would read to someone who was not already familiar with the RPG and the comics, but it seems like it would be even more confusing to a complete new comer. Then again maybe the newness of the world building would make it more interesting to them?

The third and final rune is the Rune of Wat. This rune first appears on page 23, and then re-occurs every 10 pages or so up until page 200. After that it largely disappears, before making a triumphant comeback near the close of the book. You will be going along in this great fantasy adventure story, and then all of a sudden it will be like bam, Smylie whips out an at-length description of someone's veiny, glistening cock or night long 4 way or whatever. He definitely follows Checkov's dictum that if you have a corrupt priestess wearing a severed unicorn horn in Act I, then 2-3 pages later she will bloodily and graphically violate someone with it. These sections were the weakest of the novel, since A) they seem wildly out of place with the rest of the story, B) they greatly limit the people who are going to like/not be disgusted by the novel, and C) wow, I was actually surprised that you are allowed to print stuff like this and then just keep it on a general shelf at Barnes and Nobles.

So, overall the book is kind of a hot mess. I would probably read a sequel when it comes out in six years, but I wouldn't put the novel at the same level as either the RPG or the comics.

Minor notes:
- the book is quite long (600 pages!), which I failed to realize when looking at a 2D image of it on Amazon. It was only when the book store clerk handed over this giant tome that I realized what I had gotten into.
- There are a number of technical descriptions of arms and armor, which I thought could have benefited from having pictures. Smylie already has 3 pages of maps and ~10 pages of glossary, I think he could have stolen a few of the beautiful pages from his RPG/comics and dropped them in to show what a pallor helm or whatever actually looks like.

Massive, Massive spoiler notes. Invisible to the un-initiated:

So, yeah, the sex in this book. Initially it's not easy to square what I think I know about Mark Smiley (progressive, intelligent, humane, feminist in a sort of Joss Whedon way), with the sex scenes in this book, which seem to be a mixture of prurience, sadism, necrophilia, um, and I'm sure there's a number of other descriptors I am leaving out. My head cannon is that Mark Smylie is not necessarily a terrible person, and that he wasn't writing those scenes with just one hand. I think what is going on is somewhat mirrored in the book, where you have the Aurian/Divine King culture, which is conservative, patriarchal, and restrictive when it comes to sex, vs the Old Religion culture which is much more free-love and somewhere between matriarchal and egalitarian. Take for instance the first Wat Rune in the book, where Erim looks at three of the other grave robbers, and then starts this recollection of a story she had heard about a MMMF foursome in one of the Dievan temples. I think the intial reaction to that is a kind of eww, what is this penthouse letters interlude doing in the middle of my swords-and-sorcery adventure. And if you were to look around in our culture for MMMF porn, I would hazard a guess that that most of it is not really pro-F, but rather views the F as being in a degrading or lesser position. That is not really required though, it's just what is typical in our culture. From an Old Religion perspective, the MMMF story is more like a guy talking about this wild party he had on spring break where he slept with 3 chicks at once. It's an accomplishment, or a conquest, or a good time, but not something that is degrading or dishonorable or makes him lose face. Viewed from this perspective, and also given that the Old Religion culture has used magic/prayer to take control of their reproductive health and eliminate STDs, then I think most of the sex scenes in the book become unobjectionable. The final barrow scene isn't necrophilia, rather it is a princess breaking free from patriarchal constraints and using her vagina to conquer a lich king. It's basically not any different from Erowyn of whatever beating the Witch-King and his Nazgul at the end of LoTR, and is practically ready for its Disney movie treatment. There are some sex scenes which are still objectionable, but I think those are because the people in them/causing them are evil, and are quite literally (fictionally) going to hell. Despite the above, I'm not sure the book really works. If you look at the initial 15 Goodreads reviews, 0 out of 15 take the above interpretation. Most of the reviews are like "yeah! grimDark!", or are like "I reached the 7th or 8th Wat by page 150, and then I stopped reading this terrible, terrrible book". And I think that latter response is perfectly rational, especially if you know nothing about Smylie's other work before starting this novel. It's a bit like if Banks wrote Player of Games, but through the fiction completely failed to make it clear that Azad was supposed to be the bad society. And then some of the reviewers are like "yeah, Azad seemed neat and grimDark and gritty", while the other 35% of the readers simply threw the book away after being sufficiently offended. I suppose that this does somewhat mirror Smylie's theme of hidden knowledge and interpretations inside texts? Personally though I think a better idea would be to write something which makes clear what it is trying to say, and isn't going to be mis-interpreted by a large majority of its audience.