Mark Smylie returns to the world of Artesia in prose novel

Mark Smylie is important to comics for a couple of reasons: Not only does he make Artesia, an epic series of lushly drawn and intricately detailed military fantasy comics, but he also created the company Archaia in order to publish the series. He contributed a story to the Mouse Guard: Legends of the Guard anthology and has provided illustrations for collectible card and role-playing games, including the Artesia RPG he designed himself.

Last week, Smylie added to his accomplishments with the release of The Barrow, a prose novel set in the world of Artesia and published by Pyr.

As described by the publisher's websiteThe Barrow is about "a small crew of scoundrels, would-be heroes, deviants, and ruffians [who] discover a map that they believe will lead them to a fabled sword buried in the barrow of a long-dead wizard [and ...] think they've struck it rich. But their hopes are dashed when the map turns out to be cursed and then is destroyed in a magical ritual. The loss of the map leaves them dreaming of what might have been, until they rediscover the map in a most unusual and unexpected place."

The characters include "Stjepan Black-Heart, suspected murderer and renegade royal cartographer; Erim, a young woman masquerading as a man; Gilgwyr, brothel owner extraordinaire; Leigh, an exiled magus under an ignominious cloud; Godewyn Red-Hand, mercenary and troublemaker; Arduin Orwain, scion of a noble family brought low by scandal; and Arduin's sister Annwyn, the beautiful cause of that scandal: together they form a cross-section of the Middle Kingdoms of the Known World, brought together by accident and dark design, on a quest that will either get them all in the history books, or get them all killed."

As a big fan of Smylie's work, I talked to him about the novel, how it ties into the comics, and what it means for the future of Artesia.

Michael May: Mark, fans of your work will be excited to learn that not only have you written a new story, but that it's set in the same world as Artesia. Can you talk about how closely the two stories connect? Will we read about any of the Artesia characters in The Barrow, or is this a completely separate story?

Mark Smylie: The Barrow is essentially a prequel to the comics, though I wrote it so that it would be accessible to new readers, and familiarity with the comics is not required. Artesia herself only appears in it briefly, in some flashback-dream sequences that her brother Stjepan has; he’s one of the main characters in this story, and he’s the most obvious direct tie to the comics (where he appeared as a character) … well, other than the setting itself, of course.

Thematically, how close is The Barrow to the Artesia comics? I sense in some of the character descriptions that there's room to continue exploring the religion and gender politics that you touch on in Artesia. Are those important elements in The Barrow? What other themes from Artesia find their way into the novel?

Yes, a lot of the themes from Artesia can be found in The Barrow, though explored in a different way. Artesia was written as epic military fantasy, focusing on war and religion and sexual politics both at kind of a macro level and then through the lens of Artesia’s personal experience; since it’s told from her point of view that makes it very focused.

The Barrow is, oddly, both broader — because it’s told third-person, and follows a wide cast of characters — and smaller, in that it really takes a look at what is essentially a slice of the criminal underclass of one of the cultures in her world. I had in mind the idea of “Dungeons & Dragons meets Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels or The Usual Suspects” as the vibe; a group of rough hardcases engaged in what they think is a traditional quest narrative, searching for a lost treasure, but they’re all really screwed up and nothing is quite what it seems. Along the way you’re getting a look at this patriarchal, hierarchical culture (the Middle Kingdoms) and how it affects everyone; whether they’re the would-be heroes, antiheroes, or villains of the piece (and telling which from which is going to be difficult), the characters are all looking for some sort of escape from the conditions they find themselves in, with one or two possible exceptions. It’s actually something of a horror story, given the body count and the overall mood of the titular barrow.

The big question on a lot of fans' minds of course is what does The Barrow mean for the future of Artesia? Is this the beginning of a new series? Are you continuing to work on the Artesia graphic novels?

It was written as a stand-alone novel but it’s turned into the beginning of a series; Lou Anders, my editor at Pyr, asked me to pitch some follow-ups so I’m going to write at least two sequels. The sequels start to weave the surviving character(s) from The Barrow into the storyline of the Artesia comics, so readers of the comics will know what’s coming: the invasion of the Middle Kingdoms by the Thessid-Golan Empire, Artesia’s rise to become queen of Dara Dess, etc. In the current plan the next novel will introduce Artesia as a character and fill in some of the backstory of her serving as a captain in the Highlands; the third novel will overlap with and include the events of the first Artesia graphic novel, but be told from a wider variety of perspectives. I’d still like to finish out the Artesia Besieged series in particular, since it was kind of left hanging after Issue 3, but I’m not sure when that will happen.

May: process than creating a comic. If that's true, was that a factor in your decision? Were there other creative impulses that made you want to try prose?

]Yeah, time is the main problem with the comic. Actually drawing an issue of the comic takes close to three months of daily eight-hour-plus work, something which has been impossible given my work at Archaia (now an imprint at BOOM!), though that might change in the future. Writing has proven to be much faster as a process, so it was the only way I could think of that allowed me to return to the world and stories of Artesia with the time I could afford to give it.

There are also some interesting differences in what you can do with each medium; I think it’s a bit easier to present exposition in a novel in a less obtrusive way that makes fantasy fit more smoothly to the novel form than to the comics form, where because of panel and word balloon structure it becomes a lot harder to convey deep background about a fantasy setting or its cultures. I mean, nobody likes info-dumps in sf or fantasy, but you still kind of have to do them, I think, and so it becomes a question of how well you work the info-dumps into your narrative. Which seems easier to do in a novel than a comic.

Can you talk a little about how The Barrow ended up at Pyr? I'm curious because of the way that Artesia was published: starting out at Sirius before you self-published as Archaia. What's the advantage of publishing with an established publisher like Pyr as opposed to through Archaia or starting another publishing endeavor?

Smylie: Archaia has in the past experimented with moving into prose, but always with illustrated books — we published a set of Edgar Allan Poe’s works illustrated by the French illustrator Benjamin Lacombe (Tales of the Macabre), an illustrated Planet of the Apes novel by Drew Gaska, and an illustrated fable by Marjane Satrapi (The Sigh). That could occasionally be a frustrating experience; we had some trouble getting bookstores to properly stock Conspiracy of the Planet of the Apes, for example, we would find it in the graphic novel section rather than the sf/fantasy section, and I think that’s largely because Archaia is still primarily known as a graphic novel publisher. And I wanted to send a clear signal to readers (and retailers) that The Barrow was a full-fledged fantasy novel (well, I suppose epic fantasy horror, if that exists as a category), not a comic or a graphic novel or something masquerading as a fantasy novel.

I happened to be acquainted with Lou Anders over at Pyr and pitched him the project, and thankfully he agreed to take it on board. Pyr has made a solid name for itself presenting new fantasy and sf authors (they’ve launched Joe Abercrombie and James Enge, amongst others) and having some folks to help get the word out about the book has been a great experience. Having been published, been a self-publisher, and been a publisher, I am a strong advocate of the idea that an author needs a support team behind their work.

Related to that, probably, what's your current relationship with Archaia now that it's been acquired by BOOM? Will new Artesia books be published by Archaia/BOOM? 

I’m still with Archaia/BOOM, though I’m in the process of switching over some of my attention from the Archaia publishing imprint to focusing on building a new line of games for BOOM, based on what we did with the Artesia and Mouse Guard roleplaying games; hopefully we’ll have an interesting project or two to announce soon. I’ve had some preliminary discussions with Matt Gagnon and the other folks in the BOOM LA office about maybe getting back to the Artesia comics at some point, and if we can figure out a way for that to happen then yes, the rest of Besieged and any further comics or graphic novels would still be coming from the Archaia imprint.

Smylie was also kind enough to provide an excerpt from the prologue of The Barrow. He told me that it's "actually a bit of an homage to the front cover of the original AD&D Player’s Handbook; two characters from a rough group of adventurers have clambered to the top of an evil-looking idol and pried out the gems used for its eyes, revealing a map rolled in a case hidden in a crevice. This passage actually sets out some of the threads that run through the novel, about maps and escapes. A good portion of the prologue is available at a preview at Pat’s Fantasy Hotlist, and of course portions of the book can be read via the Amazon Look Inside program."

Stjepan unfurled the parchment paper on top of the bronze idol’s head as gingerly as he could. He had spent a long time handling maps and papers that were centuries old and practically disintegrated in his hands, and he had no desire for their prize to be snatched away from them now that they were so close. But he was happily surprised that the parchment appeared to be soft and supple. As it opened, his tone became almost reverent. “For the likes of us, the map is always the thing,” he said quietly. “It leads us to the next prize, the next journey, full of possibilities and promise.” Stjepan spread the parchment out, slowly revealing a set of symbols, drawings, letters, and diagrams.

What a thing of beauty, he thought. His face relaxed into a smile for the first time in days, and he lost his train of thought staring at the map.

“Every map is a chance to remake ourselves and our fortunes, find a way out of the lives that imprison us,” Harvald said, picking up where Stjepan had left off, his tone almost as reverent. Almost. “And this map . . . if it’s what we think it is . . . this one could be a map to end all maps.”

“They’re f*cking dreamers, kid, always looking for the treasure that will let them write their names in the history books,” said Guilford. He clapped a hand onto Erim’s shoulder. “Trust me, keep your eyes on the prize in your hands, the one you can actually touch, not the one in your mind’s eye that you can only get in your dreams.” She swallowed hard, looking up at his handsome face, feeling the warmth of his hand on her shoulder. Part of her wanted to melt inside. He didn’t seem to notice, and he turned and looked up the idol. “What’s this map supposed to be to, then, Black-Heart?”

“The Barrow of Azharad,” said Stjepan in a whisper, staring at the map. Harvald opened his mouth as if to stop him, and then just winced when he realized it was too late, and hoped that no one had heard what Stjepan had said.

But if a pin had dropped in that chamber then, it would have been as loud as a clarion bell.

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