Cover Art Review – The Barrow

Welcome to a brand new cover art review! I have a ton of these I really want to do as there are so many great novels coming out this year. Words of Radiance, the next in Brandon Sanderson’s Stormlight Archives series, is going to be another one I cover over the next couple of weeks.

So, perhaps in contrast to the more classical art featured on the cover of Words of Radiance, today we’re looking at a cover that could just as easily be a movie poster. This is The Barrow by Mark Smylie. The novel takes place in the same world as Mr Smylie’s Artesia comics, which are themselves a military fantasy series with a female main protagonist.

The Barrow
Mark Smylie, (2014 Pyr)
Cover Artist: Gene MollicaThe Barrow

What’s the book about?

When a small crew of scoundrels, would-be heroes, deviants, and ruffians discover a map that they believe will lead them to a fabled sword buried in the barrow of a long-dead wizard, they 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 hero is Stjepan Black-Heart, a suspected murderer and renegade royal cartographer. He’s accompanied along the way by a band of interesting characters including: a brothel owner, an exiled magus, a woman disguised as a man and a couple of others.

The Cover Review

Sounds good, right? I’m getting a D&D vibe from it, but from what I’ve read this also is a complex, adult world which explores themes like religion and gender in depth. It should be a good read. Anyway, we’re here to talk about the cover art (we’ll look at doing a book review at a later date).

The first thing that strikes me about the cover are the three characters who take centre stage. Helpfully, some accompanying character art has been released, so we can identify who these three are. Front and centre is the main man himself, Stjepan Black-Heart. His whole vibe screams ‘BADASS!’ – he’s got two swords, he’s wearing a long coat, he’s wearing black and he’s handsome. Alright, this man is a hero I can hang my hat on.

The other two friendly faces are Godewyn Red-Hand, a mercenary and troublemaker, and Erim, our young woman masquerading as a man. OK, that’s all well and good. We essentially have three hard-as-nails fighters on the cover, each wearing a scowl more accomplished then the last. But I have a gripe with this. A small one, but a gripe nonetheless. When I read about this book I was excited by the prospect of meeting Gilgwyr, brothel owner extraordinaire and Leigh, an exiled magus under an ignominious cloud. Where are these two? At least they might have added some diversity to the overall look.

Oh and while I’m talking about the characters, Erim looks too feminine on this cover. I understand they’ve likely done that to appeal to a certain demographic, but I find it hard to believe she would pass for a man if she actually looked like that.


Another small issue I have with the cover is that it doesn’t particularly show off the world or the plot. Maps apparently play a big role in the story, so why not work the features of a map into the background? Maybe Stjepan could be carrying a map to illustrate that he is indeed a cartographer first and foremost, not a dual-wielding soldier of fortune. Now, I think that amulet around the main character’s neck could be some sort of cartography-related device. Maybe it’s the ‘map that turns up in an unexpected place’. These questions can only be answered by reading the book, so that’s what I intend to do. I’m not going to judge the cover too much on these elements because of that, but they’re certainly things to bear in mind.

Other than that, the colours are nice, with a kind of grey/green hue that gradually turns into a muted orange as we look from top to bottom. You often find in movie posters that they feature blue and orange as the two primary colours. Blue is meant to evoke feelings of safety and calm while orange evokes danger and action. This little trick isn’t found too often on book covers, but it’s been sort-of used here to good effect, except with that greenish colour standing in for blue. In my mind, that colour makes me think of musty old tombs, sprawling caverns and necromancy. Think of the Paths of the Dead scenes in Lord of the Rings or any tomb level in Diablo 3 and you’ll see what I’m getting at. This seems to be the fantasy genre’s stand-in colour when we’re talking about undead or dark magic.

Paths of the DeadDiablo 3

And finally, the cover’s text is good. The title and author’s name are easy to read, are both written in the same font and the font itself is reminiscent of something you might find in Tolkien’s works. It’s definitely fantasy, but it’s refined and not too over the top. It’s a font style that might just as easily draw in readers of historical thrillers as much as it will the fantasy crowd.

EPIC FACT: The cover artist, Gene Mollica, also did the cover art for Brian McClellan's excellent Promise of Blood and The Crimson Campaign!

Final Verdict: An exciting cover featuring three interesting characters. Great overall theme with some nice colours and a strong layout. Only gripe is that I would have liked to have seen the cartography element find its way into the cover art.

Enjoyed this post? Why not join the discussion in the comments below? Go on, it’s sure to be epic!


One comment

  1. Sorry, but I can’t stand those covers. 99% of the cover featuring photo model make a book look cheap. Ohh look the artist discovered the Photoshop effects for text, nice shading…

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