Like any traditional saga, Barbarian Lord concerns a feud, legal issues, and a journey that leads to the resolution of the conflict, filled with stalwart characters and brave deeds. The Barbarian Lord in question is introduced by two ravens that serve as our narrators and guides to another time and place: its societal structures, skull-headed people, love of epic poetry, and pervasive magic and mysticism.
From the first page, the ravens journey over dark, craggy cliff-tops, pummeled by white sprays of ocean, flying towards a turf-covered dwelling surrounded by a neat stone wall and a field of sheep. The elder of the two ravens notes, “we now pass over the finest farm to be found in Garmrland.” Curious, the other bird asks, “who maintains such a fine farm, and how did it come to be built here?” And so the story of Barbarian Lord begins with the history of his parents and grandparents, who have such names as Bjorg Boar-strong, Edda of the Fireblood people, and Einarr Battle-Froth.
Smith’s art is rendered in delicate blacks, whites, and grays, fitting the starkness of the quasi-Nordic setting. The characters in Barbarian Lord are likewise rendered for this harsh landscape: with thousand-yard stares, lines of fatigue under their eyes, and a curl of battle in their lips, they are solid and strong with brows made for glowering. The mens’ body types are not so different from that of a Frost Troll (though perhaps with less hair and more fingers).
On the surface, the story of Barbarian Lord might be taken for a standard conflict between Good and Evil. Skullmaster, with the help of Skullwitch and Man-Beast, has enacted his plan to make an outlaw of Barbarian Lord, killing him and taking his lands. To do so, he accuses Barbarian Lord of harassing his farm hands, setting his mead hall on fire, and killing a goat. At the Harvest Law-Meet, a gathering of the population intended to settle legal issues and grievances, Skullmaster enlists others who have been hurt by Barbarian Lord and asks that he be outlawed from Garmrland. But instead of returning to his farm where assassins lie in wait, Barbarian Lord throws Law-Troll from a cliff and sets out into the woods to seek his destiny in a new land. There, he meets a one-eyed man who invites him to take food and shelter and suggests that the King of Krigsland is in need of help. Barbarian Lord’s adventures in Krigsland—where the king must deal with a jealous Skull-head in his own mead hall—may lead to the opportunity for him to regain what is rightfully his.
Although Skullmaster is evil indeed, with no apparent motive but greed, Barbarian Lord is not a typical hero, nor is he an anti-hero. A tough character raised in a warring society, his intelligence and facility with poetry—with which he wins word-battles—are overshadowed by his default use of force. Barbarian Lord is the protagonist of the story, but he’s not quite a hero. Apart from the inherent unfairness of his situation, it’s not clear why the reader should be rooting for him. On the other hand, there is no indication that he doesn’t deserve the reader’s sympathy. Barbarian Lord is something of a blank slate, except for a scene late in the story that reveals a hidden capacity for camaraderie and friendship. Discussions of gods and destiny further complicate Barbarian Lord’s tale—is he the driving force behind his story, or is he driven by fate?
Those who come to Barbarian Lord looking for a simple adventure will find their fair share of fights, trolls, political machinations, and swords. However, some readers may be put off by its formal language and sentence construction (e.g. “Your gods are as grim as your land. You should look to Skraal, who flies over your mountain god and must then be his better”). For those who love traditional storytelling and the epic deeds of gods, monsters, and men, there is much to enjoy herein. Barbarian Lord subverts expectations by delivering more than it seems at first to offer—just as Barbarian Lord is more than a brutish warrior beneath the grimace.
by Matt Smith
Clarion Books, 2013
Publisher Age Rating: Grades 7-12