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Wednesday, October 4, 2023

SPFBO9 Semifinalist: A Gallery For The Barbarian by Taylor Hartley (reviewed by Esmay Rosalyne)

 




OVERVIEW/ANALYSIS: As you might have guessed from the cover, A Gallery For The Barbarian is not your typical run of the mill fantasy. It is unconventional in every sense of the word and defies both genre conventions and reader expectations at every possible opportunity, but that is exactly where its charm lies. 

The set-up of this story is that we are following the undead artist, Violetto, as he provides the backstory behind some of the paintings in his gallery. As a result, this book feels like a collection of short stories where Violetto and his muse, Brask the barbarian, are the only red threads weaving it all together into a cohesive narrative. Some stories are cosy, others are dark and disturbing, but they all have one thing in common: they are positively delightful in their eccentricity.

I personally found Violetto a very intriguing unreliable narrator/protagonist and I am quite impressed with how much personality and depth this character has, especially considering he can’t remember his own back story (or first life). His character voice is extremely strong and I was fully on-board for the understated homoerotic vibe that permeates every aspect of his dynamic with Brask.

That said, because all of these characters are intentionally written in an almost theatrical and caricaturish way, I just wasn’t able to connect to them and that really hindered my enjoyment as a primarily character-driven reader.

Now, the prose is without a doubt the highlight of this book. It’s extremely descriptive, evocative and visual, which makes perfect sense considering the fact that the narrator of this story is an artist. Yet, as someone who is not a visual reader, all the metaphors, similes and overly lush descriptions unfortunately resulted in a very difficult and emotionally distant reading experience for me. Especially when combined with the already zany nature and purposefully disjointed structure of this book, I just could not be invested and mostly felt like I was experiencing a weird fever dream.

I truly cannot deny that this author is an absolute wordsmith and I think that this flowery writing style will make for a very immersive reading experience for the right type of reader, but it unfortunately wasn’t the perfect fit for me. All that said, behind the slightly befuddling prose, there was actually still a lot I could appreciate about this story. The world is casually queer, the atmosphere is absolutely mesmerising, and even all the most minor side characters leap off the page with their vibrant and slightly overexaggerated personalities. I also quite enjoyed the quirky, familiar and intimate vibe that Violetto creates by addressing the reader as if they are a native of this world. 

And I think one of my favourite aspects of this book was how each of the chapters/stories gracefully explored a specific sensitive theme or served as a sort of cautionary tale, almost in the same way that Grimm’s fairy tales often do. There are a lot of poignant lines and deep philosophical musings in this book that will reach into your soul and make you ponder your own life situation, which made this story much more impactful than I was initially anticipating.

Overall, I can honestly say that this is one of the most impressive and bold debuts that I have ever read. It may not have suited my personal tastes perfectly, but I definitely think there is a large audience out there that will adore this book. If you are looking for an experimental story with an episodic narrative structure, eccentric characters, authentic queer representation, and extremely lush and descriptive prose then you have to check out A Gallery For The Barbarian.

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