This review has been long delayed. Getting behind on my review meant it was more difficult to write as I started new books and got further away from this one.
I was skeptical when I sat down to read (well, listen to via Audible) The Warded Man, book 1 of Peter Brett’s Demon Cycle, but I was soon drawn way the hell in to a world besieged by a nightly onslaught of demons. Great characters, nice action, and good prose helped to carry an intriguing multiple-perspective tale about living in a world of fear and the struggle to rise above it. Book 2 of Brett’s Demon Cycle picks up where The Warded Man left off, although it backtracks to give us the story of one of the more insidious characters of that first volume, Ahmann Jardir.
When the corelings, demons spawned from the bowls of the earth, first rose ages ago, it was the Deliverer who taught mankind the combat wards used to slay them and pushed their hordes back to the core. When the corelings rose again, they all-but decimated mankind. People now pray for the return of the Deliverer to bring back the lost combat wards of old and deliver them from the coreling’s nightly onslaught. There are two men called Deliverer now, however. The first is The Warded Man, a misanthrope so obsessed with killing demons and ending their reign of terror that he covered his own body with tattoos of combat wards he discovered in the ancient tombs of the Krasian desert. At the end of the first book in the series, The Warded Man, he fought demons and saved the people of Cutters Hollow, who now hail him as the Deliverer returned (much to his resentment). With the help of the Herb Gatherer Leesha and the magical musician Rojer Halfgrip, they shaped the wood cutters into an elite group of demon killers.
While The Warded Man bristles at the title of Deliverer, Ahmann Jardir grips it with both hands. Bearing the Spear and Crown of Kaji (supposedly belonging to the last Deliverer) Jardir has untied the desert tribes of Krasia and has begun The Daylight War: a campaign to conquer all lands to the north and press all able bodied men into military service for the final war against the corelings. There seems to be room for only one Deliverer, as Jardir showed when he stole the spear from the Warded Man before declaring himself Deliverer. However a larger question that Brett deals with very well in this book is whether or not there is also only room for one worldview or one way of fighting the demons. As the humans squabble, however, the demons have taken notice of the possible return of their greatest foe.
Enjoyment at Spear Point: What The Desert Spear Does Well
Like in The Warded Man, strong characters and strong character development continue to in The Desert Spear. The Warded Man, Leesha, and Rojer are all characterized and developed well. The Warded Man battles much more visibly in this novel with his misanthropy and whether or not he could really cast aside his previous life and the people in it. As The Warded Man, with no past and no ties, he is completely free to fight the demons and does not have to bend the knee to anyone who would misuse him or his talents. As a man, however, he finds more and more that it is his relations with others that literally keeps him human. Leesha continues to struggle with being the female leader of Cutter’s Hollow and with watching over her flock, and Rojer struggles with his gift and his sense of overall worth. Characters in this book seem to be traveling over a nice arc that keeps them dynamic and interesting, and as in the first book I still find myself caring a lot about them. In my reasoned opinion, a sequel has two primary goals aside from furthering the plot: it should reinvest us in what made the first book good and it should include enough new ideas/struggles to keep it interesting. In terms of character development, The Desert Spear does just that.
Then there is Jardir. I have both praise and criticism for how Brett deals with Ahmann Jardir the Sharum Ka (head of the warriors of Fort Krasia) and self-proclaimed Shar’dama Ka (Deliverer and head of the holy war against the demons). He came out as quite the backstabbing villain in The Warded Man, but instead of leaving him as a two-dimensional caricature of the evil Other (coming from a culture with palpable similarities to Muslim religion and culture in our world), Brett decides to flesh out his back story as he does his other central characters by showing us his childhood. Jardir was taken in to the Spartan-like training program of Fort Krasia’s elite demon killers at a young age wanting to redeem his family’s name. He became something of a prodigy. As the leader of their warriors as an adult, he becomes not only a strong military figure, but a political upstart as well. On top of everything else, his wife is a mystic who plots and plans to put him on his destined path to be Shar’dama Ka, the Deliverer returned.
My praise for Brett’s strategy here is that it makes this potential villain (and his entire people by extension) not only understandable but sympathetic. I really felt for Jardir’s characterization as a man caught between honor and fate, and he becomes just as deep and nuanced a character as Arlan, Leesha, and Rojer do in The Warded Man. In doing this, Brett complicates what we want and expect from the story. Simple black and white is cast into shades of gray as we, the readers, must weigh the pros and cons of each worldview and how they propose to deal with the demons. The people in the north, for example, have a medieval worldview that includes a concern for the sanctity of life that Western readers of fantasy are bound to find very familiar. The Krasians, however, cull strength and abhor weakness in their campaign to defeat the demons head-on; while their methods are unforgiving, so too is there enemy. Instead of following a cliched plot structure with an exotic Other as the two-dimensional villain (like the Persians in 300), Brett does a good job of complicating the issue and really making us think about who might be right given the extreme circumstances. In an interview, Brett cited George R.R. Martin as a significant influence on his work, and I think it really shows in how he makes what first seemed like a villain into a real human character with relatable struggles and aspirations.
Brett flexes his worldbuilding muscles to greater effect in this book by fleshing out Krasia in more detail and contrasting it to the lands in the north. In particular, Brett develops pieces of language and terminology in the Kraisian tongue and uses them as more than window dressing. Kraisian terms for demons, for kinds of battle, for honorifics make you feel like you are getting a peek into a fully-realized culture, language, and religion. I felt this most keenly when two characters were shouting for Jardir to look out for a demon behind him. One person shouted only an untranslated Kraisian term taht, by then I knew fairly well, and it was enough to make the hair on the back of my neck stand on end. That was one of many instances where, like Arabic in Effinger’s When Gravity Fails, I felt that Brett’s use of a foreign tongue in his prose really deepened the overall effect of the book.
The action in this book was very satisfactory as well. We get a deeper view into how the Kraisians fought the demons before the combat wards, relying on clever traps and subterfuge to lure the corelings into pits where they would await destruction by the sun when it rose. With the combat wards, we get to see how clever Leesha and the Warded Man are in modifying and applying the new wards for new devices and weapons. While the book is still fairly unspecific as to how exactly the wards have power, Brett does further develop their workings and shows more clever applications that makes it feel like a solid speculative magic system.
Overall, the clash of cultures between the Kraisians and the people of the North (in particular the Kraisians and the people of Cutter’s Hollow) is the central strength of this book.
Shivering Spears: Where The Desert Spear Could Have Been Better
When I first sensed that Brett was going to characterize Jardir by using the same tactic he did with the characters in his first book, I felt it was a cheap move. Pathos is an easy way to generate sympathy, as Disney and Pixar and other animation companies have demonstrated when they anthropomorphize inhuman objects and creatures (cars, brave little toasters, woodland creatures, etc.), and here was Brett pulling the pathos trigger to make an antagonist seem sympathetic. I suppose it felt cheap and artificial at first because Brett could have established Jardir in the first book as we were following the early lives of his other characters. Now, George R. R. Martin jumps between perspectives all the time in his books, so what made this different? Well, Brett is jumping way back in time and then synching us up with important events in the first book. It feels like hindsight, that Brett realized after publishing The Warded Man that he needed to do more with Jardir and, at the same time, do more worldbuilding.
In the end, however, I feel I understand the move. Including this story in the first volume may have made The Warded Man too bulky and unwieldy for a first novel. With interest in his series and his writing established in the first book, Brett was freer to explore his created world in more detail. Jardir’s narrative elevated The Desert Spear and the series as a whole further to a work of cultural criticism with no easy answers, i.e. the kind of book that is fun and useful to talk and debate over with friends and other readers. Also, this book is thematically different in certain, substantive ways from the first book, so on a thematic level Jardir’s story fits better in this book than it did in the first. My first impression, however, was that it was a cheap pathos move to make a sympathetic character where before there was none as a kind of rectonning. Consequently, I was resistant to the move at first, but then I became more immersed in the worldbuilding going on and the very considerate cultural clash between the Krasians and the people of the north. In the end, the inclusion of Jardir’s story raised my esteem for the book and for Brett as an author, even if the way it was worked in there struck me as inelegant at first blush.
Other readers may not be as generous, however, as it’s not the only such anomaly in the book. A very minor character from the first book is given more back story in much the same way, and she is far, far removed from the action of the book until her narrative intersects with the others. For a long while, however, I found myself thinking “why is this important?” It was an enthralling narrative that made you emotionally invested in that character’s plight, which is one of Brett’s strengths, but it didn’t seem to be well used until the point where it intersects with The Warded Man’s story much later on. Between Jardir’s story and this other character’s tale, I felt that Brett’s strength for character development and for utilizing pathos was indeed admirable but perhaps overused. Once again, it all made sense in the end and came together in a way that makes me applaud the result, but the process by which we arrived there left me in doubt. I’m learning to trust Brett more as a storyteller, but a reader who does not posses that trust will find a problem in this aspect of the storytelling.
Despite my initial misgivings about the way Brett was developing and using the two characters discussed in my previous section, ultimately I found the destination of the book to be very thought provoking and aesthetically pleasing, even if a few twists and turns on the way there gave me doubt and pause. Brett is particularly strong with character development, but some of the intricacies of managing multiple viewpoints and plot lines may be something he is still perfecting. Still, overall this is a great book with creative worldbuilding, strong character development, intense action, and an enthralling overall plot that reveals the overall plight of humanity through the suffering and struggles of certain key individuals who fight not only the monsters but the infectious fear that keeps others from rising to the challenge as well. If you liked The Warded Man, you will become even more drawn into Brett’s world by The Desert Spear. Just be ready to roll with some of his viewpoint changes.