When I read The Warded Man last year, I was thoroughly impressed with Peter V. Brett’s storytelling ability and how assured his voice as a writer was. I ranked the book in my top five reads of 2009 and it was easily the best debut I read in 2009. In other words, Mr. Brett set the bar pretty high for himself, and perhaps unsure of whether or not The Desert Spear could live up to the promise of The Warded Man, I did not read The Desert Spear immediately upon the book’s publication. I shouldn’t have hesitated because Brett follows his superb debut with a novel that is at least the equal of its predecessor in The Desert Spear and in other cases, improves upon the foundation he initially laid.
In the early section of the novel, Brett follows a similar path in The Desert Spear to the one he followed in The Warded/Painted Man; that is, a large part of the novel can be considered a coming-of-age tale. Whereas the previous novel focused on Arlen’s growth into a destroyer of demons, The Desert Spear focuses on Jardir from of Krasia who endures a harsh life as he grows to assume the role of leadership amongst his people. As harsh as Brett depicted this world in the previous volume, Krasian culture is just as harsh, though in a different manner. Jardir’s people inflict their harshness on themselves as a reaction to the nightly demon attacks. They take the fight to the corelings and go through extensive, violent rituals (both in secret and in the open) to prepare themselves for fighting the night-time monsters.
Despite the structural parallels between Jardir’s “origin story” and Arlen’s “origin story,” Brett manages to make Jardir’s story just as enthralling and perhaps even more tense with the added pressure of coming to power amidst a group of older bullies. Part of why Jardir’s story works so well is the supporting cast surrounding him – his friend Abban; his seer wife; as well as those young men who bullied him only to turn around and serve Jardir as he rises to power and anoints himself the Deliverer – the prophesized saviour.
While Jardir’s story comprises a majority of the novel, Brett hasn’t forgotten about the protagonists he introduced in the first book, namely Arlen (the Warded Man), Renna, Rojer, and Leesha. Whereas Jardir is expanding his scope in this novel from ruler of his land to unifying figure, Arlen goes back to his roots of humanity, seeking those who touched him before he began his fight against the demons. In particular, Arlen returns to the small village of his youth and re-familiarizes himself with his once-betrothed Renna. The young girl is tortured by her father and despite one nitpick, to be mentioned later, her scenes up until and after Arlen’s return are as gripping as any other scenes in the novel. The focus on Rojer and Leesha illustrates a yet a different way in which the demons can be fought and the other challenges the people of Deliverer’s Hollow are facing for their survival – namely an invading force of Krasians.
Though both the people of Deliverer’s Hollow and the Krasians fight demons every night, their ideologies and faith are quite different. Leesha and Jardir soon meet and sparks definitely fly between the two leader figures. One thing about Brett’s depiction of the desert dwelling Krasians is that despite their harsh ways and questionable acts, he doesn’t quite paint them as evil people. Jardir could be a character that one could easily hate, but Brett gives him a sense of compassion that balances his outward arrogance.
In an interesting move, Brett retells a crucial encounter from the first book from Jardir’s point-of-view – his meeting with Arlen and eventual theft of the spear Arlen finds. Seeing this scene in a different light gives Jardir a greater sense of humanity and casts him a bit more sympathetically. Another storytelling device I liked was the shifting narrative as Brett bounced between the “now” of the book and Jardir’s past, contrasting where he is in the current time of the novel against where he was.
In The Warded Man, the demons / corelings were portrayed as monsters who possessed very little intelligence and were akin to a force of nature. Early in the novel, Brett dispels that myth with the demon prince, an actively thinking coreling who is consciously aware of humanity to a much larger extent than One Arm – the demon who Arlen injured and followed the Warded Man – knew of Arlen in the previous novel. This is another strong point where Brett changes the perspective without really ‘retconning’ or making false any of the previous events. The potential set up with these brief insights into the Demon Prince hints that humanity has more in store for them than they feared.
As with the first volume, Brett handles the world-building aspect very well. The details are not overwrought and come through the characters themselves, giving the world a more rich and vibrant feel. We see more of civilization with the people of Krasia and just how divergent people have become as they’ve effectively lost the ability to live at night.
The one criticism I can level at the novel, and one I’d read in others reactions, is Brett’s continual use of rape as a plot element. It’s something of a ritual Krasia males in undergo thorugh their training to fight demons and an act both threatened and inflicted on Renna for the better part of her character arc. Since I can’t erase hearing about the rape elements from before reading the book, I cannot honestly say if that affected my reaction to rape’s role in the novel. Regardless, rape is obviously a sensitive topic and if a plot element that continually arises, could alienate readers and lose the initial effect upon the reader(s).
Nitpick aside, Peter V. Brett will be making another appearance on my best of list this year. I found The Desert Spear to be a gripping read, a novel that built upon its predecessor in many good ways, as well as adding new elements to the growing story. In short, The Desert Spear is just about everything one could ask for in the second volume of a fantasy series. Because of Brett’s narrative style and how he chose to tell the story in this book, it might work without having read the previous volume. Regardless, I recommend the novel without reservation and hope that Brett continues to produce the remainder of the series with both the timeliness and great storytelling ability he has with The Desert Spear.
© 2010 Rob H. Bedford