Review: THE DESERT SPEAR by Peter V. Brett (Voyager/Del Rey)

BrettPV-DC2-DesertSpearUKThe Epic sequel to The Painted Man

The sun is setting on humanity. The night now belongs to voracious demons that arise as the sun sets, preying upon a dwindling population forced to cower behind ancient and half-forgotten symbols of power. These wards alone can keep the demons at bay, but legends tell of a Deliverer: a general-some would say prophet-who once bound all mankind into a single force that defeated the demons. The Deliverer has returned, but who is he?

Arlen Bales, formerly of the small hamlet of Tibbet’s Brook, learnt harsh lessons about life as he grew up in a world where hungry demons stalk the night and humanity is trapped by its own fear. He chose a different path; chose to fight inherited apathy and the corelings, and eventually he became the Painted Man, a reluctant saviour.

But the figure emerging from the desert, calling himself the Deliverer, is not Arlen. He is a friend and betrayer, and though he carries the spear from the Deliverer’s tomb, he also heads a vast army intent on a holy war against the demon plague… and anyone else who stands in his way.

The sequel to excellent The Painted Man is another epic instalment in Brett’s highly-successful Demon Cycle series. With the third novel in the series just released, I decided to finally catch up. The Desert Spear is a tour-de-force fantasy epic – brilliantly written, wonderfully realised, and highly addictive. I loved this.

While The Desert Spear is split into multiple acts, I will divide this review into just two: Jardir’s story and then the continuation of the story that began in The Painted Man (called The Warded Man in the United States). There was some controversy when this book first came out, as fans and readers were frustrated by the fact that Jardir’s story took us back for a good while (one-third of the book, according to my Kindle), before continuing the story. I admit that this approach had made me hesitate before continuing the series. Nevertheless, I was optimistic that Brett could pull it off. And I think he definitely managed to do so.

The book actually starts with a battle in the “present”, as Jardir moves into the cold north, trying to bring more people under his banner. He and his army of united Krasians have taken Fort Rizon, which was Arlen’s home for a short while in book one. Then we switch back to the past.

We first met Ahmann Jardir in The Painted Man, when Arlen was working as a Messenger and travelled to the desert nation of Krasia. The characters grew close, and became genuine friends. But then Arlen discovered the Spear of Kaji, and Jardir (at the urging of his wife, Inevera) stole it from him, in a betrayal that has had an impact on Arlen’s overall character as well as his relationship with others. It was also the catalysing event that led him to become the Painted Man. The Desert Spear first takes us back well before these events, however, and tells us Jardir’s story. We learn of his childhood, his upbringing learning the ways of the warrior, his unusually fast rise among the ranks of Sharum and his time learning from the religious Krasian order. We learn of his marriage to Inevera, his Machiavellian wife; we learn of how he came to unite the Krasian tribes and declare himself the Deliverer – “Shar’Dama Ka” in his own language

As I said, a lot of people didn’t like that Brett spent so long with Jardir’s back-story, but I personally found it fascinating. True, I had wanted to get back to Arlen’s story as quickly as possible, but I very quickly became seduced by Jardir’s story. Brett’s writing is very well-crafted, and the pacing was just write to keep me engrossed and reading well into the wee hours of the morning (on every day I was reading The Desert Spear).

A key factor in Jardir’s life is his friendship with Abban, the “khaffit” who was taken for training at the same time as Jardir. Abban, who also grew close to Arlen in the first novel, was made lame in an accident, and their paths diverge slightly. In Krasian society, the sharum (warriors) and khaffit do not mix, but Jardir and Abban’s friendship is an unusually functional, beneficial situation that not only helps Jardir’s rise and rule, but also rubs pretty much everyone around them the wrong way. Which seems to suit them just fine. Through their interaction we learn a lot more about the social strata of Krasian society, how easy it is to find yourself on the receiving end of extreme punishment. For example:

“… A dama killed my father.”

“Why?” Jardir asked.

“My father accidentally spilled ink on his robe,” Abban said.

“The dama killed him just for that?” Jardir asked.

Abban nodded, fresh tears welling in his eyes. “He broke my father’s neck right then. It happened so fast… he reached out, there was a snap, and my father was falling.” He swallowed hard. “Now I’m the only man left to look out for my mother and sisters.”

Jardir took his hand. “My father’s dead, too, and they say my mother’s cursed for having three daughters in a row. But we are men of Kaji. We can surpass our fathers and bring honor back to our women.”

Some of Jardir’s backstory felt like a long cycle of day-versus-nighttime battle and survival against the “alagai” (the Krasian word for the corelings). Each time we were given that little bit more to stop it from becoming entirely repetitive, but it never felt like it was dragging. It was a very good way to show us the evolution of Jardir from young warrior to all-powerful Deliverer, and the ways in which his rise had an impact on his people and how they operate.

Jardir’s story is not without some uncomfortable reading. For one thing, early in his training as a warrior, another sharum rapes Jardir. Later, Jardir gets his revenge, it’s true, but later still Jardir seems to have accepted his allegiance. I didn’t really buy this development, but one of the things Brett’s Krasian characters seem to be very fond of is subjugating former tormentors and grooming them to become close advisors and/or bodyguards. Maybe it’s a case of “Keep your friends close and your enemies closer”…?

I liked the alternative perspective on the time covered in The Painted Man very much, as it is so different, filtered through the lens of another society. The obvious fundamentalist Middle Eastern influence on the Krasian society might not go down well with every reader, especially their treatment of women, but I found it fascinating. The first third of the novel was superb – so filled with detail and excellent world-building. However, over the course of the novel, while including so many instances of just how badly and inferior women are treated by the Krasian men-folk, Jardir and Inevera reorient many cultural norms, bucking tradition so brazenly and openly that it can’t help but change the way women are treated. It’s not as radical as it could have been, but I did like the way things changed. Inevera, in fact, is easily one of the best characters in the novel – she’s complex and engaging in every scene she’s in, and I love the dynamic between her and Jardir, how he chafes at her meddling and her faith in casting the alagai hora dice that every dama’ting must make before advancing in their order.

I can certainly see why fans of the first novel were less enthused by The Desert Spear: Arlen is certainly the more sympathetic character, as Jardir is wholly a product of the macho, violent and more-aggressive Krasian society. His quest for power, fuelled as it is by Inevera’s whisperings and prophecy, is relentless. His conquest of the northern cities is brutal, as his forces impose Krasian values on the subjugated communities.

“If you prostrate before me and swear an oath to submit to Everam in all things, your life, and those of your councilors, will be spared,” Jardir said. “Your sons will be taken and trained as dal’Sharum, and they will be honored above all other Northern chin. Your wealth and property will be returned to you, minus a tithe of fealty. All this I offer to you in exchange for helping me to dominate the green lands.”

“And if I refuse?” the duke asked.

“Then all you possessed belongs to me,” Jardir said. “You will watch as your sons are put to the spear and my men impregnate your wives and daughters, and you will spend the rest of your days in rags, eating shit and drinking piss until someone pities you enough to kill you.”

It would be easy to delve so deeply into Jardir’s story in this review, but I think it’s best to leave the rest for you to discover. Needless to say, I loved how detailed Krasian society was presented, and I think Brett did a fantastic job of giving us a full picture and understanding of Jardir and why he has chosen the path he is on. There were a few things that seemed a little too easy, as Brett’s focus on certain scenes seemed imbalanced compared to other, perhaps more momentous events, which were dealt with rather quickly.

When we finally reunite with Arlen, Leesha and Rojer in Act Two, it was like returning to be with old friends. The Painted Man did such a good job introducing us to these characters, that it has become very comfortable to read about them. (This feeling continued into The Daylight War – which I have already finished, to be reviewed on Friday). It’s much harder to write about the post-catch-up third of the novel, without offering up multiple spoilers for both this and book one. I will therefore keep this second section brief.

We learn of how Arlen’s demon-powers are getting much stronger and weirder: he’s feeling wards as if he were part demon, for example. He’s afraid he is becoming more demon every day. Leesha is intent on finding a “cure”, but Arlen does not believe there is one.

“… he doesn’t think he’s human… He thinks he’s so tainted by coreling magic that he’s as much a danger to us as they are, even though there’s not a shred of proof.”

Arlen’s highly resistant to others’ belief that he is the Deliverer, and chafes whenever his friends or others ask him for guidance, leadership and so forth. Therefore, for much of the novel, he is traveling, trying to bring the combat and newly-rediscovered defensive wards to as many people and communities as he can. He’s not always welcomed warmly, as many people are either in awe of him or deeply suspicious of this apparently-nationless, potential “deliverer”. He receives a mixed welcome in Miln, where he learned to be a Messenger – his adoptive family, Elissa and Ragen are delighted to see him, but his best friend from the time Jaik and the girl he “shined on” are not at all happy to see him back.

All the while, our northern protagonists are preparing for the coming of the Krasian forces. The Hollow is expanding, taking in refugees, creating an intricate system of Great Wards to keep the demons at bay. The people of the Hollow have been much changed since the end of The Painted Man, becoming fiercer. Through them, and also a little bit through Jardir’s story, we learn more about how the magic in this setting works. It’s brilliantly done, and I think it’s one of the most interesting systems I’ve read in a while.

“Make no mistake,” the Painted Man said, his voice quieter, but no less vehement, “the Krasians believe every single person in the North is inferior to the least of them. They may make a show of being merciful to leaders they can use to further their goals, but there will be no such concessions to regular folk. They will kill or enslave everyone who does not swear utter submission to Jardir and the Evejah. We have to fight.”

We are introduced to new characters, or reintroduced to minor characters from The Painted Man. For example, we get Renna’s truly crushing tale – at the time of reading, it felt a bit long, but the impact at the end is deadening, and it’s not difficult to figure out that Renna is going to play a big part in the series to come. Renna is involved in a brutal killing in Tibbet’s Brook, and put on trial, and we see a much, much darker side to Arlen’s people and their adherence to their own unbending, ancient laws. Renna actually became my favourite character towards the end of the novel, as she develops quickly and in a very interesting way. Promises a great deal for the future. Things are, as they say, about to get very interesting…

Another new development in The Desert Spear is the addition of the perspective of a “demon prince”, a big bad accompanied by a sinister and deadly “mimic” (a species of demon that can take any shape it wishes, and whose mind is slaved to that of the prince). The demon forces are attempting to learn more about new level and type of the human resistance they are coming up against on the surface. We learn more of the core and how the demons think. And, ultimately, we see these princes in battle on two fronts (both scenes are very good, intense battles, and set a lot of things up for The Daylight War).

This is a minor spoiler: late in the novel, Jardir arrives at the newly-re-named Deliverer’s Hollow, absolutely intent on taking Leesha to be his First Wife of the North. He hopes she’ll blunt Inevera’s influence over him and the court, as well as help cement his position as overall human leader. Rojer, Arlen and Leesha’s jongleur companion, is obviously not happy about this. A diplomatic mission is agreed upon, and Leesha, Rojer and a few other key characters (but not Arlen) travel to conquered Fort Rizon (renamed Everam’s Bounty), where we see how our Northern protagonists handle being in among the Krasians. Naturally, Leesha and Inevera clash (almost fatally), and the dynamic between a number of characters is indelibly changed.

I really liked the way the narrative built over the course of the novel. It’s absolutely gripping, and I was hooked from the very beginning. The fact that Brett has managed to cram so much into this one book, while maintaining the momentum, is a real feat. His prose are tight, with only a few scenes that felt like they could have been trimmed. The Demon Cycle novels are highly addictive, and I loved the way the author’s story and writing immersed me in the world and the characters’ lives.

The Desert Spear is a very fine follow-up. There were niggles, and moments when I questioned what was going on, but by the end, Brett weaves everything together expertly. As I mentioned earlier, I have already read The Daylight War, and my review of that novel will go up this Friday.

The Desert Spear is definitely recommended to everyone who read The Painted Man. The series as a whole is a must-read.

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