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Thursday, October 7, 2010

Review: The Desert Spear by Peter V. Brett

The Desert Spear – Peter V. Brett (Published 2010)
Genre: Fantasy
Sub-genre: Epic
Completed: September 2 2010

Peter V. Brett takes his Demon Cycle in a brave and unpredictable direction with The Desert Spear. The risk of departing temporarily from the protagonists of The Painted Man to tell a related story pays off not only in the setup for future novels but in the story of The Desert Spear itself. This is not simply a filler novel that predictably moves pieces into place for the anticipated finale. The Desert Spear is a game-changer, forcing the reader to revise their expectations about the direction of Brett’s story entirely.

Brett worked hard to create an intensely claustrophobic atmosphere of fear and repression in The Painted Man. It would have evaporated had The Desert Spear simply told the story of the growing power of the Painted Man and his followers. Brett needed to introduce a complication which he found readily in human nature. Even with so dangerous and alien an enemy as the corelings, humanity isn’t going to simply unite and fight together against these demons. In addition, Arlen’s loss of the Spear of Kaji, the First Deliverer, was an event that bore much more significance than was originally presented. In The Painted Man it was a tremendously personal betrayal. In The Desert Spear it is an event which shapes nations. Enter Jardir, the man who stole the Spear of Kaji.

The first section of The Desert Spear is entirely devoted to Jardir, and we see the same sort of origin story that Brett gave us for Arlen, Leesha and Rojer in The Painted Man. Well, the structure is the same, but Jardir is Krasian. The experiences of his upbringing and the ethical code he develops are much more brutal and alien than those of the northerners, who bear an essentially ‘Western’ morality that will resonate with the majority of Brett’s audience (including myself). Jardir rises to prominence in Krasia, attaining the position of Shar’Dama Ka that he holds when the reader encounters him in The Painted Man. However, this is the story of Jardir’s ascension to Deliverer. He takes the Spear of Kaji from Arlen, asserts his control over Krasia and launches the Daylight War to establish control over the other city-states of Brett’s world. This is all established in the first chapter (i.e. those weren’t spoilers) before the complete story of Jardir’s rise unfolds.

Brett takes a massive risk and succeeds in two key ways. Firstly, the reader comes to understand the Krasian culture, if not accept it. It is a brutal culture with very foreign (some would say outdated) ideas about class and gender roles. The depiction of Krasia was especially bold, given the undeniable comparisons with (ancient iterations of) Eastern cultures it will evoke. Yet the militarized Krasian culture creates a very effective contrast with the northern lands. It allows Brett to emphasize how far the people of Deliverer’s Hollow have progressed in their war with the corelings when the Krasians are visibly impressed by them. Up until that point in the story, the exotic power of Krasia makes the northerners seem so petty and backward.
Secondly, we come to sympathize with Jardir, the character who perpetrated the most deflating and disappointing crime in The Painted Man. Although there were rapes and murders, in a very real way Jardir stole hope from Arlen. It certainly helps that Jardir begins to defy conventions of Krasian culture - I won’t spoil one of the best moments of the story by describing it here - and sympathize with ‘northern’ culture.

Brett has successfully set up an incredibly intriguing dichotomy between Arlen and Jardir, the two men who bear the title Deliverer, although they never quite come into contact with each other after the theft of the Spear of Kaji. Jardir wants the title, believes he is entitled to it, and actively tries to adhere to the prophecies (including allowing his wife Inevera to scar him with wards, since the Deliverer’s flesh is marked). Arlen is a much more reluctant saviour, filled with angst regarding his association with the demons, yet he is the one who seems to incidentally fulfill prophecy. Even more interesting is the fact that the mind demons introduced in The Desert Spear identify Jardir as more of a leader than Arlen. The seemingly inevitable confrontation between the two is going to be immensely personal and profound.

In the realm of the negative, once again I struggle to understand and sympathize with the character Leesha. Her motivations and her approach to her own sexuality continue to confuse me. It seems that her mother’s encouragement for her to pursue the joys of relationships with men wins out, but her choice of partner is staggering at the same time as Brett’s depiction of their relationship is quite tender and romantic. It feels inconsistent for her to reject one man because of his attitude about his otherwise noble actions, then develop feelings for another who is surely worse, even if she does bring about small changes in him. At least she remains prominent. Poor Rojer is demoted to the status of an important secondary character, which the character himself recognizes.

Given the overlap of events between The Painted Man and The Desert Spear the story lags in some places, and the structure reduces some of the intensity of Jardir’s story, but it gathers the trademark Peter V. Brett momentum towards the conclusion and focuses in on the stakes of the battle with the demons. It also helps that the corelings have been given much more of a ‘face’ in the mind demons, who are demon princes of some sort.

NOTE: Technically I did not ‘read’ The Desert Spear. I listened to it. Say what you will about Audiobooks (and in a later post I will) I felt that the reading by Peter Joyce added a lot to the story. It’s easy to forgive some of the slightly jarring character voices when the story is told so enjoyably. Furthermore Brett’s writing begs to be read aloud. He uses so many powerful terms and phrases that are even cooler when spoken by the narrator (especially Krasian terms and exortations like ‘Show them the sun’), and in my opinion Brett is a tremendous pure story-teller.

The Desert Spear gets 4 stars. In my opinion it’s almost as good as The Painted Man but for different reasons. It lacks the overwhelming sense of dread and incredible momentum of Brett’s debut, but it takes the series in an unpredictable and challenging direction, which I’m certain will pay off in later volumes.

Read it – if you are willing to confront some of your prejudices about culture and the way a Fantasy story should unfold… and of course if you enjoyed The Painted Man and want more
Don’t read it – if you aren’t willing to trust an author to tell their story as they see fit

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