Thursday, May 26, 2011

The Desert Spear by Peter V. Brett

It's a little odd to be reviewing this book without linking to my review of its predecessor The Warded Man (printed as The Painted Man outside the US). But I can't find that prior review, so maybe I simply imagined it.

Remembering how much I enjoyed reading The Warded Man, it's hard to believe I wouldn't have written a review of it. Strange. I guess I'll have to cover both this time.

This is an epic fantasy series that is thankfully entirely devoid of elves, zombies and vampires. Brett instead posits a world where mankind is a dwindling species, largely clustered inside fortified towns and villages against a demonic horde that coalesces out of the mist each night at sundown and vanishes again every morning at dawn. (Well okay, that sounds a little weak when I lay it out flat like that, but trust me: Brett manages to present that premise as a cold, hard, compelling reality.)

These corelings are largely mindless, but vicious and powerful. Most are elemental in nature: sand demons that are impossible to see in the dunes and are covered in overlapping armored plates, wood demons bristling with limbs and jagged teeth, fire demons that flicker and spit flame. Their numbers seem endless, and the world of men is dwindling in the face of their infinite onslaught.

But there is still some hope in the form of wards: drawings of a particular shape--some simple and some intricate--that can keep the demons at bay. There are only a few of these wards known now to men and these are painted or chiseled into doorposts or roadway markers by skilled craftsmen, providing some safety against the weaker demons.

But that safety isn't enough for Arlen Bales, who longs to travel outside these boundaries as a messenger--one of the elite men who can paint their own wards and keep themselves safe at night as they travel the yawning distances between safe-havens. The Warded Man follows Arlen as he learns his chosen trade--and as he eventually stumbles on a forgotten trove of ancient wards. Wards that do more than keep demons away--that can protect and kill.

This whole premise is deliciously novel--a welcome relief from a long line of LOTR wannabes. Plus, Brett proves to be a capable character builder and a superb world builder. The result is a series that's hard to put down. I think I read The Warded Man in the span of two sittings, and its sequel over the course of three days.

I did have some trouble with the architecture of The Desert Spear. In an interview in the back Brett describes his writing process, which involves planning out every scene in the book long before the words come out--which means there's really no excuse for those architectural issues either.

First, Arlen (the Warded Man himself) is obviously the hero in the first book; the author follows that character exclusively throughout his travels, watching as he visits cities in far-off lands and learns the skills he needs to fight the demons. And so a reader would naturally expect that the sequel--placed in the same world at the same time--would follow him too. But it doesn't: Arlen in truth doesn't appear until halfway through, and thereafter he's on stage only about a third of the time. The new main character is Jardir, who was a bit player in the first book--and an interesting one, sure, but not who I wanted to read about. Certainly not at such length.

Second, the first third of the book--and only the first third--intermingles current events in Jardir's life and the back-story that got him where he is now. But it does so in a very clumsy fashion, leaving the reader in the past for several chapters running, then seamlessly presenting one chapter from the present (with exactly the same characters, only now fifteen years older), then jumping right back into the past. I frequently had to puzzle out whether the younger characters were simply acting strangely, or whether we were suddenly reading about the older characters for a short time.

Those are pretty minor problems, though, in what is otherwise shaping up to be an excellent series. Brett promises a five-book series, and apparently there is a movie in the works--something I would simply love to see.

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